Opinion

Op-Ed

The Specious 'National Security' Argument

On the whole, what is most worrisome about this "national security" argument is its one-size-fits-all nature. If it works as an F.T.A. sales pitch, it can be used to usher in a host of other bad policies in the Americas.

In the past week, the Bush administration has unearthed a "national security" justification for passage of the United States-Colombia Free Trade Agreement that can't be allowed to stand.

"As your national security adviser in that region, I will tell you that it is very important that the free trade agreement be passed from a national security perspective," the commander of the United States Southern Command, Adm. James Stavridis, told the House Armed Services Committee last week. "And, I hear that not just from senior people in Colombia, but from my interlocutors in the region. They're watching very closely to see what happens to a nation that stands with the United States for a decade or more." The admiral echoed an argument that President Bush used in speeches on March 12 and 18.

The administration is employing this argument in a specious, misleading, and cynical way. As currently formulated, it could become a pretext for a host of irresponsible and counter-productive policies in Latin America and the Caribbean.

To the extent that it has been thought through, this "national security" argument seems to be based on four main debating points. Each of these points makes little sense, though, when considered on its own.

1. The F.T.A. will make Colombia more secure by increasing economic prosperity, which will weaken the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

A White House "fact sheet" states, "A free trade agreement with Colombia would bring increased economic opportunity to the people of Colombia through sustained economic growth, new employment opportunities, and increased investment."

According to Dan Fisk, director of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council, "The free trade agreement, in our view, is critical to helping Colombia address the continuing threats it faces … In fact, if there's one argument, I think, that is paramount in this is that we know that the main recruitment ground for terrorists, for guerillas, or drug traffickers is poverty. The best way to get out of poverty is to create more and more opportunities for Colombians … That's what the Colombia free trade agreement will do."

Whether the F.T.A. will create prosperity in Colombia can be endlessly debated between credible experts on both sides. There does seem to be a rough consensus on two points, though:

Increased access to United States markets would probably mean job growth for Colombia's export-oriented manufacturing sector, which is mainly based around big cities like Medellín, Bogotá, and Barranquilla. There is less consensus about whether these would be unionized jobs or even "good jobs at good wages."

In rural areas, export-oriented agribusiness (capital-intensive crops like African palm, timber, or rubber) would do well. But these crops produce very few jobs per acre.

Smaller-scale farmers, on the other hand, would be dealt a strong short-term blow. As has happened in Mexico since the North American Free Trade Agreement, family farms, cooperatives, and communities producing foodstuffs for local markets could find it impossible to compete with a flood of cheaper products coming from the United States.

Even if the rural situation somehow restructures itself in a decade or two, over the next few years the F.T.A. will mean a severe shock for many of Colombia's small-scale rural producers. Past experience with F.T.A.'s makes it reasonable to expect a sharp economic downturn in the remote, "unglobalized" rural areas.

In Colombia, the trouble is that these are the very areas where coca is grown and guerrillas are strong.

Dealing a blow to small-scale producers in places like Cauca, Nariño, or Putumayo could damage the livelihoods of thousands of farmers who, as it is, are just getting by. It could add to the ranks of rural dwellers who see no other option but to plant coca. It could add to the population of young rural Colombians susceptible to recruitment by guerrillas or "emerging" paramilitary groups.

In the absence of a "Marshall Plan" for Colombia's countryside—which is not forthcoming—the F.T.A. could deal an economic shock to zones that, while sparsely populated, are of central importance to the effort to combat armed groups and the drug trade. Rather than making the Andes safer, the F.T.A. could trigger a more immediate national-security threat.

2. Failure to pass the F.T.A. in 2008 would be a victory for Venezuela.

President Bush: "As it tries to expand its influence in Latin America, the [Venezuelan] regime claims to promote social justice … The stakes are high in South America. As the recent standoff in the Andes shows, the region is facing an increasingly stark choice: to quietly accept the vision of the terrorists and the demagogues, or to actively support democratic leaders like President Uribe. I've made my choice. I'm standing with courageous leadership that believes in freedom and peace. And I believe when the American people hear the facts, they will make their choice and stand with a person who loves liberty and freedom. And there is no clearer sign of our support than a free trade agreement."

House Minority Whip Representative Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, echoed the argument: "Hugo Chavez is actively working to undermine the democratic Colombian government by advancing the argument that Colombians can no longer rely on the United States as an ally … Congress' failure to pass the Colombian trade deal may just be the smoking-gun example Mr. Chavez needs to make his case. Our reputation as a global leader is at stake. And the world is watching how Congress responds to this challenge."

