Advantage, Mr. Chávez
It's too easy for the Venezuelan caudillo to put the Obama administration on the defensive.

Monday, August 24, 2009

IN THE COURSE of the past month, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has been exposed as a supplier of advanced weapons to a terrorist group that seeks to overthrow Colombia's democratic government. In his own country, he has shut down 32 independent radio stations. His rubber-stamp National Assembly has passed laws to gerrymander districts in next year's parliamentary elections and eliminate the autonomy of universities. Mr. Chávez has pledged to purchase dozens of tanks from Russia, and he has scheduled a trip to Tehran next month to reinforce his support for beleaguered Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

So, naturally, Latin American leaders are planning a summit in Argentina this month to urgently confer about . . . an unremarkable U.S.-Colombian agreement for American forces to use a few Colombian military bases for counternarcotics and counterterrorism surveillance operations.

The bilateral deal has yet to be signed or officially unveiled, though negotiations on it were completed last week. Yet already it's perfectly clear that it would not bring about a significant increase in U.S. military operations in Latin America or pose a threat to anyone other than the drug traffickers and terrorists of the FARC movement -- the group that Mr. Chávez has been supporting in clear violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions and the Organization of American States charter. U.S. planes and ships have been conducting surveillance missions in the region for years; U.S. personnel have been stationed in Colombia for nearly a decade. There would be no U.S. control over any of the bases in Colombia, and the operations would be limited to Colombian territory.

So why the hubbub among Latin leaders? In part, it stems from ingrained suspicion among leftists toward any American military initiative in the region. But mostly the controversy reflects another successful effort by Mr. Chávez to deflect attention from his own behavior while putting the Obama administration on the defensive. Ever since reports of the agreement began appearing in the Colombian media, the Venezuelan leader has been braying about the "winds of war" supposedly blowing through South America thanks to new "American bases," which he claims are intended for an invasion of his country.

It shouldn't be very hard to refute such nonsense, but the Obama administration's response was late and underpowered. Up until a meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Colombian foreign minister last week, there had been no concerted U.S. effort to explain the agreement. Nor has the administration tried to call attention to the genuine and serious hostile actions that Mr. Chávez has taken against his neighbors and the democratic opposition in his own country. Those should rightfully be the subject of urgent inter-American consultations. That they are not shows how far the administration is from mounting effective Latin American diplomacy.

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