Global Policy Forum

Venezuela: Fumbling a Pop Up


By William M. Arkin

Washington Post
November 1, 2005

The Pentagon has begun contingency planning for potential military conflict with Venezuela as part of a broad post-Iraq evaluation of strategic threats to the United States.

The planning has been precipitated by general and specific directives issued by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his civilian policy assistants. Internal documents associated with the 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and preparation of the fiscal year 2008-2013 future defense plan identify five specific "threat" countries in three groups requiring "full-spectrum" planning.

The first group includes North Korea and Iran, both justified for their involvement in the development of weapons of mass destruction. China is listed as a "growing peer competitor" and threat of tomorrow. Syria and Venezuela are listed as "rogue nations." To call Venezuela a "rogue" nation, a retro-label usually reserved for the worst lawless regimes, is both lazy and small minded.

Relations between the U.S. and Venezuela have deteriorated steadily since President Hugo Chavez, an anti-imperial populist, was elected in December 1998. Chavez has become a champion of opposition to U.S. policies and activities throughout the world, and has established closer relations with Russia, China and Iran. The Pentagon also believes that Chavez is encouraging revolutions in both Bolivia and Ecuador, as well as providing support for Columbian paramilitaries.

Though autocratic, Chavez has also presided over unprecedented growth in the Venezuelan economy, setting the stage for a significant increase in public services. Given solid resources and political backbone, Chavez has been able to keep much of his word to the poor, resulting in a level of domestic popularity that Karl Rove would kill for (that's a joke, Karl).

Military sources ascribe Venezuela's emergence on a list of actual military threats as a reflection of an important post 9/11 war reality: The events themselves of September 11 provide justification -- and perceived need -- to take risks in thinking about unanticipated threats. "The Global War on Terror is rightfully our near-term focus, but we certainly don't want to be caught flat-footed by a series of other possibilities," says one Defense Department planning document.

Oil rich Venezuela provides approximately 15 percent of the oil imported to the United States.

Though most people believe that the United States has contingency plans for every country, this is far from the truth. In April 2004, Donald Rumsfeld signed the Top Secret Contingency Planning Guidance document that mandates that the military prepare 68 contingency plans in 11 "families" at four increasingly detailed levels. This "deliberative" planning process identifies countries like North Korea, Iran, China, Russia, and Syria for inclusion in conventional and nuclear plans.

But Rumsfeld also pushed the military to develop what is loosely described as "adaptive" plans, the preparations and systems necessarily to take military action in unanticipated contingencies.

According to a September Joint Chiefs of Staff document, "Since the U.S. cannot know with confidence which nation, combination of nations, and/or non-state actor(s) will pose a threat, DOD must focus planning and operations on how a potential adversary could threaten the US rather than on a specific adversary." Rumsfeld's broad guidance to the military is to be prepared to handle four "persistent and emerging challenges," labeled as traditional, irregular, catastrophic, and disruptive. Current thinking is that the trends are away from adversaries who represent traditional military opponents and would attack in traditional ways towards "asymmetric methods and capabilities."

In this regard, Venezuela is identified in Defense Department briefings and documents as a "pop up" threat, an example of an unanticipated and asymmetric challenge. In the military mind, Venezuela's proximity to the United States also elevates it to a "homeland security" threat, instantly increasing the priority for planning.

There is another bureaucratic reality of Venezuela as the pop up threat and recipient of contingency planner attention: U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), which is responsible for Latin America, needs something to do. Since 9/11, the Miami-based command has been robbed of much of its responsibilities for homeland and maritime security, relegated to doing little more than fighting the war on drugs. The al Qaeda terrorist threat in Latin America, which Rumsfeld's office was trumpeting in 2001 and 2002, has also proven to be a bust.

With President Bush going to the Summit of the Americas in Argentina this week, the U.S.-Venezuelan confrontation is once again sure to get a public airing. Julia Sweig, director of the Council on Foreign Relations Latin America program and author of the forthcoming Friendly Fire: Anti-Americanism Gone Global and What to Do About It, thinks the two countries remain on a collision course. She particularly worries about "the Cubanization of American policy towards Venezuela."

This is characterized, she says, by Chavez's rise and popularity partly attributable to a Cold War legacy in the hemisphere, while his behavior plays into the hands of those who are intent on polarization and concoction of military threats.

The good news, Sweig says, is also that "the two countries are stuck with each other," joined by oil and trade. That strength ironically could also become the core strategic justifications for future war.

For the under-employed war planner Venezuela has everything to get the juices flowing: it has oil; it is leftist; it is critical of the United States; it is buying from the bad guys; it is in our own back yard. Sound familiar? Only communism separates the new Cuba in simple minds.

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