Call it the live-bait fishing model of geopolitics: first the gift, then the gaff.
Terrorist groups use the technique in the Middle East, ingratiating themselves to the hard-pressed with medical and other services (the gift) even as they murder noncombatants they don't like (the gaff).
The groups answer complaints about the gaff by pointing to the gift.
With a less deadly gaff, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is fishing in the US.
State-owned—meaning Chavez-dominated—Petroleos de Venezuela SA is selling heating oil at discounts through its Citgo subsidiary to poor people in the US. The program began last winter after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita disrupted Gulf Coast refining and raised fuel costs.
Citgo crows about it in a brochure on its web site entitled "From the Venezuelan Heart to the US Hearths" and featuring a photo of a sympathetic Chavez with this message: "We are all americanos, and together we share the Bolivarian mission of giving hope and a better life to the poorest and most vulnerable, whether they live in Venezuela or Vermont."
Who can argue against aid to the poorest and most vulnerable?
But with the gift of cheap oil comes a gaff.
In a Sept. 15 speech at the United Nations, Chavez called US President George W. Bush "the devil." In a later speech in New York, he said he hopes Americans elect "an intelligent president" and insisted that he's a friend of Americans other than those in the government.
The Venezuelan president, of course, has been wooing his country's neighbors with cut-rate oil and anti-Americanism for many months.
Traveling to the US to spit the venom was especially galling, however. If Chavez hoped to co-opt political opponents of Bush in the US, the ploy didn't work. Democrats, including House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, greeted the UN gaff as a gaffe. Pelosi called Chavez an "everyday thug."
Citgo, of course, is free to sell all the cut-rate oil Chavez wants it to in the US. Sensible Americans will take the gift and ignore the politics behind it.
As long as the gaff is only bone-headed rhetoric, they can afford to.
(Online Sept. 22, 2006; author's e-mail: [email protected])