“We would never force our ally Israel to negotiate with Hezbollah or Hamas, why would we do any different with Colombia and the FARC?”
It’s spring time and the tourist traffic is on a noticeable uptick in Washington, DC. One site near the National Mall, between the Washington Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial, is the Organization of American States (OAS). Former Secretary of State Elihu Root commented while laying the cornerstone of that building in 1908, “may all the Americas come to feel that for them this place is home, for it is theirs, the product of a common effort and the instrument of a common purpose.” An inter-American institution most Americans have never heard of, it is also not on any tourist guide book as a “must-see” stop. And, if they were to enter, as was the case in 1908, there is not much too really see. And, if you really took time to look, you may not like it.
Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton has said that the “UN is only a tool, not a theology. It is one of several options we have, and it is certainly not invariably the most important one.” More aspirational than practical, just as the older OAS has evolved much like the United Nations, Amb. Bolton’s U.N. observation applies with equal, if not more force on it. The OAS and inter-American system is long overdue for reform and modernization, U.S. taxpayers deserve that much. At its worst, it has become a tool for a vocal minority of member states to project anti-American interests and agendas. While this too shall come to pass, if the OAS is to be more than a debate society and museum, the U.S. must lead the organization must more robustly and energetically, ensuring that U.S. interests are protected and advanced consistent with post-09.11.01 realities.
The recent display by regional powers in response to Colombia’s successful anti-terror operation reminds us how the OAS is more 19th century than 21st. Rather than supporting Colombia’s efforts to defend democracy and freedom, the OAS processes became more of a public relations spectacle than serious and concerted diplomatic effort to address one of the most serious regional problems. In the end, rather than issue a strong statement against FARC terrorism, it coddled arguments by Venezuela and Ecuador. Colombia was, essentially, forced accept a commission process to “study” the problem. The Colombians are to be commended for their patience. The OAS and its current leadership, and I do not say this lightly, should be ashamed.
Some say in this town that we should not bother fixing or reforming the place; it is already known as an “irrelevant” organization. Why should Americans care about what the OAS says and what it does? For starters, U.S. taxpayers fund the organization to the tune of about close to $100 million a year. That is close to 60 percent of the regular funds needed to run it annually. We also also make additional contributions to special OAS programs on a case-by-case basis and support many OAS-driven program through other appropriation funding streams.
A less tangible and not as apparent problem, but no less important an issue, is the incessant anti-Americanism exhibited by many OAS diplomats. It is as bad, or in some cases worse, than at the UN. If the debate were limited to DC, no problem. Yet the Latin America media follows it closely and, many times, the less-than-favorable media coverage in Latin America to U.S. policy works to undermine our public diplomacy and other efforts in the region. U.S. taxpayers should not be required to underwrite a process that facilitates and condones this unchecked nonsense.
The current OAS Secretary General, left of center Jose Miguel Insulza, is a member of the Socialist Party of Chile and vocal critic of U.S. foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere, the Middle East, and elsewhere. This bias is reflected in official OAS action. For example, rather than force consensus on the FARC matter, and state that the obvious, that Colombia was correct in seeking out terrorists that, for example, likely trade in uranium, among other things that should concern all of us in a post-09.11.01 world, Insulza and his advisers sought reconciliation, rule of international law, and accommodationwith FARC facilitators in Venezuela, Ecuador, and elsewhere. We would never force our ally Israel to negotiate with Hezbollah or Hamas, why would we do any different with Colombia and the FARC? Consider one of many of Insulza’s statement on this issue:
“Those who are here believe in international law because in many cases that is what allows us to survive, work and relate with one another. And we do so because we love our countries, love our Americas and because we know that when all the lights are turned off, when all conflicts end, or the conflicts that we live today and rhetoric are reduced, our people, our men and women will have to continue to live together.”
A more appropriate and effective position for the OAS to have considered, and adopted, would have taken into account the June 3, 2002, OAS General Assembly-adopted Inter-American Convention Against Terrorism. In 2002, nations agreed to work to “prevent, punish, and eliminate terrorism. To that end, the states parties agree to adopt the necessary measures and to strengthen cooperation among them …”. Yet, in the March 17, 2008 resolution on the Colombia-Ecuador matter, despite the fact that the FARC is a terrorist organization, terrorism is not mentioned once and, to boot, Colombia was asked to apologize to Ecuador for tracking down terrorists. While the Colombia- Ecuador case is somewhat more complicated, it is as if Mexico would have opposed U.S. law enforcement tracking al-Qaeda cells at the U.S.-Mexico border.
These official OAS statements are not much comfort the victims of FARC terrorism or the people of Colombia who have lived with this terrorist insurgency for close to fifty years. Fortunately, the Colombian people have a good Commander-in-Chief and defender of freedom in Alvaro Uribe. As with most things in today’s OAS, and this has been the case for decades, it is more focused more on getting along that it is about finding lasting solutions to regional challenges. And, if that means opposing the U.S., more the better. Rather than help a democracy combat terrorism, it has provided the FARC and its supporters political cover that they will use to keep bolstering international efforts to legitimize the FARC. Again, why should U.S. taxpayers underwrite these proceedings without a direct check by the Congress or the Government Accounting Office (GAO)?
In reality, nine times out of ten the U.S. should continue to go at it alone, in a bilateral manner in the Americas.
Regardless, U.S. taxpayers should demand more accountability and transparency – political and administrative – from the OAS. A good place to start would be with a forensic audit of the OAS Secretariat and its programs. The OAS is a tool that receives little oversight from the U.S. Congress. It has been left unchecked for far too long and its antics in Washington, DC can, and do, damage our public diplomacy efforts and other programs in the region. Now that the OAS building is about to celebrate its 200th anniversay, there is no better time that to take a closer look inside the institution, perform an audit, and lay a foundation to begin meaningful reform at the institution.