Is the United States planning to invade Venezuela?

“I’m telling you that I have evidence that there are plans to invade Venezuela.”

That’s what Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, through a translator, told Ted Koppel on “Nightline” last month.

According to Chavez, the U.S. invasion plan is code-named Operation Balboa and will consist of an airborne invasion of Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, by an elite unit of down-on-their-luck Italian-American boxers whose grit, determination and anthemic soundtrack will topple the Chavez regime in just under two hours.

OK, so that’s partly a lie. Chavez did indeed tell Koppel that a U.S. invasion code-named Operation Balboa is planned. Instead of the Rocky bits, however, Chavez said the planned invasion would include a naval air bombardment of Caracas and that the U.S. Navy had already practiced for Balboa with carrier maneuvers near Curacao, a Dutch Island off Venezuela’s coast.

Chavez went on to warn that Venezuela’s counter-invasion preparations already are underway (code-named Operation Apollo Creed, let’s hope!) and that a U.S. invasion would be “foolhardy” and would result in a “100-year war” and at least four sequels.

The United States adamantly denies that an invasion of Venezuela is planned. Nevertheless, the idea isn’t all that far-fetched. After all, Venezuela possesses three of the characteristics President Bush looks for when he’s picking countries to invade:

1) It has, in Hugo Chavez, a leader whose habit of criticizing the United States while wearing his military uniform conforms perfectly to our Gaddafi/Saddam/Noriega image of what America’s enemies look like.

2) Venezuela has oil.

3) Venezuela does not have weapons of mass destruction.

And let’s not forget (Venezuelans certainly haven’t) that the Bush administration hasn’t exactly been respectful of Venezuela’s democracy or sovereignty in the recent past. Even though Venezuelans have freely elected Chavez three times since 1998, the Bush administration openly welcomed — and, according to some credible accounts, actively assisted — a military coup that briefly toppled Chavez in April 2002.

But does that mean we’re planning to invade Venezuela? The answer, thankfully, is no. Or, as they say in Venezuela, no.

First of all, the only thing we really want from Venezuela is for it to keep selling us oil. Though Chavez has frequently expressed a desire to sell more of Venezuela’s oil to industrial up-and-comers such as China and India, he and his administration have repeatedly made it clear that they want to remain one of the United States’ top oil suppliers. The most likely way to make Venezuela reverse that policy is to actually attack the place.

Secondly, there’s no way in hell the American public would back such an operation. Chavez is indeed a jerk and a loudmouth whose dictatorial leanings are subverting Venezuela’s democracy, but he’s so far down the list of things that American military planners need to worry about that not even a million Karl Roves feeding bogus press releases to a million Fox News channels could convince voters otherwise.

Finally, even if the Bush administration wanted to invade Venezuela and the American people did support it, we simply do not have the military manpower to do so. There’s no in end sight to our military occupation of Iraq, an operation that requires the bulk of the armed forces’ (wo)manpower.

Compounding our shortage of available troops is the military’s sagging recruitment. Four years of Bush’s hapless War on TerrorTM is making people reluctant to volunteer for military service. The Army, the Army Reserve and Army National Guard (the forces that would comprise the bulk of any U.S. invasion) will all fall short of their recruiting goals for 2005.

If the Bush administration wants to see Chavez disappear, the best strategy is probably just polite waiting. Chavez uses Venezuela’s resentment of U.S. interference in the country’s affairs to cover up that he’s not actually good at his job. Despite Chavez’s professed populism, high oil prices, and a raft of social programs aimed at the helping the poor, the poverty rate in Venezuela actually has risen during his presidency. Chavez has done nothing to diversify Venezuela’s oil-dependent economy since coming to office, nor has he bothered to save any of the country’s recent oil windfall.

When oil prices fall (the oil market is volatile), Chavez will probably fall, too — if we’re smart enough to get out of his way.