There’s an old Southern saying that you dance with the one that brung ya, but as the Bush administration found out this week, sometimes you don’t want to dance too closely.
The administration quickly distanced itself from the suggestion by religious broadcaster and Bush backer Pat Robertson that the United States assassinate a leftist Latin American head of state. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called Robertson’s remarks about Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez “inappropriate,” but stopped short of condemning them.
“This is not the policy of the United States government,” McCormack said Tuesday. “We do not share his views.”
The Bush administration does share many of Robertson’s views on other matters, such as stem cell research, and Robertson’s largely conservative, evangelical audience overlaps with the core of Bush’s political base.
About nine of 10 white evangelicals voted for Bush in the 2004 election _ about as high as his support from any group of voters, according to exit polls. This group also supported Bush overwhelmingly in the 2000 election.
McCormack tiptoed around the question of whether the rest of the world might assume that Robertson speaks, if not directly for Bush, at least for a sizable share of the Republican Party.
“I would think that people around the world would take the comments for what they are,” McCormack said. “They’re the expression of one citizen.”
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the Pentagon isn’t in the business of killing foreign leaders, but he also did not denounce Robertson or his remarks.
“He’s a private citizen. Private citizens say all kinds of things all the time,” Rumsfeld said.
On Wednesday, Robertson initially denied he had called for Chavez to be assassinated, saying his comments were misinterpreted, even though a video of Monday’s telecast shows Robertson’s exact words were: “You know, I don’t know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we’re trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it.”
But he reversed course a few hours later and apologized for his remarks.
“Is it right to call for assassination?” Robertson said. “No, and I apologize for that statement. I spoke in frustration that we should accommodate the man who thinks the U.S. is out to kill him.”
Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition and a candidate for the Republican nomination for president in 1988, supported Bush’s re-election last year and said he believed Bush is blessed by God. Robertson also told viewers of his “700 Club” television program that God had told him Bush would win re-election in a “blowout.”
The fracas began with Robertson’s remarks on the same program Monday, when he said that killing Chavez would be cheaper than starting a war to oust him. Getting rid of Chavez would stop Venezuela from becoming a “launching pad for communist influence and Muslim extremism,” Robertson said.
“We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability,” Robertson said. “We don’t need another $200 billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator.”
In response, Chavez likened Robertson to a rabid dog. Venezuela’s ambassador to the U.S. said he is concerned for Chavez’ safety when visiting the United States. Chavez is expected to attend the special session of the U.N. General Assembly next month in New York.
Rumsfeld and other Bush administration officials have linked Chavez with Cuban leader Fidel Castro as destabilizing troublemakers in teetering Latin American democracies. Chavez is close to Castro, and was visiting him in Cuba when the Robertson story broke.
President Gerald R. Ford put political assassination off-limits in an executive order in the mid-1970s.
Democrats called the Bush administration’s response tepid, and said it lends credence to the notion that the White House doesn’t want to offend some of its most loyal supporters.
“It seems they are shuffling their feet when they should be running away from what Pat Robertson said,” Democratic political consultant Steve McMahon said. “That this president, who projects himself as brave and bold, doesn’t want to stand up to his own right wing is ironic.”
Chavez, who was democratically elected, routinely criticizes Bush and the United States. He calls Bush “Mr. Danger” while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is “the imperial lady.”
He has repeatedly accused the United States of backing a plan to assassinate him, which Rice and others have denied. Earlier this year he threatened to cut off oil exports to the United States if it supports any effort to overthrow him.
That is not an inconsequential threat when gas prices are brushing $3 a gallon. Venezuela exports 1.3 million barrels of oil a day to the United States _ 8 percent of the total supply.
Anne Gearan covers foreign affairs for The Associated Press.
On the Net:
State Department: http://www.state.gov
CIA Factbook on Venezuela: http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/ve.html