Iran, Syria, North Korea…and Venezuela?

By Z. S. Justus

State-funded terrorism, international intrigue, drug production, saber rattling, cold-war leftovers, and false promises: These are headlines and/or accusations that have characterized the situation in Afghanistan and more surprisingly, a crisis in South America. The recent showdown in South America has highlighted the Venezuela/Ecuador/Columbia region as an area of increasing importance.

Many of the details of what happened in South America remain shrouded in secrecy or misinformation. But a quick recap of widely agreed upon events was recently provided by the BBC,

The crisis began after Colombian air and ground forces attacked a camp inside Ecuador, killing the Farc rebels’ second-in-command Raul Reyes and more than 20 others. Ecuador and Venezuela broke off diplomatic ties with Colombia in the worst diplomatic row in the region for years and sent extra troops to their respective borders.

For about a week tensions ran high and diplomatic ties were cut off. Thankfully, tensions eased, embassies reopened, and the threat of violence subsided—for now.

The aftermath of the crisis has amped up the international intrigue and pulled in a variety of different parties. Recovered documents from the FARC camp raided by Columbia point toward a tight relationship between the rebel group and Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. This has set the stage for at least three possible outcomes.

First, Ecuador is supporting the idea of a United Nations (UN) regional presence. Second, the Organization of American States (OAS) has launched an inquiry into the matter. Third, the United States is exploring the idea of placing Venezuela, due to their alleged links with FARC, on a list of nations that support terrorism alongside Iran, Syria, and North Korea. It is this third option that I want to consider in greater detail.

Last year Aaron Hess and I criticized the language the United States uses in the “global war on terrorism” because it is both vague in terms of “terrorism” and misleading in terms of “war.” This crisis in South America certainly adds to the problems of the “global war on terrorism.” The problem with this terminology is that it obligates the United States to take an aggressive stance, sometimes backed by military force, anytime the label “terrorism” is attached to a group or action.

FARC does not represent the kind of threat to the United States that Al-qaeda does/did, yet we use the same terms to describe both organizations. I am not defending FARC. Most commentators agree they are engaged in drug running, kidnapping and a number of other nefarious operations. But, they are not trying to blow up US naval ships or fly planes into US buildings either. In addition, Chavez’s alleged financial support of FARC is not analogous to the Taliban’s relationship with Al-qaeda. So, why would we use the same lists and classifications to discuss both situations?

Labeling Venezuela a state-supporter of terrorism creates a scenario that severely limits our diplomatic options and/or support of international groups like the UN or the OAS. With the United States military stretched thin and our list of international allies shrinking this should be a moment to encourage international problem solving rather than put ourselves in a situation where military intervention or unilateral sanctions are the only tools to send a consistent policy message. This is a situation that needs to be dealt with, but not necessarily by the United States.