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Lost in translation

August 24, 2005

A PARANOID IS NEVER happier than when he discovers that he really does have enemies. So Pat Robertson's call for the assassination of Hugo Chavez may be just the moment of vindication the Venezuelan president has been waiting for.

It's not likely many people in the United States took Robertson seriously Tuesday when he stated on his religious broadcast "The 700 Club" that Chavez was a "terrific danger" to the U.S. and that American forces should "take him out." Robertson is notorious for remarks of questionable sense or even sanity, such as his conclusion that feminism "encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians." But South Americans may see things differently, causing considerable damage to the United States' already poor reputation in the region.

Creating an implacable external enemy, and using fear of that enemy to consolidate political power, is a time-honored tradition that few have mastered as well as Chavez. He has used profanity to describe his feelings about President Bush, and sexual innuendo in referring to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; on Sunday, he praised Fidel Castro as a paradigm of democratic governance.

In Robertson, Chavez may have found the perfect adversary. Bush, to his credit, would never descend to Chavez's level of discourse. But Chavez can plausibly argue that Robertson's worldview is similar to the president's, citing Bush's closeness to the evangelical movement. Chavez can also point out that Robertson has campaigned for the president and is an influential member (and former candidate for the presidential nomination) of the same political party as Bush.

And then there is the Bush administration's actual record in Venezuela, which is hardly exemplary. In April 2002, the United States embarrassed itself by not denouncing an attempted military coup against Chavez until he had regained power. Later revelations that Bush administration officials had been in contact with members of the Venezuelan opposition months before the attempted coup only fueled the Chavez machine.

In such a context, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's quick dismissal of Robertson's remarks, and his observation that the assassination of foreign leaders is "against the law," is welcome but insufficient. So are the widespread condemnations from political and religious leaders from across the ideological spectrum. No less than the president himself should renounce Robertson's remarks -- not just to bridge his credibility gap in South America but to show that the United States is better than its politics.

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