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 is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.