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.
Er, no, it isn’t bizarre, if by “serious national security impact” Obama was referring to Chavez’s (lack of) impact on American national security. It isn’t desirable that Chavez lends support to Assad, but is this having a “serious” impact on U.S. national security? No. Is it harmful to the cause of the Syrian opposition? Yes. We can agree that his support for fellow ALBA governments isn’t good for those countries insofar as those governments are illiberal and prone to abusing their citizens’ rights, but none of that has a “serious” impact on U.S. national security, either. Moynihan is right that Chavez cultivates ties with various authoritarian pariah states. Those states are mostly distinguished by their severe economic mismanagement and geopolitical irrelevance. Show me the list of Venezuela’s “allies,” and I’ll show you a list of countries that have almost no influence in the world. They may be obnoxious, but Venezuela’s friendly relations with Belarus and Zimbabwe don’t pose any threat to the U.S. In other words, one can acknowledge that Chavez’s influence in international affairs is “baleful,” as Moynihan says, without concluding that it has much impact on U.S. national security.
If we really want to call Chavez an “anti-imperialist imperialist,” which seems to be the fashion these days, we also have to acknowledge that he hasn’t had many successes in his imperialism in recent years. His regional influence has been steadily waning since it reached its peak back in 2007-08. Honduras is no longer in Venezuela’s orbit, and Paraguay’s now-deposed president was not the reliable Chavez ally that some feared he would be. Venezuela reportedly tried to incite a military coup in Paraguay in response to Lugo’s impeachment. That attempt failed miserably, and Paraguay has cut ties with Venezuela in response. Venezuela’s reliable friends in the region are among the weakest and poorest in Latin America. It would be better for Venezuela and the region if Chavez weren’t in power, but he simply hasn’t had a “serious” impact on U.S. national security. There are things in Obama’s policies in Latin America that one could reasonably criticize (e.g., the drug war and its effects on Central America, mishandling relations with Brazil, etc.), but his dismissive attitude towards Chavez really isn’t one of them.
Update: This Wall Street Journal report points out that Venezuela and ALBA just don’t matter very much:
U.S. diplomats, not surprisingly, see things differently. “Most countries are just not interested in ALBA right now. It’s not a model that’s working. It’s imploding under its own weight,” a senior State Department official said. Since Mr. Obama took office, the administration has sought to parry Mr. Chavez’s anti-American jabs by simply ignoring them. “The smartest thing we could possibly do is not to take the bait,” that official said.
The report also mentioned that this approach to Latin America represents continuity between Bush and Obama:
The idea, administration officials explain, is that it serves U.S. national interests more in the long run to have mostly friendly relations with sovereign states, than ordering client states to do U.S. bidding. That approach is known informally as the Shannon Doctrine, after the current U.S. ambassador to Brazil, Tom Shannon.
But it’s not an invention of the Obama administration: The Shannon Doctrine, and the whole idea of a different relationship with Latin America, was created when Mr. Shannon ran the Western Hemisphere desk at the State Department—during the second term of George W. Bush’s presidency.