Right-wing hawks immediately jumped on the line as evidence of the President’s supposed naïvete on foreign policy. Mitt Romney — who doesn’t really have much of a foreign policy game this election season — got in on the action too, claiming Obama’s statement shows “weakness”:
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 the Castros — a destabilizing, anti-democratic, and anti-American ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ across Latin America.
Romney’s not wrong to deplore the odious pseudo-dictatorial Chávez government (he could have mentioned its nasty habit of using state media to push anti-Semitism), but Obama has the same view – in the next sentence of his answer, the President said “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.” Indeed, Obama didn’t downplay Chávez’s antipathy towards the United States — he was simply suggesting Chávez was too weak to follow through on his words.
On this point, the experts are with Obama. Riordan Roett, who directs Johns Hopkins’ Latin American Studies Program, said Chávez “poses no security threat to the United States or anyone else,” calling Romney’s statement “just pure electoral politics.” American diplomats think of Chávez’ so-called “Bolivarian Revolution” as a farcical failed model that is “imploding under its own weight” and that the best way to respond to Venezuelan rhetorical provocation is to simply “not take the bait.”
“Historically, the Venezuelan military has been a fairly rag-tag outfit, heavily politicized and exceedingly corrupt,” said one expert in 2009, who added, “They just don’t have the stuff that could pose a serious threat to the United States.” Chávez slashed military spending by 7.4 percent in 2011. Venezuela’s always complex relations with the FARC terrorist/drug-running organization are fraying, and the country is wracked by crime as a consequence of the incompetence of its political and legal institutions.
It seems, then, that the GOP is twisting the facts about Venezuela to score a political point. It wouldn’t be the first time. Indeed, the brainchild behind current U.S. policy in Latin America is a senior diplomat in the region appointed by — President George W. Bush.