Supporters of President Obama scrambled last week to defend his startling comments that Venezuelan firebrand Hugo Chavez poses no threat to U.S. national security. In the face of fierce criticism from Republican challenger Mitt Romney, the Obama campaign responded, "People like Hugo Chavez want attention — and that's exactly what Mitt Romney and his supporters gave him today. Gov. Romney is only playing into the hands of Chavez by acting like he's 10 feet tall."
Another supporter told the Miami Herald, "Hugo Chavez is not going to attack us, he's not going to occupy our embassy, he's not going to bomb U.S. planes arriving in Caracas at Maiquetia Airport. He is a loudmouth who enjoys listening to himself."
Yet in trying to defend the president, his supporters are only reaffirming that this administration still has no comprehension of the Chavez threat.
Of course, Venezuelan marines are not going to invade South Florida. No one has ever made such an outlandish claim. That is a straw man. Neither is rhetorical banter essential to Mr. Chavez's political project. Sure, he enjoys microphone diplomacy with "the empire" to the north, but that is merely a side show to obfuscate his real agenda.
More important is that behind all the posturing and preening is a deadly serious ideologue who believes in a messianic vision of waging war against the United States across a variety of fronts — and possesses the economic resources to do so.
Anyone who has actually bothered to listen to Mr. Chavez would know he is a devotee of asymmetric warfare as practiced by radical Islam, a doctrine which holds that in the face of overwhelmingly unfavorable military capabilities, one is compelled to employ all manner of irregular methods (i.e., terrorism, guerrilla warfare and insurgency) to balance the odds. In other words, you take advantage of every opportunity to harm your opponent's interests wherever and whenever you can.
It is hardly ironic that at the same time Mr. Obama said Mr. Chavez posed no security threat to the United States, the Wall Street Journal reported that Venezuela is providing the embattled regime of Syrian leader Bashar Assad with critical fuel shipments and helping him to otherwise evade international sanctions.
Nor is it surprising that just last month, Mr. Chavez presided over a public ceremony celebrating the fruits of his military cooperation with Iran: a joint program to build unmanned aerial vehicles in Venezuela. For good measure, Mr. Chavez tossed in an update on a deal with Russia to manufacture hundreds of thousands of AK-103 assault rifles, which just happen to be the weapon of choice for Colombian narco-terrorists.
If the Iran-Venezuela relationship is not a national security concern to this administration, then it is difficult to understand what is. Several Iranian companies currently under sanction have set up shop in Venezuela, including an affiliate of the Iranian military's Aviation Industries Organization, which has been sanctioned for its role in developing Iran's ballistic-missile program. Then there is the Iranian Offshore Engineering and Construction Co. operating a port on the Venezuelan peninsula of Paraguana, and still another — Parchin Chemical Industries — reportedly producing gunpowder and nitroglycerine in Venezuela.
Mr. Chavez's hospitality also extends to Iranian proxy Hezbollah, which has been allowed to establish training camps and fundraising centers on Margarita Island, eclipsing the continent's Tri-Border Area — where Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay meet — as the primary locus of Hezbollah activity in South America.
Then there is the question of narco-trafficking. The U.S. Treasury Department has implicated several Venezuelan officials close to Mr. Chavez, including his minister of defense, as involved in drug-trafficking in collaboration with Colombian cartels through Venezuelan territory. (The State Department has fought these designations every step of the way.) These accusations were corroborated by Venezuelan Judge Eladio Aponte, who defected to the United States in April and is now cooperating with the Drug Enforcement Administration.
For the Obama administration, it is one thing to want to avoid a rhetorical battle with Mr. Chavez. It is quite another to remain passive in the face of his myriad provocations. Their indifference is dangerous on several fronts — not least of which is the signal it sends to the Venezuelan strongman. If he can parade out Iranian drones, Russian weaponry and fuel shipments to Syria with barely any expression of concern, it is likely to embolden him to press ahead in expanding military cooperation with U.S. enemies and further destabilizing the region. The cancer-stricken Venezuelan leader continues to play a very dangerous game with his ever-deepening military ties to Iran, Hezbollah and narcotics traffickers. The longer the Obama administration waits before exacting any costs for Mr. Chavez's reckless behavior, the longer and more difficult it will be for the next administration to clean up the mess he is creating all around him.
Jose R. Cardenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration and is an associate with Vision Americas.