'New populists' vs. the West

Can the leaders of Iran and Venezuela forge a political counterweight to US power?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Some might call it the axle of anti-American populism.

With linchpins in Tehran on one end and Caracas on the other, a new brand of international populism is rising by fanning flames of division between Western powers and the "powerless" of the developing world.

Leaders, from Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez, are winning points at home by striking a nationalist and anti-American pose. Their method: Use the international stage to rail against what they see as a disconnect between the values espoused by the world's sole superpower and its actions.

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• Mr. Ahmadinejad consolidates his domestic political power and wins support among several countries caught in America's cross hairs by pointing out that Washington accepts the nuclear status of Pakistan - which it needs on its side in the war on terror - while opposing Iran's program, which Iran insists is for power-generation only.

• Mr. Chávez, espousing a philosophy of "democratic socialism" in any international forum that will listen, accuses the United States of trying to overthrow his own democratically elected government. He fires up sympathetic crowds by branding "US imperialism [as] our real enemy."

Yet for all their heated rhetoric, the two leaders have a vision for the world, one that seeks to end the "sole superpower" reality. Beyond simply opposing America's robust exercise of power - a sentiment increasingly found in the developing world, especially - their aim is to join political forces to provide a significant counterweight in the international arena.

"There is no great level of love between Venezuela and Iran, but they both are seeking a multipolar world, and that's where the two of them find a point of intersection," says Miguel Tinker-Salas, a Latin America and US foreign-policy expert at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.

The two leaders, though, are impelled by different motives. Chávez is motivated by an antiglobalization stance that vilifies Washington as the epicenter of market- oriented economics, says Thomas Carothers, an expert on democracy and rule of law at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Ahmadinejad's wrath, he says, is more focused on the Bush administration's agenda for secular democracy in the Middle East.

Russia's Vladimir Putin also belongs on the list, says Mr. Carothers, for his challenge to the West over its promotion of democracy in Russia and in the former Soviet neighboring countries.

"We're seeing on different fronts different leaders who are pushing back," he says, "with the idea of resisting the West." It is "no coincidence" that all three countries are "flush with oil money" that allows their leaders the luxury of promoting their causes, he adds.

A risk of overreaction by the West

The West's response to the populists' challenge need not - indeed, should not - be uniform, some analysts say. Each presents a different challenge.

"The Latin American populists like Chávez have a very limited capacity to do anything that threatens substantial harm to our interests, so it's key in those cases not to overreact," says Andrew Bacevich, director of the Center for International Relations at Boston University.

Iran, on the other hand, is different because of the "nuclear question" and "the importance we assign to stability in that region," he says. Iran plays a key role in events in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

In some current international controversies, it's the West, not simply America, that is in the line of fire - as with the Muslim world's fury over cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. But Chávez and Ahmadinejad, in particular, "are finding it pays politically to focus on the US," adds Mr. Tinker-Salas.

Iran lost no time this week announcing an end to cooperation on its nuclear program with the International Atomic Energy Agency, after the IAEA on Saturday approved a US-supported resolution that reports Iran to the United Nations Security Council.

Landing Iran in the Security Council was a goal of the Bush administration for at least two years. But the vote also revealed cracks in the international community and support for Iran - albeit from some at the top of Washington's blacklist. Syria, Venezuela, and Cuba all voted "no" on the IAEA resolution.

Iran's foreign minister will travel to Cuba and Venezuela this month in a bid to further cement support for Iran's battle against the "world oppressor" - the US. Ahmadinejad has established contact, too, with Evo Morales, the recently elected populist president of Bolivia.

Rumsfeld takes a jab

The US is also caught in what State Department officials describe as a "tit-for-tat" imbroglio with Chávez. After Caracas expelled a military attaché assigned to the US Embassy on charges of spying, the US responded last Friday by expelling a Venezuelan diplomat.

The US action followed comments by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in which he likened Chávez to Adolf Hitler, saying both were "elected legally." The election of "populist" leaders like Chávez and Bolivia's new president, he added, "are worrisome."

Some experts caution against such riffs, saying they only play into the hands of the new populists, coming at a time when US standing in the world is low and more people seem to sympathize with challenges to American power.

"People see a certain hypocrisy in US actions, and what we're seeing from people like Chávez and Iran's president are attempts to exploit that," says Tinker-Salas.

"The US has a pretty good record of falling into this trap," adds Mr. Bacevich of Boston University. "The Bush administration has so overused the Hitler analogy that it's almost demeaning to history."

Iran's depiction of an "arrogant West" has "some echo" in parts of the developing world, he adds, but that doesn't mean Damascus, Havana, and Caracas are poised to lead a new anti-West movement.

Still, anti-Western sentiment shows signs of spreading, fed by economics, nationalism, or culture, says Carothers. That should give the US pause from "sparring" with the new populists, he says, "as tempting as that might be."

The current circumstances should also encourage the US to reduce its use of all foreign oil, he adds.

"It takes ready cash to fiddle with politics outside your borders," he says, "and thanks to oil prices that's something that all of these leaders have."

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