Reading these quotes, you would think that Venezuela—a country with one-twelfth the population of the United States and an economy one-fortieth as large as the United States gross domestic product—were the Soviet Union reincarnated. This view appears to propose a badly misguided new framework for United States security policy in the hemisphere: a "mini-cold war" in which the F.T.A. is a critical tool.

Chavez is no model of good governance, and he does seek to promote the ascendance of Latin American leaders who are critical of the United States. He is unlikely to be a friend to Washington anytime soon.

But even if the United States were to engage in a battle with Chavez for Latin America's hearts and minds, the F.T.A. would not be the most appropriate tool. A free trade agreement is a blunt instrument. It creates winners and losers, and can have unintended consequences as the "losers" become more radicalized.

A true effort to "compete" with Venezuela would require the United States to reassert itself in several other areas in which it has ceded dominance to Caracas, such as economic assistance, high-level diplomatic engagement, and public diplomacy throughout the hemisphere.

Meanwhile, the Chavez "threat" is growing less credible all the time, despite the current price of a barrel of oil. The Venezuelan president is increasingly unpopular at home and is beset by a host of domestic problems, including region-high inflation, food shortages, rising violent crime, and narcotrafficking.

3. Failure to pass the F.T.A. in 2008 would be a "betrayal" in the eyes of a region that is watching events closely.

President Bush: "The agreement would signal to the region that America's commitment to free markets and free people is unshakable … If Congress were to reject the agreement with Colombia, we would validate antagonists in Latin America, who would say that America cannot be trusted to stand by its friends. We would cripple our influence in the region, and make other nations less likely to cooperate with us in the future. We would betray one of our closest friends in our own backyard.

"In the words of Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada, 'If the United States turns its back on its friends in Colombia, this will set back our cause far more than any Latin America dictator could hope to achieve.' Congress needs to listen to those wise words as they consider this important bill."

Why, exactly, would it be a "betrayal" to hold out publicly for progress in prosecutions of those who murder trade unionists? (These killings may be down somewhat, but those who committed them continue to walk the streets among their fellow Colombians; efforts to reduce impunity have barely taken root.)

That said, congressional Democrats and other F.T.A. opponents do need to work on their messages, because right now they are easily caricatured as seeking to "punish" Colombia. It is noble to hold out for a safer labor-organizing climate. It is noble to seek to give a greater voice to Colombian workers, small farmers, and others who didn't have a seat at the negotiating table the first time.

The F.T.A.'s opponents do need to make clearer that this is indeed what they are doing. Nothing about this can be called a "betrayal"—and in fact, this message is a very positive one to send to the rest of the region.

4. The F.T.A. will help Colombia shoulder more of the burden, allowing a drawdown in United States military aid programs.

Defense Department press release: "The minister [Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos] and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates agreed that Colombia needs to shoulder more of the financial burden itself, with its own resources, but will be unable to do so without a substantial boost to its economy."

"A free trade agreement with the United States would lock in opportunities to create businesses and expand employment rolls, thus providing a tax base for the government to continue strengthening institutions that protect ordinary citizens," Gates said.

First, any drawdown of United States military aid programs should be accompanied by an increase in United States economic assistance: as a principal cocaine-consuming country, we have a responsibility to help Colombia's state deliver basic services and strengthen the rule of law.

Second, the argument that the F.T.A. will increase Colombia's tax base is an interesting one, but the past few years' experience makes it doubtful that economic growth in Colombia will bring any proposals to reduce United States military assistance. Since 2002, Colombia's economy has grown by about 25 percent—yet the Bush administration's military aid requests to Congress have been unchanged.

This argument leads in some bad directions.

On the whole, what is most worrisome about this "national security" argument is its one-size-fits-all nature. If it works as an F.T.A. sales pitch, it can be used to usher in a host of other bad policies in the Americas.

The Venezuelan "menace" could come to be used to justify new military-assistance programs that would never otherwise meet with congressional approval. Fear of "losing face" in the region could lead Washington to offer unquestioning support to abusive governments, as has happened in the not-too-distant past.

In general, the fostering of a new "mini-cold war" in the region—a new "war" to replace the old cold war, the unsuccessful "drug war," and the not-too-relevant-to-the-region "war on terror"—would be a huge step backward for United States relations with, and democratic stability in, Latin America and the Caribbean.

The "national security" pitch is not a serious argument, and it can lead us to some places we should not be going. It should be dropped now.

From the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy.

Adam Isacson is director of programs at the Center for International Policy, where he has worked directly on Colombia issues for the past decade.

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