Perhaps it was only a matter of time before Hugo Chávez inserted himself into the turmoil gripping the Middle East. Uncharacteristically silent ever since revolutions began to break out in Tunisia last December, the Venezuelan president has clearly been enticed by the Libyan drama, where his longtime friend and ally, Muammar al-Qaddafi, is under siege from rebel forces. After taking to his Twitter feed last week to defend "Libya and its independence," Chávez has now offered to create an international commission composed of South American, European, and Middle Eastern countries to mediate and seek a peaceful resolution of the Libyan crisis -- and also, presumably, to figure out a way for Qaddafi to stay in power.
In making this proposal, Chávez is keen to shore up his waning global constituency. The prospect of civil war in Libya offers him the chance to use his close relationship with Qaddafi to try to head off what he claims is an impending U.S. military invasion. As a measure of the camaraderie between the two army colonels, bonded by oil and ideology, the rumor circulating early in the crisis that Qaddafi would seek refuge in Venezuela had a ring of plausibility. But in fact, Chávez's belated intervention in the Libyan crisis seems likely to fall flat on the international stage -- and to carry some unexpected, unpleasant consequences for the Venezuelan leader at home.
Chávez's somewhat delayed response to the historic events unfolding in the Middle East can be attributed to conflicting loyalties stemming from geopolitical complexities. Chávez's ties to Qaddafi -- for decades Chávez has admired Qaddafi's "Green Book" and called him (the highest compliment possible) the Simon Bolivar of Libya -- is exceeded perhaps only by his attachment to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Chávez has sought to build alliances with these and other leaders who are similarly intent on curtailing U.S. influence. But Ahmadinejad's cheering of anti-government forces in the Middle East and his condemnation of Qaddafi's "unimaginable repression" against his own people posed a dilemma for Chávez. That dilemma was resolved when Washington's anti-Qaddafi rhetoric heated up, triggering Chávez's reflexive anti-U.S. response and driving him headlong into the fray.
The Venezuelan government claims that its proposal had been accepted by Qaddafi, though the Libyan ruler's son Saif al-Islam seemed less than enthusiastic about Chávez's role. He said, "We have to say thank you ... but we are able and capable enough to solve our issues by our own people ... ourselves. There is no need for any foreign intervention. ... They are our friends, we respect them, we like them, but they are far away. They have no idea about Libya. Libya is in the Middle East and North Africa. Venezuela is in Central America. We appreciate this." Libya's rebels immediately rejected the Venezuelan offer.
Chávez's proposal was received more sympathetically in the Arab League, where its secretary general, Amr Moussa, said the organization would consider it. But most Western countries have dismissed the idea summarily. U.S. President Barack Obama has insisted that there is nothing to negotiate: Qaddafi must go. The Italian and French governments have agreed.