Venezuela Tests Obama’s Engagement Strategy

The Obama administration has made multiple diplomatic gestures toward Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela. In this photo, taken on April 18 at the fifth Summit of the Americas, President Obama warmly receives Chavez’ book gift, possibly not realizing at first that the book was anti-American. (photo source unknown)

The current Obama-Chavez warm feelings are unlikely to last. A pattern is emerging that suggests that US interests and the Chavez agenda are fundamentally at odds with one another (see “Iran Tests Obama’s Engagement Strategy” and “The Honduran Coup”). The repeated collision of these opposing forces will likely cause an end to the recent US-Venezuelan diplomatic breakthrough.

President Hugo Chavez’ rants against President Bush repeatedly made international news, such as when Chavez called Bush the “devil” at the UN. In fact, Chavez also called President Obama a “poor ignoramous” in March. However, since the fifth Summit of the Americas in April, when Chavez proudly offered Obama an America-bashing book and the two engaged in a warm handshake, the Obama-Chavez relationship has been cordial and the two leaders have promised to exchange ambassadors.

President Obama’s engagement policy was promoted during the 2008 presidential campaign. Then candidate Obama spoke about his desire to engage America’s enemies (North Korea, Cuba, and Iran) and those states that had strained relations with the US (Russia, Venezuela, and Syria). Obama’s critics sharply criticized engagement calling it nieve and dangerous for the leader of US foreign policy. However, Obama’s engagement policy has been clarified since the start of his presidency. It is not diplomatic overtures alone. It also includes coercion such as economic sanctions (Iran), drone airstrikes (NW Pakistan), and a full-court military press (Afghanistan). What is significant about Obama’s engagement strategy is its willingness to break with hardline US policies (e.g. easing Cuba restrictions) and its aggressive diplomatic effort to see breakthroughs with traditionally challenging peoples vis-à-vis the US (e.g. Russia, Syria, and the other Muslim countries in general).

Has any good come from Obama’s engagment strategy so far? It is too early to tell if there has been fundamental change; however, on the surface much good has come from it. For example, US-Russian relations are less tense, Chavez no longer insults the US president (as if most Americans really care one way or the other), and the Islamic world likes Obama despite the fact that he is continuing the Bush-era drone airstrikes in Pakistan and is doing his version of the Iraqi “Surge” in Afghanistan. These developments are really quite remarkable.

President Obama’s engagement strategy also stifles loud-mouthed agitators such as Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad because it makes a populist appeal, which also resounds internationally, because it makes President Obama appear open-minded and understanding -willing to peacefully resolve tough international political problems without the use of force, or at least without the threat of force.

Engagement may also be energized on a less tangible level by Obama’s ethnicity and name. For instance, Africans are enamored with Obama largely because he is half-Kenyan. The African media characterized Obama’s election victory as a win for Africa as though the ordinary African vicariously identified with the president so that in some mystical way Africa had become the most powerful force in the world –through Obama. Likewise, Obama, whose middle name is Hussein and whose father was a Muslim, also captivates the Muslim world. His June 4rth Cairo speech, addressed to the Muslim world, was a huge public relations’ success and this is a good thing for American foreign policy because it helps Obama achieve his goals in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and possibly Iran. Put simply, engagement might actually give Obama an edge over his predecessors in accomplishing his foreign policy goals in developing states, especially the anti-American ones. This advantage is perfectly timed as more and more developing states are engaging in globalism, and some of these are greatly benefiting (e.g. China, India, South Korea, and Brazil).

As for Chavez, one wonders if the dictator also struggles to come to terms with Obama. Dictators like to have enemies because when they have an enemy, internally or internationally, they use such enemies to justify ever increasing public and private control, high military expenditures, and trampling on human rights and liberty. Chavez saw President Bush as a cowboy imperialist and therefore probably liked having Bush as the US president because it seemed to play to Chavez’ frequent anti-US rants. However, today the face of the US is a minority and this appeals to the world’s many poor people from the developing countries. To be sure, Chavez has already called Obama a poor ignoramous, but for the time being such rants are unlikely to fall on fertile international soil as before, and Chavez likely knows this.

Recently, Israeli intelligence accused both Venezuela and Bolivia of selling uranium to Iran (see AP story). If true then this is another instance where Obama’s engagement strategy with a problematic state is coming under fire. For all the benefits that engagement offers, it also has its limitations. At what point will the US government be forced to just say ‘No’ to Chavez and take the resulting political fallout, or the inevitable backlash from Chavez’ rants and allies? A Chavez-led Venezuela is bad enough but Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons is one of the greatest security challenges of the post-Cold War. It is hard to imagine how the US can avoid conflict with Chavez so long as the dictator continues his alliance with Iran and some of his other policies.