Dispatches from the Edge: Of Bases, Big Bombs and Earthquakes

By Conn Hallinan
Thursday August 27, 2009 - 12:57:00 PM

Behind the uproar over a U.S.–Co-lombia base deal is a growing disquiet throughout South America that Washington is trying to counter that continent’s leftward tack, directly intervene in Bogotá’s long-running civil war, and reassert itself in a part of the globe that it formerly dominated. 

The brouhaha started when conservative Colombian President Alvaro Uribe announced that seven Colombian bases would be leased to the United States, and the number of U.S. military personnel would be expanded from 800 to 1,400. The United States had formerly been based in Manta, Ecuador, but lost its lease following the election of leftist Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa.  

What has South Americans worried is an ominous shift in Plan Colombia, a $6 billion anti-drug initiative, which has poured enormous amounts of money into Bogotá’s military. Colombia’s army has a close relationship with right-wing death squads and was recently implicated in the murder of innocent civilians whom it claimed were Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) soldiers.  

The White House’s version of Plan Colombia, begun under President Clinton, is smaller than that of President George W. Bush—$518 million as opposed to $545 million—but gives Colombia’s military slightly more. Counterinsurgency operations are at the heart of the plan. Specifically, the United States will be allowed to engage not simply in “counter narcotics” activity, but “counter terrorism” operations that permit gathering intelligence on the FARC. 

According to the country’s largest daily, El Tiempo, that intelligence will be shared with the Colombian military. 

“Instead of diminishing the U.S. military role in Colombia and perhaps boosting social and economic aid, the Obama administration has intensified U.S. intervention in the South American nation’s internal armed conflict,” writes Gary Leech in the Colombia Journal. 

Leech, author of “Beyond Bogotá: Diary of a Drug War Journalist,” has spent almost a decade reporting and traveling in Colombia. 

The base plan has been widely denounced by virtually every country in South America. Brazil’s President Lula da Silva said he “didn’t like the idea of an American base in the region”; Chilean President Michelle Bachelet called the move “disquieting”; and Argentine President Christina Fernandez said the plan was “belligerent.” Even Spain has asked Washington for an explanation.  

Others were considerably sharper. Evo Morales of Bolivia called it a “threat to democracy,” Ecuador’s Correa termed it a “provocation,” and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez said the “winds of war were beginning to blow across Latin America.” 

The only support Uribe received was from the conservative president of Peru, Alan Garcia.  

At a meeting in Quito, Ecuador, the 12-member Union of South American Nations asked for a meeting in Argentina with Obama and Uribe to discuss the bases. 

The base agreement has even stirred unrest in Bogotá. A clause in the pact gives U.S. personnel immunity from Colombian laws. “Immunity for United States soldiers is not in any way justified,” Jose Gregorio Hernandez, the former head of Colombia’s constitutional court told Agence France Presse.  

Brazil is also concerned about Washington’s reactivation of the Fourth Fleet, which will give the United States a powerful naval arm in the waters off South America. Brazil’s newly discovered oil fields are 100 miles off shore. “What worries Brazil is a strong military presence whose aim and capability seem to go way beyond what might be needed in Colombia,” Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorin told Folha de San Paulo.  

American support for the 1964 Brazilian military coup, during which da Silva was imprisoned, is still fresh in most Brazilians’ minds. Chile has similar memories. During the 1972 American-supported military coup against the Allende government, Bachelet was jailed and tortured, and her father was tortured to death. 

While Latin America has come a long way from the days when provoking the colossus of the north was a risky business, the recent coup in Honduras, Washington’s support for a right-wing independence movement in eastern Bolivia, and the apparent escalation of the civil war in Colombia have stirred uncomfortable memories. As the Los Angeles Times put it in an Aug. 11 editorial, “South America isn’t afraid of Colombia, it’s afraid of the U.S.” 


One ominous development in the ongoing tension between the United States and Iran is the stepped up production of the Massive Ordinance Penetrator (MOP), a 30,000-pound behemoth packing a 5,300-pound warhead and capable of taking out targets 200 feet below ground. The MOP is six times larger than the U.S. 5,000-pound “bunker buster.” 

According to Ken Katzman, a military expert on the Middle East for the Congressional Research Service, the MOP—designed by Boeing for the B2 stealth bomber—“is intended, at the very least, to give the president the option of conducting a strike to knock out Iran’s main uranium enrichment capabilities.” 

