I actually was a little uncharitable to Hugo Chavez above. He’s isn’t a dictator in the normal sense in that he’s a democratically elected leader of his nation. But like Vladimir Putin within his political system, he’s little short of a dictator.
What’s bothering me tonight is reading the coverage of the Bush-Chavez grudge match taking place in various Latin American capitals over the last few days. Bush and Chávez Spar at Distance Over Latin Visit reads the NY Times headline:
“I don’t think America gets enough credit for trying to help improve people’s lives,” Mr. Bush said, speaking at a joint news conference with Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
But while President Bush pressed that point, President Chávez led an “anti-imperialist” rally at which he railed against what he called American hypocrisy and greed, and called Mr. Bush a “political cadaver.”
“The Bush plan is ridiculous,” Mr. Chávez said at the gathering in Buenos Aires, across the Río de la Plata from Montevideo, Uruguay, Mr. Bush’s next stop. “He thinks he is Columbus, discovering poverty after seven years in power.”
It’s somehow unseemly, but certainly in perfect character, for our beloved president to get down in the mud with tin pot dictators like Hugo Chavez or even Saddam Hussein. By allowing them to monopolize our attention and our foreign policy energies we somehow stoop to their level. It makes us smaller. It makes them bigger. It makes them even more heroic in the eyes of their admirers and not-yet admirers. As for Bush, he’s already so small a president that perhaps he’s not worried about wrestling with Chavez and being brought down even a further peg or two. Because that’s what Chavez is doing. Make no mistake. Hugo Chavez is beating us in the propaganda war. We were already taking a drubbing from our misadventure in Iraq. But this makes it even worse.
A former lieutenant colonel and coup leader who got himself elected the president of a mid-level Latin American country is taking on the President of the United States, and winning. If Bush wants to go to war with Iran who do you think would be next? If America were Sparta we’d have a war agenda drawn up for us for the next generation. First Afghanistan, then Iraq, then Iran, then North Korea, then Venezuela, ad infinitum.
Bush’s pandering to the Latin Americans reminded me of, well, his pandering to Americans in the aftermath of Katrina: “I care, I really do. Anyone who believes to the contrary is just plain uninformed.” How many actually believed him then or now when he said those things? Can anyone believe him now when he says these things:
Mr. Bush seemed annoyed when a Brazilian reporter asked whether he agreed that “the U.S. really had its back turned to Latin America.”
“The characterization that our back has been turned is just, it is not borne out by the facts,” Mr. Bush said, with his shoulders tightening and his voice turning stern. “It may be a perception, but the facts dispel that, and that’s why I’ve come.”
He added, “So my trip is to explain as clearly as I can that our nation is generous and compassionate, that when we see poverty, we care; that when we see illiteracy, we want to do something about it.”
Mr. Bush’s motorcade took him through the regional constituency that Mr. Chávez has been trying to court: people living in crushing poverty beside the thriving upper classes that benefit from increased trade with the United States.
At one point, the president’s limousine had only a few feet separating it on either side from the cement-walled, tin-roofed huts lining a road on the motorcade route. Bare-chested children and their parents gathered in doorways, on roofs and in windows as he passed, watched warily by Brazilian troops carrying submachine guns.
The reporter, as the Times does so well in these situations, adroitly and ironically commented on Bush’s words by juxtaposing them with the images of poverty which Bush waltzed past with barely a flicker of acknowledgment or engagement. So callous. So oblivious. So typical.
What is Bush so afraid of regarding Chavez and his appeal to Latin Americans? Does he really believe the entire Southern Hemisphere will turn Red from the blandishments of this man? Can Bush really be so insecure as to feel it necessary to engage him in this way? And by so engaging him, he has only magnified Chavez’ appeal throughout the region and the rest of the world where they hate the U.S. (which thanks to our fearless leader, is many, many places). This is a game that Bush can’t win. It’s a wonder he even tries.