Sorry about that, Yemen; never mind, Venezuela

An old and haughty nation, proud in arms

by Christopher Brauchli – The Daily Camera

January 4, 2003

Milton, Comus

As events off the coast of Spain and in Venezuela once again demonstrate, Mr. Bush can admit when he's made a mistake in foreign affairs . . . He demonstrated his flexibility twice during December. The first opportunity that presented itself was off the coast of Spain and involved the good ship So San. It was sailing, innocently enough, from North Korea to Yemen carrying a huge load of cement beneath which happened to be 15 Scud missiles and 85 drums of chemicals from a factory in North Korea.

After being tracked for thousands of miles by the U.S., the ship was halted and boarded and everyone assumed that its cargo would be seized. For good reason. The United States does not like to have foreign governments selling arms to other countries since it thinks that tends to destabilize the world. Furthermore, it threatens the U.S. role as the world's main arms merchant since arms that, for example, North Korea sells to Yemen are arms that that country won't be buying from the United States. And speaking of the arms sales race, the good news is we are still winning; the bad news is we are still competing.

According to a report titled "Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations 1994-2001" the United States has the largest share of both new contracts and deliveries to the world and has enjoyed that lead for eight years in a row. In 2001, U.S. arms manufacturers delivered $9.7 billion worth of arms, giving us a 45-percent share of the market. In that same period European exporters delivered a paltry $5.1 billion. In arms-transfer agreements with developing nations we enjoyed agreements having a value of almost $7 billion. That represented 43.6 percent of those agreements. We also led in arms transfer agreements worldwide, making agreement valued at nearly $12.1 billion representing 45.8 percent of all such agreements.

We were also first in international arms deliveries, making $9.7 billion in such deliveries or 45.6 percent of all deliveries. Given those statistics, it is no wonder that Mr. Bush worries when he runs across a ship, such as the So San, carrying Scud missiles to Yemen. It is especially troublesome when one realizes that we live in a time of declining sales of arms worldwide. Our delivery in 2001 of arms valued at $9.7 billion compared with sales in 1993 of $22 billion. In 1994 the State Department approved private sales of $25.6 billion and in 1995 they reached $29 billion. What this proves is that, metaphorically speaking, every penny counts.

In addition to not wanting to lose the competitive edge, Mr. Bush probably wondered why Yemen was buying arms it had promised a year earlier it would quit buying. But never mind. It turned out to have been a big misunderstanding, and once that was clear, the So San was permitted to go on its way and deliver its cargo to Yemen.

Another example of flexibility in foreign affairs was demonstrated by Mr. Bush with respect to Venezuela. Concerned about the strikes going on in that country that threaten United States oil supplies, (15 percent of the United Sates imports come from Venezuela) Mr. Bush and his advisers concluded the country should hold early elections even though there is no constitutional provision in Venezuela permitting such elections.

The Venezuelan Constitution provides that a referendum may be held halfway through a president's term, which in this case would be August 2003. If the president loses the referendum, an election must be scheduled within 30 days. On Dec. 13, the administration told Venezuela to hold early elections. It sent Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Tom Shannon to Venezuela to meet with government and opposition leaders in search of what Ari Fleischer called "a peaceful, democratic, constitutional and politically viable electoral solution." Mr. Fleischer said that the United States "is convinced that the only peaceful and politically viable path out of the crisis is through the holding of early elections" even though the suggestions, if implemented, would have violated Venezuela's constitution.

Two days after announcing its support for early elections, the administration changed its mind and announced that it was not calling for new elections immediately. Ari Fleischer said that: "We call for the will of the people to be heard through the provisions of the Constitution, in the manner that the Venezuelan people deem most appropriate."

It is not unusual for the administration to get ahead of itself when it comes to Venezuela. Back in April there was a coup that briefly ousted President Hugo Chvez. The administration could not contain its glee. Mr. Chvez was ousted on Friday and Mr. Fleischer promptly said it was Mr. Chvez' own fault and that he had provoked the crisis that led to his expulsion. The State Department expressed regret that the Chvez administration did not "act with restraint and show full respect for the peaceful expression of political opinion" and promised full cooperation with those who had sponsored the short-lived coup. Within two days Mr. Chvez was back as president and the United States' expressions of support for those who had removed him seemed awkward at best.

The Bush administration's interest in Venezuela has nothing to do with the fact that the United States imports 1.5 million barrels a day nor with the fact that since the crisis has developed that amount has been reduced to about 500,000 barrels a day. Mr. Bush's stand is based on principle. The same principle that has over the years caused us to support people like the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein of Iraq (before he invaded Kuwait), the Contras in Nicaragua and the Taliban in Afghanistan, to name but a few. It's a policy that has stood the test of time, worse luck.

Mr. Brauchli can be reached at

Extracted 01/18/03 from The Daily Camera


E-mail your comments to