Thursday, March 06, 2008

Crisis Diplomacy: The need for a regional counterterrorism mechanism in South America

Here's an article I sought to publish but was rejected. The editors didn't really like my policy recommendations. They may be right. It's a complicated moment in Colombia and while I think my policy prescriptions are generally what's necessary, now might not be the right moment. Anyway, I'm posting the article anyway since I did the work to write it and all.

In the early morning hours of March 1, the Colombian military crossed into Ecuador without permission and attacked a FARC camp. From a military perspective, the attack was a complete success. Colombia killed Raúl Reyes, generally considered the second in command of the terrorist organization. The military also captured four laptops which contain what the Colombian military calls vital intelligence. The political fallout, however, has been a disaster as both Ecuador and Venezuela have closed their embassies in Bogotá and cut off all diplomatic contact.

While the details of Saturday morning’s raid are still in dispute, one thing is becoming clear – the intelligence information captured by the Colombian military speak of linkages between the FARC and Venezuela and Ecuador that are much greater and more overt than previously believed. Venezuela has long been dogged by rumors that they provided direct support to the FARC (in particular, ammunition) but until now, there was no evidence. Today, those rumors seem to be backed by with credible evidence.

As reported in the NYT and numerous other sources, one of the laptops confiscated by the Colombian military describes a transfer of $300 million USD from Venezuela to the FARC (although this is disputed by Venezuela). There is also evidence that the FARC aided Chavez as far back as 1992 when he was in prison for an unsuccessful coup attempt. The Organization of American States is meeting in Washington to evaluate this event and the evidence collected by the Colombian military will be reviewed by an OAS body. Only the Guardian provides some meaning to this data point:

“The leftist affinity between the Chávez government and Farc is no secret but, if proved, the allegation potentially makes Chávez a sponsor of terrorism.”

This is a serious issue. Currently, there are five nations on the State Department Terrorist List, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria. Each of those nations face a certain degree of US and international sanctions and are virtual international pariahs. Going on the list hurts them economically and diplomatically and virtually guarantees that they will face a very tough road to repair their reputations and to develop economically.

Further, the Terror List is a brutal tactic that doesn’t seem to work particularly well and is arbitrarily applied and/or maintained on states that don’t seem to merit the label (Cuba seems an odd candidate to remain on the List, south Florida politics notwithstanding). Terror List designation means restrictions on US foreign aid, a defense sales and export ban (products that have military applications), controls over the export of dual-use technology, and financial and other restrictions. These sanctions can also punish 3rd party nations or individuals that trade with the Terror List designee, meaning that, in some situations, the US could seek to penalize nations that trade with state sponsors of terror.

The State Department explains the qualifications for the list as follows:

Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Syria, however, continued to maintain their ties to terrorist groups. Iran and Syria routinely provide unique safe haven, substantial resources and guidance to terrorist organizations.

State sponsors of terrorism provide critical support to non-state terrorist groups. Without state sponsors, terrorist groups would have much more difficulty obtaining the funds, weapons, materials, and secure areas they require to plan and conduct operations.

If the allegations that Colombia has leveled against Venezuela are proven true, then Venezuela would clearly fit the US Government’s criteria as a State Sponsor of Terrorism. The question, then, becomes, will the State Department place the country on the List?

Over the course of the next week, the OAS will conduct an investigation to verify the authenticity of the information obtained by the Colombian government. Subsequent investigations will be undertaken to confirm that information from other sources (likely conducted in cooperation with the US Government). Most observers, however, would not be surprised if overt linkage between Chavez and the FARC were proven true. Ecuador probably has no overt linkages and will escape castigation in this matter (as the victim).

If the OAS investigation reasonably demonstrates that Venezuela is actively supporting the FARC, the US will be put in a tight spot. By law, the US would have the authority to place Venezuela on the Terror List. However, US sanctions on Venezuela have four potential negative implications that will likely stay the US hand:

1. A more hostile stance toward Venezuela plays into Chavez’s primary reason for being – to counter the “gringo empire”. He learned this from Castro and if history is any guide, placing sanctions on the Red Republic could keep Chavez in power for a long, long time.

