So is Trump serious about taking out Venezuela?

President Trump shocked the foreign policy establishment and triggered the usual vitriol from Caracas with his re-declaration that a U.S. Marine invasion was a live possibility as a means of dealing with Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro.

"We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option if necessary," Trump told reporters at his New Jersey golf club.

"We are all over the world and we have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away," Trump said. "Venezuela is not very far away and people are suffering and dying."

It was a restatement of a White House statement last July 18, where military options were implicitly suggested in these remarks here:

On Tuesday a senior White House official said that "all options are on the table" if Venezuela goes ahead with the vote.

"The president is very concerned about the well being of the Venezuelan people, the incredible erosion of democracy right before our eyes," the official said.

"And he has instructed us to do everything we can to support democracy there."

So that's two warnings issued to the Chavista regime.  Venezuela's socialists have obviously ignored the first one in that they went through with their phony July 30 referendum to strip Venezuela's opposition legislature of any power and replace it with a handpicked Chavista super-legislature, known as the National Constituent Assembly, with the "right" to rewrite the constitution.  The opposition, knowing that the votes had already been pre-counted in Havana, refused to participate in the farce.  Nobody willingly votes himself into Cuba-style communist slavery.

Now the warning comes from Trump himself, and it's far more direct and explicit.

In my piece here, I concluded that the White House warning about military options was probably psychological warfare, something to scare the Chavistas into going straight.  Now that they have shown themselves impervious to threats, as well as hard sanctions, the U.S. may be inching closer to the real thing.

Why do I think that?

Number one, because of the Pentagon's cryptic response.

"I refer you to the White House ‎to clarify the president's comments," Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon said. "The Pentagon has received no orders in regard to Venezuela."

"The military conducts contingency planning for a variety of situations," Pahon continued. "If called upon, we are prepared to support whole-of-government efforts to protect our national interest and safeguard U.S. citizens."

It goes without saying that the Pentagon is hardly going to announce an invasion before it happens, so naturally, it would say it has no orders.  Number two, those orders would probably be proposed by the National Security Council for the president's approval, not the Pentagon alone.

It's that second half of the statement that is worth looking at, specifically the last, superfluous sentence.

If called upon, we are prepared to support whole-of-government efforts to protect our national interest and safeguard U.S. citizens.

Since Trump's first July 18 warning, a lot of stuff has happened since then – not just the July 30 referendum, but also the mysterious raid on an elite, high-security military installation near Valencia, where, apparently, opponents of the regime successfully breached the compound and made off with a large number of weapons, presumably for a rebellion or civil war.

Recall that Russia has supplied Venezuela with thousands of rifles but also 5,000 MANPADS, or hand-held surface-to-air missiles.  If the raiders were not apparent rebels, but perhaps drug dealers, Mexican cartel members, ISIS, or FARC terrorists, the picture of the raid looks very different.  It shows a country whose military is falling apart, and its disintegration is running to the benefit of the region's worst non-state actors.  In that case, a military invasion might be easily justified, given the direct threat to U.S. national security.  It would square with the Pentagon's last remark.

Meanwhile, the foreign policy establishment is up in arms about the remarks, saying President Trump is losing friends in the region.

His temperate approach over the past few weeks has helped build a regional coalition that was very vocal in denouncing and putting pressure on the Venezuelan government," said Christopher Sabatini, a Columbia University international relations and policy lecturer. "By sounding off now, he has really made it much more difficult for Latin American governments to adhere to what is seen as the U.S. position.

He's also, of course, tapped – I think unwittingly – into this deep, deep, legitimate worry and fear of U.S. intervention. This doesn't play well in Latin America."

On that, I suspect that the call is wrong.  The analysts leveling the criticisms (and I know and have great respect for Chris Sabatini) are operating on old information, and I argue that the times have since changed.

The indicator for that is Vice President Pence's upcoming trip to Latin America, which will see him paying visits to four strategically important countries to the Venezuelan situation: Panama, Colombia, Argentina, and Chile.  Panama and Colombia are already experiencing human waves of Venezuelan refugees spilling over into their countries (as is Brazil), and Argentina and Chile are important nations to get on our side.  Their own histories, and in Chile's case, its leftist government, predispose them to be hostile to U.S. but usually not any other invasions.  Pence's mission may be to just get Chile to stay quiet, and perhaps to get Argentina onboard.  I can't see Panama or Colombia opposing a military invasion, given the problems they are facing with refugees.  Times have changed, and the status quo has since shifted.

Could there be an invasion while the U.S. is so tied up with North Korea and the Obama administration left the U.S. military so depleted?  That would tilt the balance a bit toward wait-and-see.  Leon Panetta, a former defense secretary, puts it obnoxiously toward President Trump, but he might have a point about whether the U.S. can handle another flashpoint in the wake of the North Korean crisis.  There may be a military invasion of Venezuela, but from what is known so far, unless the threat is real and immediate in the wake of the weapons raid or another event, and unless it would be a real cheapie to execute, it won't happen today or tomorrow.

If you experience technical problems, please write to