President Obama’s comment to a Spanish-language television station in Miami that Venezuela doesn’t pose a “serious” threat to national security has provoked a storm of criticism from Republicans. According to Obama, “what Mr. Chavez has done over the last several years has not had a serious national security impact on us. . . . My main concern when it comes to Venezuela is having the Venezuelan people have a voice in their affairs and that you end up ultimately having fair and free elections, which we don't always see."
Republicans wasted no time responding. Mitt Romney released the following statement: “This is a stunning and shocking comment by the president. It is disturbing to see him downplaying the threat posed to U.S. interests by a regime that openly wishes us ill. Hugo Chavez has provided safe haven to drug kingpins, encouraged regional terrorist organizations that threaten our allies like Colombia, has strengthened military ties with Iran and helped it evade sanctions, and has allowed a Hezbollah presence within his country's borders. And he is seeking to lead — together with [Cuba's] Castros — a destabilizing, anti-democratic, and anti-American ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ across Latin America.”
Former New Hampshire governor John Sununu weighed in: “When President Obama says, as he did in a television interview on Monday, that Chavez has not had ‘a serious national security impact on us,’ he’s dead wrong. Such a statement by an American president itself damages U.S. national security by emboldening one of the most anti-American actors on the international stage.”
And Florida Sen. Marco Rubio: “Hugo Chavez is not only a threat to the Venezuelan people’s freedom and democratic aspirations, he has also supported Iran’s regime in its attempts to expand its intelligence network throughout the hemisphere, facilitated money laundering activities that finance state sponsors of terrorism and provided a safe haven for FARC narco-terrorists, among many other actions.”
There are a few ways of looking at this.
The president is, of course, correct that Venezuelan elections do not meet basic standards of democratic fairness. The government controls the broadcast spectrum, doesn’t allow dissenting views on public television stations like VTV, levies huge fines against the only remaining opposition network and has a shameful record of harassing those who agitate against the regime (for more information, read about the underreported Tascón List). Obama hardly deserves credit, though, for condemning something so deserving of condemnation.
As for the more controversial portion of the interview — that Venezuela doesn’t pose a serious threat to the United States — Obama, even when speaking extemporaneously, chooses his words carefully. What counts as “serious”? And if not a direct threat to the United States, which I imagine will be the administration’s hair-splitting defense on this, doesn't Chavez’s financial and moral support for a rogues’ gallery of America-hating regimes pose significant foreign policy problems?
Obama’s “main concern” with regards to Venezuela, as Rubio pointed out, should be the country’s material assistance to countries such as Syria. As the Wall Street Journal reported Monday, Venezuela is “providing vital energy support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and conducting business with Syrian firms blacklisted by Washington and Brussels, according to documents relating to the deals.” In other words, Caracas is actively assisting Assad’s military campaign against dissident Syrians. And let’s not forget Venezuela’s alliances with a host of other dictatorial regimes, including Cuba, Iran, Zimbabwe and Belarus, plus the significant financial support provided to illiberal governments in Ecuador, Nicaragua and Bolivia.
I don’t expect a division of the Venezuela army to hit the shores of Miami, but to dismiss Chavez’s baleful influence in international affairs, his anti-imperialist imperialism, as not having a “serious national security impact” is bizarre.