When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez labeled George W. Bush the "devil" during his recent visit to the United Nations — saying that the "smell of sulfur" was still on the 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." Not to be outdone, the New York Post called him a "Caracas crackpot." Politicians of both parties lined up to insult the insulter.
The name calling got Chavez an ovation at the United Nations and probably played well at home. But the insult became virtually the only thing Americans heard. Chavez' 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 to the program last year, denounced Chavez' 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.
Neither the administration nor the politicians lining up to denounce Chavez said much when the Rev. Pat Robertson suggested on national television that the United States should assassinate Chavez. 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 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.
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. Venezuelan cooperation is key to stopping the flow of drugs.
It's time to end the war of words. Bellicose language too often feeds hostility rather than solving real problems.
The White House doesn't get this. The reality is the United States has many interests but too few friends.
This administration makes a habit of talking tough about — but not talking to — those it disagrees with. We're not talking to Syria, to Iran, to the democratically elected Hamas leadership or to Hezbollah.
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 the countries in the Middle East if we are to figure out how to create any progress towards 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. Let's end the war of words and open an exploration of shared concerns.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. is founder and president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.