Some on Right Think Nicaragua’s Incursions Into Costa Rica Call for U.S. Attack

Ortega Google MapsKnown more for its Page Six gossip columns than anything approximating serious political reporting and analysis, the New York Post apparently feels no need to exercise responsibility in publishing op-eds calling for even more US military intervention overseas to protect democracy. No, the paper is not suggesting that we expand our presence in Pakistan, nor does it argue for increased attacks against targets in Yemen in the name of fighting terror. It isn’t even suggesting, following the lead of today’s Washington Post, that we threaten to bomb Iran.

The Post’s Benny Avni called for possible military action against Nicaragua on Thursday, following its recent incursions onto neighboring Costa Rica’s soil earlier in the week, thanks to an error by Google Maps of all things. Instead of questioning what business a sovereign nation-state has in relying on Google for keeping track of its own territory, Avni takes Nicaragua’s actions as another sign of Barack Obama’s failed presidency. “Will the Obama administration ever start standing up to the Latin axis of caudillos?” an outraged Avni asked. “Nicaragua invaded Costa Rica last month”!

One might question how an “axis of caudillos” could be anything but Latin, or wish that the paper’s editors had spared readers such an aesthetically unpleasing contrivance. But never mind: these are petty grievances when compared with the larger problems of Avni’s approach.

The editorial adopts the conceit that Barack Obama is failing to defend democracy in what Avni perceives to be Washington’s back yard.

Never mind that Nicaragua’s constitution limits a president to two consecutive terms in office. Ortega can use the government’s hold over institutions and the press to erase that — just as Chavez did in becoming Venezuelan president for life. Last year, Manuel Zelaya tried to pull the same trick in Honduras — and Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner is mulling a similar campaign now. (Her husband’s recent death removed the option of further tag-team end-running of the term limit.)

Washington has failed to take a strong stand against such violations of democratic principles…The Obama crowd needs to stop flinching every time the caudillos exploit the old Yanqui go home rallying cry.

To be sure, Avni’s got a point about Ortega. The Nicaraguan president represents the very worst his country’s politics have to offer. Far from the leftist revolutionary he once purported to be, Ortega has reduced himself to little more than an opportunistic kleptocrat who demonstrates greater commitment to his personal wealth accumulation than to freeing his country from the yoke of economic depravation.

I suspect that Avni’s also right about Ortega’s motivation in being so stubborn on the issue when he argues that

Ortega hopes to use his tough stance to drum up domestic support for a third presidential term. In fact, his victory in next year’s election is predetermined if the OAS can’t send election observers, as it now plans.

As the Economist has observed

Mr. Ortega has enjoyed a wave of nationalist support at home. On November 3rd he won the first unanimous vote in the National Assembly of his four years in office. All this coincides with the start of the election campaign.

Still, using Ortega’s craven political ambition and disregard for term limits as support for possibly sending American troops to roll back the assault on democracy in Latin America is as silly as it is dangerous. By Avni’s logic, Michael Bloomberg — himself no fan of term limits when they constrain his political ambition — should be included as a member of Chavez’s Army of Darkness. Does Avni fear that we suffer from a democracy deficit at home, then? I would hazard that he does not.

To the more serious issue of Nicaragua’s incursion into Costa Rican territory, Avni’s argument again holds no more water than a soggy paper towel.

Chavez, Ortega and the rest threaten their neighbors and America’s global interests. Most recently, Chavez bought from Russia the S-300 anti-aircraft missiles that Moscow had promised not to deliver to Iran — and it’s a safe bet he’ll soon deliver the materiel to the mullahs.

His assumption, then, that Nicaragua’s transgressions somehow green-light possible military action by the United States apparently ignores considerations of little things like international law, dispute settlement precedent in Latin America, and the fact that Costa Rica itself doesn’t want it. But Avni isn’t concerned with trivialities. “Unlike Costa Rica, we can back up our diplomatic prowess with force, if need be.”

No matter how wrong-headed Avni’s argument may be, at least it isn’t as lunatic as some others we’ve seen. Last week, Haaretz floated a completely different explanation for Nicaragua’s Google misadventures:

The recent border dispute between Costa Rica and Nicaragua is a sign of an ambitious plan by Venezuela, Iran and Nicaragua to create a “Nicaragua Canal” linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that would rival the existing Panama Canal…Sources in Latin America have told Haaretz that the border incident and the military pressure on Costa Rica, a country without an army, are the first step in a plan formulated by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, with funding and assistance from Iran, to create a substitute for the strategically and economically important Panama Canal.

Back on earth, however, Avni’s impatient rejection of multilateral efforts at peaceful resolution of potentially explosive conflicts completely misses the two most important developments in the case.

First, the Nica-Costa Rica fracas has ignited a major shift in the operations of the OAS. After Nicaragua protested OAS deliberations with its absence, the Latin American Herald Tribune reports that the Venezuelan representative motioned to block

debate about whether or not to call the meeting, arguing that it was not the OAS’s responsibility to decide a border dispute and that a quick response was the worst solution, and he even insinuated that the Council was leaning toward supporting Costa Rica in the matter. His motion was rejected and the Council proceeded to debate several amendments that had been presented.

This is in the face not only of the protests coming from Caracas and Managua, but following a vote that prompted six abstentions. As Boz points out,

In the course of the past two weeks, we’ve gone from an OAS that would not vote unless the results would be unanimous to an OAS that is divided on procedural votes and holding sessions over the objections of other members… this shift away from the consensus model in the OAS could be a huge story with lasting implications for the organization.

Second, Costa Rica’s non-alarmist resort to the OAS and other organs of international security seems to be working. Not relying solely on the slow-churning wheel of OAS diplomacy, government lawyers filed suit against Managua in the International Court of Justice, calling on the UN’s top judicial body to order Nicaragua back to its own territory. Managua responded by signaling that it was ready to negotiate a solution.

There’s little question that the Central American dispute will resolve itself peacefully, albeit not quickly. It’s also true that Ortega’s disregard for his neighbor’s sovereignty is unacceptable, and that Nicaragua’s advances, and ugly politics in general, need to be rebuffed. But if Washington is to reassert hemispheric leadership, as Avni demands, it’s going to need to bring more to the table than lazy, knee-jerk calls for the use of force. To be sure, there are plenty of items to criticize in Obama’s foreign policy to date. But support for peaceful diplomacy through international organizations is not one of them.

Michael Busch, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, teaches international relations at the City College of New York and serves as research associate at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies. He is currently working on a doctorate in political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.