Today Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, published a pugnacious letter in The Hill, a daily newspaper targeted at the U.S. Congress. Engel defends the October 30 defense cooperation agreement (DCA) that gives U.S. military personnel access to seven bases in Colombian territory.
Colombia is an important friend and ally, and the U.S.-Colombia DCA strengthens the already excellent partnership between our countries. In spite of reports to the contrary, this bilateral agreement simply regularizes existing security cooperation between the United States and Colombia. It envisions no permanent U.S. bases or increased military deployments.
Rep. Engel criticizes Venezuelan President Hugo ChÃ¡vez for using the DCA as a pretext to launch a campaign of warlike rhetoric and provocations that is increasing the risk of cross-border hostilities.
But ChÃ¡vez is not the only one criticizing the DCA; he is just the loudest. Just last week the presidents of Brazil and Argentina issued a joint statement expressing strong displeasure with the U.S.-Colombian base access deal.
Both Presidents expressed their concern for the presence in the region of a military base of an extra-regional power, a situation that is incompatible with the principles of respect, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the region’s states.
The U.S. government has published a very brief fact sheet (PDF) about the bases, and Ambassador William Brownfield has given interviews to Colombian media assuring other nations that they need not view the U.S. presence as a threat. This, unsurprisingly, has not been enough to reassure them.
When we look beyond the Venezuelan bluster, we see that this bilateral, vaguely worded, until recently very secretive agreement is still doing damage to U.S. relations with nearly all of Latin America. It is undermining trust with governments who should be partners, and spreading a view that the Obama administration, despite the hope of early 2009, is turning out to be “more of the same.”
Washington needs to halt this damage. A common proposal from the region is simply to abrogate the agreement, as center-left politicians like Polo DemocrÃ¡tico candidate Gustavo Petro have proposed. However, the situation with Venezuela has made this politically inviable because of the perception that a U.S. pullout would be viewed as a capitulation to ChÃ¡vez.
Instead, the United States must adopt a new posture of humility, clarity and transparency. The Obama administration should start by recognizing that the base-access deal was presented through a process that was deeply flawed. It should finish by being clearer on three issues that the CDA’s vague text, and the administration’s own actions, leave insufficiently defined.
1. The United States must be clearer with Colombia’s neighbors that its presence in Colombia will never support any operations beyond Colombian soil. The CDA says the following on this topic:
Article III, Section 4: The Parties shall comply with their obligations under this Agreement in a manner consistent with the principles of sovereign equality, territorial integrity of States, and non-intervention in the internal affairs of other States.
In his November 1 interview with El Tiempo, Amb. Brownfield repeatedly referenced this section, “like a mantra,” to assure that “this is not an agreement with extraterritorial impact.” However, in a region still jolted by the March 2008 cross-border raid into Ecuador that killed a FARC commander, this language is not clear enough. The agreement’s negotiators chose not to use language as unequivocal as “U.S. personnel in Colombia will not support operations that occur in the territory of third countries without those countries’ explicit permission.”
Amb. Brownfield’s message was severely undercut by the Colombian media’s almost simultaneous discovery of a May 2009 U.S. Air Force presentation to the U.S. Congress (PDF), which contends that the presence in Colombia would provide “a unique opportunity for full spectrum operations in a critical sub region of our hemisphere where security and stability is under constant threat from narcotics funded terrorist insurgencies, anti-US governments, endemic poverty and recurring natural disasters.” (Our emphasis.)
As a result, last week’s joint statement from the presidents of Brazil and Argentina continues to demand clearer assurances.
[Both Presidents] highlighted the importance that military cooperation agreements signed by countries in the region, especially those that imply some degree of military presence of extra-regional nations in South America, must be accompanied by formal guarantees that such accords will not be utilized against the sovereignty, territorial integrity, security and stability of South American countries.
It is essential that the U.S. government accede to this request by making these assurances explicitly, through diplomatic notes or similar means.
2. The United States must be clearer about the commitment that this agreement implies for Colombia’s national defense. U.S. foreign aid law restricts U.S. assistance to Colombia to “a unified campaign against narcotics trafficking and organizations designated as Foreign Terrorist Organizations and successor organizations, and to take actions to protect human health and welfare in emergency circumstances.”
The CDA, however, would support a far broader, vaguer mission. Article III, Section 1 allows U.S. forces to support activities “to address common threats to peace, stability, freedom, and democracy.”
This language may not be a mutual defense guarantee, but it sounds a lot like one. It is not as explicit as the North Atlantic Treaty, in which “an armed attack against one or more … shall be considered an attack against them all.” Still, the CDA could be construed as implying that hostilities from a nation viewed as a “common threat” would be met with a U.S. military response.
Has Colombia, to the exclusion of other South American countries, just been brought under the U.S. defense umbrella, like South Korea? The answer is unclear. But while it remains unclear, it will generate distrust and tensions throughout South America, especially larger countries like Brazil.
3. The United States must be clearer about its desire to see the Colombia-Venezuela tensions resolved peacefully. An armed confrontation is in nobody’s interest. Because its handling of the CDA is a proximate cause of the current Andean blowup, the United States has a responsibility to help cool things down. An impression that the Obama administration expects to stand aside – or worse, that it is aggressively taking Colombia’s side – will only inflame the situation further.
Obviously, the United States has taken Colombia’s side. This makes it impossible for the Obama administration to play the role of a disinterested “honest broker” in resolving tensions. But just as pro-Israel U.S. governments repeatedly seek to mediate peace in the middle east, the U.S. government should be actively supporting efforts to build dialogue, and multilateral confidence-building processes led by regional moderates. These include the UNASUR talks taking place later this week. These offer at least modest hope of reducing tensions, and thus deserve Washington’s full support.