Tensions continue to rise in the squabble between Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. In response to a Colombian raid into Ecuador that resulted in the death of a key rebel leader of FARC, Venezuela and Ecuador both expelled Colombian diplomats, curtailed trade between the countries, and mobilized troops and sent them to the Colombian border. In response, Colombia released revealed documents it claims to have seized in the Ecuadorian FARC camp implicating Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as a major funding source for the Colombian rebels. Chavez has been blustering about the possibility of war, which, while unlikely, is highly destabilizing, particularly for a fragile country like Colombia. Trade between Venezuela and Colombia is normally robust, and, as Adam Isaacson, an analyst with the Center for International Policy, notes, the countries' militaries are not enthusiastic for war and the populations show little evidence of "war fever." However, revelations of Venezuelan funding for FARC along with Chavez's intimation that FARC will be allowed to operate freely in Venezuela make the possibility of another cross-border operation more likely which, at this stage, could be a catalyst for war, as Chavez has promised to retaliate against any Colombian incursion of Venezuelan territory.
Regional leaders, including the presidents of Mexico and Chile, have offered to mediate an end to the dispute, but so far, little progress at easing tensions has been made. The country that is most needed, in theory at least, to defuse the rising tension is the United States. With its political clout, military power, and economic might to provide inducements for cooperation, the US is invaluable in resolving these kinds of situations. In theory at least. In reality, US involvement would be, to put it mildly, counter-productive. The US, and President Bush, have spent so much time and energy needling Venezuela and Chavez about low-level policy disagreements like Venezuelan arms deal, not to mention the idiotic near-support for the attempted 2002 coup, the US has so poisoned the waters that it has no ability to influence the country when the situation is serious, as it is now. US attention has only emboldened and strengthened Chavez, allowing him to use US "imperialism" as a diversionary tactic to justify his domestic policies. It's hard to understand what the US believes it has gotten out of such antagonism, and now the policies are having a real impact on the ability of the US to maintain regional stability and order.
We can only hope that this situation will be resolved short of war. The countries of South America have enough problems without adding war to the mix. But we can also only hope that US policymakers will learn a valuable foreign policy lesson. Foreign policy capital is far too precious to squander on meaningless needling and ineffective interference. By engaging with and responding to Chavez's rhetoric and by developing a reputation as partisan and opposed to Chavez, the US has compromised its ability to act when its influence and power is most needed.