Dilemma of Horns: Stop Calling People, or Nations, the Devil

Chavez is angry, not crazy. He calls Bush "Mister Danger," but that is not surprising given the administration's expressed interest in getting rid of him. When Chavez, a democratically elected leader, was temporarily ousted from office by the military, the United States immediately recognized the coup's leader as legitimate, dismissing concerns about democracy.

When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez labeled President Bush the “devil” at the United Nations, saying that the “smell of sulfur” was still on podium, he got the firestorm he knew would come. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi dismissed Chavez as an “everyday thug.” The New York Daily News told him to “zip it.” Politicians of both parties lined up to insult the insulter.

The name-calling got Chavez an ovation at the U.N. and probably played well at home. But the insult became virtually the only thing Americans heard. Chavez’s offer to expand his program of providing discounted heating oil for poor Americans was spurned. The Democratic governor of Maine, John Baldacci, who had signed on last year, denounced Chavez’s comments and said he had no plans to take discounted oil this year.

Let’s be clear. Chavez is angry, not crazy. He calls Bush “Mister Danger,” but that is not surprising given the administration’s expressed interest in getting rid of him. When Chavez, a democratically elected leader, was temporarily ousted from office by the military, the United States immediately recognized the coup’s leader as legitimate, dismissing concerns about democracy.

The administration has branded Venezuela an outlaw country in the drug war. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — apparently deaf to the irony — said of Chavez that the United States was concerned about “democratically elected leaders who govern in an illiberal way.” The administration has continued to support aid to the opposition in Venezuela.

Chavez has challenged U.S. policy in the region. He successfully organized against the free trade accords peddled by the administration. He cut off the Pentagon’s military training program in Venezuela and asked the U.S. trainers to leave. He imposed increased royalties on U.S. oil companies for extracting Venezuelan oil, and used the money to help fund increased assistance to the poor. He’s embraced Fidel Castro, which still makes Washington see red despite the passage of over four decades since Castro came to power. He joined with Brazil and Argentina to defeat the administration’s candidate to head the Organization of American States.

These policies, as well as a growing economy fueled by high oil prices have made Chavez increasingly popular in his own country. His challenge to U.S. trade policies is embraced by leaders of the region, from Brazil to Argentina. After Hurricane Katrina, Chavez was the first leader in the hemisphere to offer aid to the United States — an offer rejected out of hand by the Bush administration.

The administration’s effort to treat Chavez as a junior member of the “axis of evil,” and to seek to isolate him abroad and undermine him at home, doesn’t make much sense. Venezuela is our neighbor, our third largest supplier of oil. We purchase 60 percent of Venezuela’s output. Venezuelan cooperation is key to stopping the flow of drugs.

It’s time to end the war of words. Calling Bush the “devil” rouses anger in this country. Labeling entire countries “evil,” as the president does, may appeal to Bush’s base at home, but it rouses ire abroad.

The reality is that the United States has many interests, but too few friends. This administration makes a habit of talking tough about, but not talking to, those with whom it disagrees. We’re not talking to Syria, to Iran, to the democratically elected Hamas leadership or to Hezbollah. That makes it almost impossible for us to pursue our interests in the Middle East. When the U.S. Embassy was attacked in Syria, the Syrian military defended our envoys. Instead of acknowledging the act, the president used his U.N. speech to criticize Syria once more.

Our security and our interests would be better served by engaging our neighbors and our adversaries. You don’t have to talk much with your friends to make progress, but you do have to talk with your adversaries. We have to talk with and listen to Syria and Iran and the other countries in the Middle East if we are to figure out how to create any progress toward peace. We should recognize the elected leaders of Venezuela and of the Palestinians, not try to destabilize them. We should be enlisting Chavez in a real discussion about poverty and hunger, about energy, about stemming the flow of drugs. He has displayed his independence. Let’s end the war of words and open an exploration of shared concerns.

By the way, fresh off the press, Rev. Jerry Falwell, noted evangelical republican leader, speaking to several hundred pastors and religious activists at the Values Voter Summit Conference, said evangelicals would favor the devil over Hillary Clinton. “I hope Hillary is the candidate because nothing would energize my constituency like Hillary Clinton. If Lucifer [the devil] ran, he wouldn’t.”

Chavez is back in Venezuela. Falwell, from a pulpit in Virginia, is on television.

Go figure.

Source: Chicago Sun-Times