If you thought America would quickly regain the world’s love, admiration and — most important — willingness to follow the U.S. lead once Barack Obama came to power, the news is disappointing. A useful guide to what has transpired comes from Venezuela’s president and his most peculiar sulfurometer. Hugo Chavez, it seems, can smell the devil, especially when the Prince of Darkness takes up residence in the body of an American president.
Watching Chavez’s devil-spotting shows that efforts to turn America’s foes into friends will, in many cases, prove utterly useless. There is an important lesson there for everyone, including the resident of the White House.
Chavez’s first supernatural sighting came at the United Nations in 2006, when the Venezuelan leader took the podium after President Bush gave a speech and announced in the solemn chamber that he could smell sulfur still hanging in the air from Bush’s presence.
The air cleared up nicely after the 2008 elections. “It doesn’t smell of sulfur. It’s gone,” declared Chavez last September, scanning the grand hall of the U.N. General Assembly. “It smells of something else,” he added approvingly. “It smells of hope.” The Chavez nasal gauge confirmed expectations that America’s standing in the world was changing.Clearly, Chavez’s problem is not one man. It never was. Chavez’s anti-Americanism was not the result of his dislike for Bush.
But hold the celebration. All is not well. On Dec. 18, Chavez revealed the new air-quality measurements during a speech at Copenhagen’s U.N. Climate Change Conference. The Venezuelan’s turn at the microphone came only moments after Obama, so the airborne particles tickled his sensitive nose. “It smells likes sulfur here,” he said, blaming the problem, shockingly, on Obama. The “Nobel War Prize” winner, he called him.
In summary: Devil, Hope and now Devil again. America still personifies what is wrong with the world.
How is this possible? Wasn’t Obama supposed to make the world love America again? Wasn’t Bush the source of all of Washington’s woes?
The opinion of one man, especially the president of Venezuela, is not terribly important, but it helps illustrate the folly of believing that “tone” determines international behavior. Clearly, Chavez’s problem is not one man. It never was. Chavez’s anti-Americanism was not the result of his dislike for Bush. Some will say what matters is not the man but his policies. But even that does not tell the whole story.
Some countries and politicians have goals and interests that conflict sharply with the United States. Regardless of how the man in the Oval Office speaks, regardless of how charming he is. And some nations and leaders will define them selves by their anti-Americanism.
Still, the conciliatory tone from President Obama does serve a useful purpose. When Bush was president, it was easy to believe that people like Chavez or regimes such as Iran’s acted the way they did because America spoke in tones they found offensive or overly confrontational. Now we know there was more.
Iran’s defiance of international demands on its nuclear program are not the product of poor table manners from the Bush administration. Iran behaves as it does because its regime has certain objectives, and its accelerated nuclear enrichment is key to achieving goals such as regional supremacy.
During the Bush years, many believed Iran’s intransigence was the direct result of Bush’s threatening stance. Since Obama came to power, he has tried unsuccessfully to stop Iran from lying to the U.N.’s nuclear authorities and deceiving the world’s diplomats. Iran has dismissed all efforts despiteWashington’s new conciliatory tone and efforts to find a diplomatic solution.
It has become more difficult to blame America for the problem. And yet, some will continue to see the devil’s shadow and blame the U.S., no matter how much America’s president scrubs his foreign policy.
In the case of Iran, America’s oncereluctant allies may have learned that the problem was not Washington’s tone but Iranian objectives. That may or may not persuade Russia and China to support Western nations’ efforts to pressure Iran through economic sanctions. But the truly important product of the new revelations will be found not overseas but inside the White House.
If Obama thought a change of tone would make the world see things America’s way, his first year in power has brought a powerful lesson: Sometimes countries disagree simply because their goals are mutually exclusive.
Frida Ghitis writes about global affairs for The Miami Herald.