Shadow Government

Time to take Hugo Chavez seriously

Fresh off his creepy public spectacle fondling the remains of South American liberator Simón Bolivar, Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez has concocted yet another circus to try and distract the attentions of increasingly suspect voters ahead of legislative elections in September. The current contretemps between Venezuela and Colombia stems from outgoing Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's parting salvo at the OAS directing his ambassador to present maps and video evidence of 87 Colombian terrorist camps across the border in Venezuela.

Chavez has reacted in typical fashion: railing about everything -- a Colombian invasion, a U.S. invasion, cutting off oil to the U.S., a 100-years war -- everything except the evidence presented by Colombia. Elsewhere on this website, Venezuelan Ambassador Bernardo Alavarez provided a "who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes" rebuttal to Colombia's charges.)

Uribe's move is his going away gift to regional governments who consistently head for the tall grass whenever Colombia requests solidarity and cooperation in combating the narcoterrorist armies that have wrought death and destruction in Colombia for decades. At the same time, by presenting yet again evidence of Chavez's complicity in aiding and abetting Colombian terrorist groups, it leaves his successor Juan Manuel Santos in a position of strength to carry on Colombia's lonely diplomatic offensive to secure regional help against these criminal gangs that rely on the benign neglect, if not outright support (i.e., Venezuela) of Colombia's neighbors to sustain their war against Colombian society.

Yet the notion that the crisis somehow helps Chavez by allowing him to whip up nationalistic sentiment ahead of elections is folly. Venezuelans are about as militaristic as your average Scandinavian, and they assuredly want no part of a war with Colombia -- a trading partner, not to mention a well-armed military -- when the stakes are over whether Chavez is in bed with narcoterrorists.

Besides, what are the Venezuelan people to make of Chavez's self-contradicting rhetoric? On the one hand, he praises the FARC as an "army" that doesn't deserve the terrorist label and is widely suspected of providing them weapons. On the other, he pretends to put his country on a war-footing when evidence is presented that FARC and ELN units are camping out in Venezuela undisturbed. Maybe in Chavez World you can have it both ways, but to everyone else, he reminds no one of Winston Churchill rallying his country to arms.

For its part, the Obama administration has unfortunately been content to remain on the sidelines, issuing a tepid statement of support for Colombia (even though the evidence no doubt resulted from our intelligence cooperation) and calling on "both sides" to ratchet down the rhetoric. Imagine, equating the victim of terrorist violence, and a strategic ally no less, with a facilitator of that violence by telling them BOTH to "tone it down" -- even as Chavez is doing all the shouting.

As much as Chavez's enablers would like it, the sideline is no place for the United States to be on this issue. Other countries in the region have proven either incapable or unwilling to hold Chavez to account, either as he undermines democracy at home or helps rogue regimes abroad like Iran evade international sanctions.

During the Bush administration, a conscious decision was made to avoid a microphone diplomacy war with Chavez and instead allow him to define himself before the international community, without any help from Washington -- which he complied in doing. But the Bush strategy has run its course, and the Obama administration campaign talking point of improving relations is in tatters.

What everyone needs to come to terms with is that, yes, Chavez is a clown, but he's also a dangerous one, just like his Iranian amigo Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Therefore, it's time to get serious about Chavez and his pretentions to be of regional and even global consequence and treat him as the danger to regional peace and security that he is.

Last May, 10 Republican senators sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking her to designate Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism. That is precisely the discussion we need to start having about Hugo Chavez.

Chavez has always believed his oil exports to the Untied States operate as a kind of magic talisman, warding off meaningful action against him by the United States. He needs to be disabused of that notion. Targeted sanctions that would begin to reduce U.S. imports of Venezuelan oil would have catastrophic results for his government, and the U.S. could easily find new markets to offset the drop. (The oil markets didn't even blip when Chavez made his latest threat to cut off exports.)

Hugo Chavez has always aspired to be considered a real nemesis by the United States. It's time to accommodate him.


Shadow Government

Why the QDR's independent panel makes good, common sense on U.S. defense

Today the congressionally-mandated Quadrennial Defense Review independent panel released its report, The QDR in Perspective: Meeting America's National Security Needs in the 21st Century. The 20-member panel, chaired by former Clinton administration Secretary of Defense Bill Perry and former Bush administration National Security Advisor Steve Hadley, included former senior officials from Democratic and Republican administrations as well as retired senior officers. I served on the staff of the panel and will therefore confine my observations to the report's findings and recommendations as well as its overall significance. 

The Independent Panel's report represents a striking bipartisan consensus that the United States must do more when it comes to national defense if we are to continue to play the international role we have and pursue the interests that have animated American grand strategy since the end of World War II. These include the need to defend the American homeland; assure access to the sea, air, space, and cyberspace; preserve a favorable balance of power across Eurasia that prevents authoritarian domination of the region and providing for the common good globally. The panel's report stands in stark contrast with the recent report of the Sustainable Defense Task Force, which sought to curtail America's global role to fit a shrinking defense budget. 

While commending Secretary of Defense Robert Gates for his focus on winning America's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the report notes "a significant and growing gap between the ‘force structure' of the military -- its size and its inventory of equipment -- and the missions it will be called on to perform in the future." The panel's members were particularly concerned that the force structure outlined in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review "may not be sufficient to assure others that the United States can meet its treaty commitments in the face of China's increased military capabilities." The report calls for an increase in U.S. force structure in the Pacific to counter Chinese military modernization, noting, "A robust US force structure, largely rooted in maritime strategy but including other necessary capabilities, will be essential."

It is powerful statement that a group of 20 senior officials who have served Democratic and Republican presidents agreed that "The [U.S.] force structure needs to be increased in a number of areas, including the need to counter anti-access challenges; strengthen homeland defense, including cyber threats; and conduct post-conflict stabilization missions. It must also be modernized." They call for an increase in the size of the U.S. Navy, the acquisition of a next-generation bomber, and new long-range strike systems. They also acknowledge that although the Defense Department must do everything it can to achieve cost savings on acquisition and overhead, "substantial additional resources will be required to modernize the force. Although there is a cost to recapitalizing the military, there is also a price to be paid for not re-capitalizing, one that in the long run would be much greater."

The report also tackles the sensitive issue of the Defense Department's rising personnel costs, noting that "A failure to address the increasing costs of the all-volunteer force will likely result in a reduction in the force structure, a reduction in benefits or a compromised all-volunteer force."

The QDR independent panel's report lays out a cogent bipartisan argument that the United States must do more, not less, in defense of American interests if we are to continue to play an active international role. It should generate a debate over America's role in the world and the value of maintaining it. It is a debate that Americans should welcome.