Before Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush pledged to make Latin America a top foreign-policy priority. But his priorities swiftly changed with the events of that fateful day.

Ever since, a strutting dictator has incited fervent anti-Americanism throughout Latin America, particularly in Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Argentina. Even more ominous, he has established alliances with the United States' radical, Islamist enemies in the Middle East.

No, not Cuba's Fidel Castro. He's a Castro clone with barrels of petro-dollars to bankroll his Marxist dreams: Hugo Chavez.

The foreign-policy establishment in both parties considers the Venezuelan president's rantings and brushes him off as a buffoon. True, Chavez can be clownish. But his madness is not without method, and he is a menace to our national security.

This buffoon has maneuvered to monopolize power in every branch and level of Venezuelan government. He has nationalized much of the economy, including the oil, power-generation, telephone and banking sectors, along with most of the media. His Cuban-trained state police bully the opposition.

Legitimate popular elections - a feature of Venezuelan life since 1958 - are on the way to being replaced by a socialist dictatorship.

A convergence of the extreme left and radical Islam has resulted in persecution of Venezuela's Jews. Chavez has even attacked the Roman Catholic Church, calling the country's top bishop "a pathetic ignoramus," accusing a formal papal nuncio of condoning "immorality," and threatening to "exorcise" what he called the nation's "devils in vestments."

As the United States passively watched, Chavez deployed his petro-dollars to help achieve what the impoverished Castro never could: Marxist regimes in Nicaragua and Ecuador, and working relationships with Argentina and Brazil.

Chavez's lone problem: Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. His solution: funneling millions to the Colombian narco-terrorist group the FARC in an effort to bring down the Uribe government.

All this is bad enough, but Chavez's relationship with Iran is worse. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said of himself and Chavez, "We are brothers."

This brotherhood has manifested itself in an increasingly active Hezbollah presence in Latin America. Young Venezuelan men go to terrorist training and indoctrination camps in southern Lebanon, while radical Muslim mentors have set up shop in Latin America to convert natives to Shiite Islam. Hezbollah raises money in the tri-border region of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. The group also runs support and logistics cells on Isla de Margarita, a Venezuelan island that's home to a large Lebanese expatriate community.

Iran also uses Venezuela's financial system - specifically, the Iranian-controlled Banco Internacional de Desarrollo in Caracas - to launder money and circumvent U.N., U.S. and European economic sanctions.

Better than a White House tour, President Bush could do a real service for President-elect Barack Obama by cleaning up this mess he presided over. Our first strike against Chavez should be to use existing money-laundering, drug-trafficking and anti-terror laws against Venezuelan banks. This would cripple Iran's attempts to bypass economic sanctions, and it would hurt Chavez as well.

Recently, the brotherhood of Iran and Venezuela announced a $4 billion joint venture in oil production. Our second strike should be at this alliance and the heart of Chavez's power.

The summer's high oil prices and our dependence on Venezuelan oil imports have limited our ability to impose sanctions on the Chavez regime. We should exploit the current decline in oil prices and declare Venezuela a state sponsor of terrorism.

Venezuela's recently nationalized and increasingly unproductive oil industry largely produces heavy, sour crude that is refined almost exclusively in the United States. The Venezuelan economy is already reeling, with 50 percent inflation and shortages of food. Putting the country on the terror list would effectively shut down oil production and send the Venezuelan economy into the kind of death spiral of which revolutions are made.

Finally, our Democratic Congress should stop playing special-interest politics and put U.S. security first by passing the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, showing the rest of Latin America that we can be a good friend as well as a tough enemy.

These three strikes may put Chavez out.

E-mail Rick Santorum at rsantorum@phillynews.com.