Whatâ€™s going on here?
In just over 24 hours last week, we heard four Bush administration officials offer wildly divergent opinions about Hugo ChÃ¡vez, Evo Morales and so-called â€œradical populismâ€ in Latin America:
On one handâ€¦
On the other handâ€¦
â€œThe President spoke with President Morales of Bolivia. The President called to congratulate President Morales on his election and inauguration. The President also commended the Bolivian people for their strong commitment to the democratic process. The President expressed our commitment to helping the Bolivian people realize their aspirations for a better life. And President Morales outlined his agenda for social and economic change in Bolivia. Both leaders reiterated their interest in a constructive U.S.-Bolivian relationship and dialogue.â€
â€œThe situation now [regarding Bolivia] is deeds not words. Let’s take a chill pill.â€
â€œWeâ€™ve seen some populist leadership appealing to masses of people in those countries. And elections like Evo Morales in Bolivia take place that clearly are worrisome. I mean, weâ€™ve got Chavez in Venezuela with a lot of oil money. Heâ€™s a person who was elected legally â€“ just as Adolf Hitler was elected legally â€“ and then consolidated power and now is, of course, working closely with Fidel Castro and Mr. Morales and others.â€
â€œIn Venezuela, President Chavez, if he wins reelection later this year, appears ready to use his control of the legislature and other institutions to continue to stifle the opposition, reduce press freedom, and entrench himself through measures that are technically legal, but which nonetheless constrict democracy. We expect Chavez to deepen his relationship with Castro (Venezuela provides roughly two-thirds of that islandâ€™s oil needs on preferential credit terms). He also is seeking closer economic, military, and diplomatic ties with Iran and North Korea.â€
So there you have it: the same day that the chief of Southern Command says he wants to â€œkeep that relationship goingâ€ with Venezuela, his boss â€“ the defense secretary â€“ compares Venezuelaâ€™s president to Hitler. (Talk about â€œold Europe.â€) The day after the President calls Evo Morales to congratulate him on his election, the defense secretary calls that election â€œworrisome.â€
This is a clear example of what happens when the White House (which heads the executive branch) fails to set out a clear policy about something: the policy ends up being up for grabs. We can conclude a few other things:
- Donald Rumsfeld just did a grave disservice to Venezuelaâ€™s opposition. Hugo ChÃ¡vez has said publicly several times that the United States is either planning an invasion or seeks to assassinate him. These claims sound ridiculous to us, but no doubt help ChÃ¡vez to rally his base, keep the opposition off balance, and justify policies like the formation of citizen militias. Every so often, some U.S. wingnut like Pat Robertson opens his mouth and makes ChÃ¡vez sound credible before his domestic audience. Rumsfeld just did it again.
We can insist all day long that the United States has neither the will nor the resources to invade Venezuela. But a hard-core Chavista can reply that if the head of the Pentagon thinks Venezuela in the 00s looks like Germany in the 30s, then a U.S. invasion could be in the offing. Why not stop him now before he invades Paris?
- Officials are much more alarmed about Venezuela than about Bolivia, where most are trying not to give Morales a hard time, yet. The Bush administration is almost uniformly alarmed about ChÃ¡vez, as Negroponteâ€™s testimony indicates, though there doesnâ€™t seem to be much consensus about what to do about him. (Other than to cut back on oil imports by 2025.)
- The State Department isnâ€™t controlling the policy. Notice that none of last weekâ€™s public statements came from a State Department official. Since the mid-2005 departure of hard-line Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega, the State Department has sought to avoid inflammatory public statements about ChÃ¡vez or other Latin American leftists, instead expressing concerns off the record or multilaterally. This policy would do much to defuse tensions and silence ChÃ¡vezâ€™s invasion and assassination talk â€“ if other parts of the executive branch would follow suit.
The State Department is in charge of implementing foreign policy, but it is the very top level â€“ the White House â€“ that must set that policy. That hasnâ€™t happened; the policy toward Venezuela, Bolivia, and Latin Americaâ€™s rising left remains unclear. The result is a confusing welter of mixed messages from loose cannons throughout the executive branch.
In the absence of a clear policy, Gen. Craddockâ€™s words probably make the most sense. Letâ€™s hope there are enough â€œchill pillsâ€ to go around.
P.S.: The State Department posted the overview of its foreign aid budget request for 2007 a few hours ago. A first glance at the summary tables indicates that the amount of aid requested for Colombia will remain about the same, but that Colombiaâ€™s Andean neighbors may be facing deep cuts in both military and economic aid.