Has Obama fi­nally wised up to Hugo Chavez?

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

Last April dur­ing the Sum­mit of the Amer­i­cas, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama shook hands with Venezuela’s 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 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 (Chavez’) 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 Pres­i­dent Obama has had a chance to re­flect on his en­counter with Mr. Chavez. It should serve as a teach­ing mo- ment — 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. Last 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.

Hugo is get­ting older, how­ever, his paunch is ex­tend­ing. That is a per­sonal pres­sure, but one 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 Hugo’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 su­per-state 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. Chavez de­liv­ers the story with pop­ulist out­rage that is rem­i­nis- cent 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 of course be Hugo 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 Pres­i­dent Obama to tell Hugo to cool it, and do so with a frown — a scowl backed by the U.S. Navy.

Austin Bay is a na­tion­ally syndicated colum­nist.

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