Peter Smith’s classic text on U.S.-Latin American relations, Talons of the Eagle, posits a basic rule: the greater the perception of extra-hemispheric threat, the greater the attention to Latin America. This is particularly true in the U.S. Congress, where the region’s diversification of relations beyond the Western Hemisphere tends to arouse suspicion and competitive pressure.
China is the most obvious target, oft-mentioned in the debate over the free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama. India has also become more active in the region, and even Russia is touting its renewed interest in Latin America. It is Iran, however, that is doing the most to raise congressional hackles—vividly so in a recent House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on “Emerging Threats and Security in the Western Hemisphere.”
As Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen recognized in her opening statement, the hearing could not have been more timely, coming two days after U.S. officials announced an alleged attempt by the Iranian Quds Force to hire the Zetas, a Mexican criminal organization, to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington.
Although some analysts view Zetas involvement as far-fetched, it provided fodder for those Members of Congress already concerned with Tehran’s diplomatic push in Latin America, particularly vis-à-vis Caracas. Congressman Connie Mack, chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, stated that the plot “proves yet again that Iran has established deep diplomatic, military, and covert operations in the Western Hemisphere.” Both Ros-Lehtinen and Mack, among others, cited the abortive plot as additional evidence to support their charge that Mexico is facing a terrorist insurgency. They have repeatedly called for drug cartels to be designated as Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
Such claims do not resonate well within Latin America. In the Mexican Senate, for example, the principal parliamentary groups of the PRI, PAN, and PRD requested that the government remain “very alert” to the possibility that the United States could use the pretext of a terrorist threat to intervene militarily. Earlier this year, the inimitable Mexican ambassador to Washington, Arturo Sarukhan, wrote a scathing response to a Dallas Morning News editorial supporting Congressman Michael McCaul’s bill to add Mexican cartels to the State Department list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations: “There is no political motivation or agenda whatsoever beyond their [transnational criminal organizations’] attempt to defend their illegal business… If you label these organizations as terrorist, you will have to start calling consumers in the U.S. ‘financiers of terrorist organizations’ and gun dealers ‘providers of material support to terrorists.’”
Alluding to these perceptions of shared responsibility, Congressman Meeks noted the irony that other countries could very well hold a similar hearing on threats that stem from our own nation, namely the U.S. demand for drugs and the flow of arms southward. Likewise, Ranking Member Howard Berman acknowledged in his opening statement the risk of securitizing the lens through which we see Latin America: “This is the first full committee hearing we have had in this congress that touches on our hemisphere, and the title is revealing. While there are certainly security-related issues in the region that deserve our close attention—like the foiled plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador—I think it’s a mistake to view our neighborhood as a constellation of threats rather than a series of opportunities.”
This is a fair point. Iranian activities deserve serious attention, but congressional rhetoric could very easily overshadow other critical elements of U.S. relations with Latin America, which remains our biggest trading partner and energy supplier. Moreover, an excessive focus on tenuous allegations of terrorist collusion could distract from justified attention to drug-related violence. As William Brownfield, Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, testified at the same hearing, “Today, our greatest threat has moved to Central America.”
In this regard, Congress can make important contributions to oversight of U.S. policy, as evidenced by an impressive report from the bipartisan Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control. Titled “Responding to Violence in Central America,” the report recognizes that such violence has reached crisis levels and requires a greater priority across all U.S. government agencies. The recommendations call for increased security cooperation, though not necessarily new money.
As the Caucus Members imply, fiscal austerity does attenuate material commitments to the security dimension of U.S. foreign policy. An increasingly reticent Washington is unlikely to resurrect Cold War or post-9/11 priorities. Nevertheless, rhetorical distortions can have negative consequences, and extra-hemispheric security perils would be too narrow a prism through which to view the region as a whole.
At the same time, Congress risks confusing terrorist agents with the real and mounting threat of drug-related violence. Ironically, as John Paul Rathbone has aptly suggested, a serious effort at reducing this threat could do more than anything else to enhance U.S. standing in Latin America at a time when many in Washington bemoan its relative decline.
Kezia McKeague is a guest blogger to AQ Online. She is director of government relations at the Council of the Americas in Washington DC.