Last April, during the Summit of the Americas, President Obama shook hands with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Their greet-and-grip photo op had that street-smart flair - hooked thumbs, hip dude grins, brothers in populist cool.
“Hey,” the defenders of this particular example of self-proclaimed “smart diplomacy” argued, “the Summit’s going down in Trinidad, off Venezuela’s coast, man, so Barry’s in Hugo’s ‘hood, on his turf? And Barry O. - truly spherical - he’s resettin’ all these foreign relations damaged by that jackboot jive suit George W. Bush. Swallow it, you warmongerin’ stuffed shirts. High fivin’ Hugo is a step towards peace in our time -”
Ah, yes, peace in our time. Neville Chamberlain coined that phrase in 1938, after Munich, didn’t he?
The Barry and Hugo good buds handshake squandered American prestige and gave the dictator a propaganda coup at a moment when a cold presidential stare and furrowed brow were the appropriate diplomatic and facial expressions.
In February, Mr. Chavez had ramrodded a national referendum that allowed what the International Crisis Group (ICG) calls “the indefinite re-election of all elected officials” and “marked an acceleration of his [Mr. Chavez’s] Bolivarian revolution” and “socialism of the 21st century.” The ICG adds that Mr. Chavez’s “government has progressively abandoned core liberal democracy principles guaranteed under the Inter-American Democratic Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights.”
No, that isn’t cool. Imposing a strongman militarist government and inciting regional warfare should not elicit even the perception of an American president’s ‘atta boy.
Perhaps Mr. Obama has had a chance to reflect on his encounter with Mr. Chavez. It should serve as a teaching moment - to rip off Mr. Obama’s phrase for resolving that nasty Massachusetts spat between a Harvard prof and a Cambridge cop - that personal style is a very limited foreign policy tool.
Mr. Chavez poses an increasingly difficult foreign policy problem, and it’s high time Mr. Obama got wise.
Hugo is making trouble in his neighborhood. This week, the Venezuelan dictator announced he is buying Russian missiles and rockets - scads of them. This is not the first time Hugo has stocked up on Russian weapons. He’s been buying lots of MiGs and may buy up to nine Russian subs. Nor is this the first time he has made belligerent threats to Colombia.
Mr. Chavez is getting older, and his paunch is extending. That is a personal pressure, but one that Great Leaders and Wannabe Great Leaders consider in their boudoirs. A favorable interpretation of external factors may also lead Mr. Chavez to conclude that his opportunity to forge the great Bolivarian state may finally be at hand.
Mr. Obama is perceived as weak - despite kudos from the New York Times and NPR. Colombia faces several internal challenges. War with narco-political guerrillas supported by Venezuela is one problem, but a possible decision by Colombia’s own president to alter its constitution to permit his re-election could weaken U.S. support for Mr. Chavez’s local enemy. Iran is also in Mr. Chavez’s corner.
What is the great Bolivarian state? Cobbled from Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, parts of Peru, Bolivia and Guyana and possibly the Dutch West Indies, this South American superstate would, according to Mr. Chavez’s narrative, be a powerful counter to the hated United States.
This Greater Venezuela is a swamp fever spiel incorporating claims of historical victimization and romanticized allegations of filched lands and stolen honor. Mr. Chavez delivers the story with populist outrage that is reminiscent of both Fidel Castro and Benito Mussolini. You could laugh it off - except Adolf Hitler really meant it when he demanded a Gross Deutschland, and Slobodan Milosevic advanced his dictatorial career by stumping for a Greater Serbia. And Slobo went for it in Bosnia.
The great Bolivarian state would need a great leader, which would be Mr. Chavez.
Is Mr. Chavez preparing to drop the handshake and grip the sword? Against his own defenseless people Mr. Chavez is a brutal thug, but when it comes to a real military confrontation, his record is one of bluster, pop-off and sass. Dictators who sense weakness get reckless, however. They begin to believe their own macho bull.
It’s time for Mr. Obama to tell Mr. Chavez to cool it and to do so with a frown - a scowl backed by the U.S. Navy.
Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.
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