Hugo Chávez Remark Sparks Foreign Policy Bickering Between Romney and Obama

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Make no mistake: This isn't a handshake, it's a thwarted point. Photo: JIM WATSON/2009 AFP

While Mitt Romney's general strategy has been to constantly steer the conversation back to bashing President Obama's economic record, on Wednesday he signaled that he'll soon be branching out into more foreign policy attacks. Romney is planning an international tour ahead of the Republican National Convention in August, with stops in Israel and London for the Olympics. This week, President Obama said that while he's "concerned" about Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, he's not a "serious" national security concern. Republican leaders seized on the opportunity to paint Obama as naive on foreign policy and soft on South American strongmen, with Romney calling his comments "stunning and shocking."

When asked about the Venezuelan leader in an interview with the Spanish-language channel America TeVe on Tuesday, Obama said:

You know the truth is that we're always concerned about Iran engaging in destabilizing activity around the globe but overall, my sense is that what Mr. Chavez has done over the last several years has not had a serious national security impact on us. We have to be vigilant. My main concern when it comes to Venezuela is having the Venezuelan people have a voice in their affairs and that you end up ultimately having free and fair elections, which we don't always see.

Republicans countered that Chávez is most definitely a "serious" problem, and free elections for the Venezuelan people shouldn't be the president's main concern. Venezuela itself may not pose a major threat, but recently it has developed closer relationships with nations like Iran and Syria. It was reported this week that Venezuela is shipping diesel to Syria, despite international sanctions.

Senator Marco Rubio kicked off the Republican attack, saying "President Obama has been living under a rock when it comes to recognizing the national security threat posed by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez." Several other Republicans chimed in, with Florida Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen saying Obama is "blithely unaware" of Chávez's hatred for America and "efforts to promote anti-American regimes across the Western Hemisphere." On Wednesday afternoon Romney chimed in with this statement:

This is a stunning and shocking comment by the President. It is disturbing to see him downplaying the threat posed to U.S. interests by a regime that openly wishes us ill. Hugo Chávez has provided safe haven to drug kingpins, encouraged regional terrorist organizations that threaten our allies like Colombia, has strengthened military ties with Iran and helped it evade sanctions, and has allowed a Hezbollah presence within his country's borders.

While Romney's recent comments on foreign policy have been limited, he did attack Chávez on Venezuela National Day last week, saying he, “is leading a movement in Venezuela and throughout Latin America that seeks to undermine freedom, diminish prosperity and expand tyranny." In both statements, the candidate failed to elaborate on what he'd do differently in Latin America — a fact which didn't go unnoticed by the Obama campaign. Following a day of bickering, Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said Republicans only gave Chávez the attention he craves by "acting like he's 10 feet tall," and added a final taunt. "It’s baffling that Mitt Romney is so scared of a leader like Chávez, whose power is fading, while Romney continues to remain silent about how to confront al-Qaeda or how to bring our troops home from Afghanistan," said LaBolt.