2. The US buys a significant portion of Venezuelan oil (in the neighborhood of 80% or more) and in a time of rising oil prices, sanctions would hurt. The Bush administration has been nothing if not brash, but it seems unlikely that the President would be willing to further destabilize the US economy by further reducing oil imports.

3. Colombia exports enormous amounts of goods to Venezuela and it’s possible that US sanctions would curtail or end that trade. While the twin step of blocking Venezuelan oil exports and ending cross border trade would likely ruin the Venezuelan economy, the effects on the US’s only South American ally would be devastating as well. Bush would likely be unwilling to do that to a friend (unless asked).

4. The US is heavily invested in Venezuela and any sanctions regime would be strongly resisted by the domestic business lobby. In addition to the Oil & Gas industry, a great number of large, powerful US enterprises have significant stakes in Venezuela. It would be difficult for Bush to levy sanctions and jeopardize those investments given that that very business community vaulted him to 8 years in the Oval Office.

No matter the outcome of the specifics of this case, it has clearly highlighted a failure in regional cooperation. The question, then, is what can be done about the lack of regional cooperation in fighting terrorism and the overt role that some regional powers appear to be playing? It’s not an easy question to answer but I offer the following:

1. The US should quietly approach Ecuador and inform them of the grave risks of sponsoring or collaborating with terrorists. Ecuador should also be reminded of the value of US economic assistance. At the same time, the US could extend an offer of more economic assistance to Ecuador in exchange for their cooperation in this matter.

2. The US should quietly reassure the Colombian government of its support (if it hasn’t already done so) and specifically offer some level of diplomatic guarantee in the unlikely case of a Venezuelan attack (a pledge to take the issue to the UN Security Council, for example). This could be seen as a controversial move, but with one ally in the region, the US stands more to gain by supporting Colombia, with force if necessary, than by standing on the sidelines.

3. The US should take a leadership role in the OAS to create a regional forum and/or security body that coordinates counter-terrorism efforts across borders. As is, the system is broken. OAS counterterrorism cooperation is extremely limited and the conditions for cooperation are poorly defined. Ecuador’s President Correa claims that Uribe should have informed him and then he would have moved troops to capture the FARC. Colombia, justifiably, has no confidence that Ecuador would not tip off the FARC or that the Ecuadorian army could arrive in time to do any good (it took them 24 hours to show up after Colombia’s attack). The result is that one nation’s sovereignty, no matter how justly, was violated and there is a diplomatic firestorm to deal with in the short term.

A regional counter-terrorism working group should seek to establish a mechanism for undertaking cross border activities, for facilitating joint military cooperation, and for creating guidelines for future action. This effort should also include crisis communication options for all participating nations in order to take the verbal back and forth out of the press and into the crisis management centers. Standard, regular consultations related to the FARC would help deescalate cross border tension and settle a framework for greater regional cooperation as well as prevent further unauthorized border incursions.

Further, by trying to internationalize the conflict, the US could turn back its reputation as an empire seeking colonial power that infects vast portions of South America’s liberal community. As an equal, not dominant partner in a regional counter-terrorism coordination effort that plays a facilitator (and financing) role, the US would functionally be on the same status level as any other nation and the leftists in the region, in particular Chavez, would have much less fuel for their fire. To make the US role completely transparent, the newly formed organization could formally establish in its bylaws that the US would be nothing more than a facilitator.

In all likelihood, this effort would be shunned by Venezuela and that would limit its success to only Colombia’s southern border. However, even in this scenario, the initiative would have value for it would provide clear evidence that Venezuela is not serious about fighting terrorism. That would give Colombia the moral high ground, potentially building support for placing Venezuela on the Terrorist List or for future UN Security Council action.

There is no magic bullet that will solve the problem of the FARC and its 45 year vendetta against the legitimate authority in Bogotá. However, over the last seven years, the Uribe government has been very successful at pushing the FARC out of big cities and to more remote regions of the country. Now, with the FARC on the ropes and actively seeking refuge across borders, there is a great need for regional cooperation. A failure of the region to step up to the challenge of cross border narco-terrorism would further justify unilateral actions by Colombia and increase the likelihood of accidental or intentional war.



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