The Obama administration asked Congress to shift $68 million from the Pentagon’s budget to produce four MOPs for deployment in 2010, three years ahead of schedule. 

The decision to ramp up the MOP came shortly before the White House began consulting with allies about stiffening sanctions on Teheran, including cutting off gasoline and refined oil products. Iran has lots of oil and gas, but not enough refinery capacity to meet its domestic needs. An embargo on gasoline would have a serious impact on the struggling Iranian economy. 

Exactly how a gasoline embargo would work is not clear, nor is there a buy-in at this point by China and Russia, both of whom supply Teheran with finished oil products. An embargo would have to be enforced with U.S. naval forces, which could push the Iranians into trying to close the strategic Straits of Hormuz though which much of the world’s oil supply passes. 

The Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, giving Obama the power to enforce an embargo, is working its way through the Senate, and the House is considering a similar bill. It would impose sanctions on any country that sold petroleum products to Iran, including freezing their financing and shipping insurance. 

While the Israeli government claims that Iran is on the verge of amassing enough enriched fuel to construct a bomb, the U.S. State Department says that Iran is not likely to have enough enriched uranium until 2013. U.S. intelligence chief Dennis Blair says there is no evidence Teheran has made the decision to build a bomb.  

The incoming director of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, Yukiya Amano, also said he didn’t see “any evidence” that Teheran was trying to build nuclear arms.  

The Pentagon has been markedly unenthusiastic about a military strike, although, in a recent commentary in the Wall Street Journal, retired Air Force General Charles Wald, former deputy commander of U.S. forces in Europe, said, “Should diplomatic and economic pressure fail, a U.S. military strike against Iran is a technically feasible and credible option.” 

Wald argues that the U.S. Navy could blockade Iran’s ports—considered an act of war under international law—and, failing that, launch a “devastating attack on Iranian nuclear and military facilities.” The MOP, the most powerful non-nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal, would undoubtedly figure heavily in such an attack. 

The Obama administration has given Iran until the end of September to begin negotiations over its enrichment program, although that doesn’t appear to be a hard deadline. 

Dangerous talk out there. 


North Korea’s foreign ministry called for a “specific and reserved form of dialogue” on nuclear issues, but, to date, the Obama administration has given the proposal a cold shoulder. A “senior State Department official” told Agence France Presse that the North Korean proposal “fails to meet” demands by the United States and the UN. “We have a (six-party) framework, and the North Koreans need to recommit to denuclearization through that framework,” the official said. 

The six-party talks involving Japan, China, the U.S., Russia, and both Koreas were derailed when the Bush Administration—pushed by Japan and South Korea—kept altering the ground rules. 

But upcoming elections in Japan might alter the region’s chemistry and lessen some of the tension between Tokyo and Pyongyang. 

Yukio Hatoyama, leader of Japan’s Democratic Party, is polling far ahead of right-wing nationalist and current Prime Minister Taro Aso. “As a result of the failure of the Iraq War and the financial crisis, the era of the U.S.-led globalism is coming to an end, and we are moving away from a unipolar world led by the U.S. toward an era of multipolarity,” Hatoyama told the Financial Times. 

The question is, will the Obama administration take advantage of an important opening by the reclusive regime in Pyongyang?  


In Lebanon, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has jumped ship, declaring his party “neutral” in the standoff between the Hezbollah-led, pro-Syrian “March 8” coalition and the pro-U.S., French “March 14” coalition of Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri. Jumblatt accused March 14 of being “sectarian and tribal.” 

Jumblatt has aligned himself with President Michel Suleiman, who has tried to remain neutral in Lebanon’s complex mélange of political forces. Jumblatt’s move was seen as part of the overall thaw in relations between Europe, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. 

The March 14 coalition has now lost its majority in the 128-member Leb-anese parliament. Jumblatt’s Druze party controls 11 seats.  

It is not clear what this means for Lebanon’s foreign policy, given that Jumblatt is one of the most anti-Syrian politicians in Lebanon. One immediate effect may be a stiffening of relations between Beirut and Tel Aviv. When Israel recently complained that Hezbollah was rearming in violation of a UN ceasefire resolution, the Lebanese Foreign Ministry replied that Hezbollah was an “internal matter” for Lebanon and none of Israel’s business.