Latin America and military action against Syria

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, September 3, 2013


As world leaders debate over what to do with Syria, Latin American leaders have been notoriously absent.  None of the presidents of Latin American largest countries has joined other world leaders in making arguments in favor or against military action against the Bashar al-Assad regime.  Despite its growing economic importance and its apparent intention to have its voice be heard in world affairs, Latin America remains largely absent from decision-making deliberations.


The announcement made by President Barak Obama that he will seek congressional authorization before taking military action against the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has delayed targeted military action.  Since Congress is in recess until September 9, the congressional vote will not occur soon.  If Obama manages to convince enough House Republicans to support his plans—and his Secretary of State John Kerry secures sufficient support among his former colleagues in the Senate—The White House will have legitimacy to use military force.


A congressional authorization is by no means a foregone conclusion.  The images of the alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians have not produced a popular uproar.  Public opinion is not decisively in favor of military action.  Many Democrats might balk in their support of the president given the high costs of military action and the unclear implications that such action would have for American foreign policy.  Republicans will cite the high price tag to oppose military action.  In denying authorization, Republicans will make Obama look weak and will embarrass him in the world arena.


The fact that British Prime Minister David Cameron lost a vote in the House of Commons highlights the complicated position for world leaders.  While they want to send a clear message to the Syrian regime, there is weak popular support for military action. After the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans and Britons are hesitant to risk entering into a new war in the Middle East.


President Obama has chosen against seeking authorization from the UN Security Council.  Given Russia’s proximity to the Syrian regime, going through the United Nations would mean having to deal with Moscow at a particularly difficult moment.  In addition, though the U.S. would always prefer collective over unilateral action, the limited scope of the attack against the Syrian regime does not justify the high diplomatic cost involved in rallying international support and the complicated logistics that multilateral action requires.


With the UN playing a secondary role and with the next move in the hands of the U.S. Congress, there is little space for other world leaders to weigh in the debate of what type of military action should be taken and what goals it should have.  Thus, even if they wanted to get involved, Latin American leaders would have a very limited space to make their voice heard.  Nonetheless, in past crises—with an equally limited space—some Latin American leaders nonetheless took an active role and made their voices heard.


Before the war in Iraq, former presidents Cardoso and Lula of Brazil, Lagos of Chile, Vicente Fox of Mexico and, most notoriously Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, rose to the occasion and became active in the world debates over the pros and cons of military action.  Given their ideology and personalities, those leaders took different stances and used different strategies to make their voices heard.  Chávez was clearly confrontational, but Lagos, Fox, Lula and Cardoso used more effective ways to make their views present in the world debate.


Today, as the world observes political developments in Washington, Latin American national leaders have remained largely absent from the debate.  Given that they are both occupying the rotating Latin American seats in the UN Security Council, Argentina and Guatemala have been a bit more active. However, since it has been mostly sidestepped by Washington, there is little the UN Security Council can do.  The rest of Latin American leaders have for the most part remained silent over what course of action is best to respond to the Syrian regime.  Mexican president Peńa Nieto and Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff have their hands full with domestic issues. Besides, they have not shown an appetite to become influential in the international arena.  Other regional leaders have not seized the opportunity either because they are on their way out—as Chilean president Sebastián Pińera—because they are facing elections—as Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner—or because they have conflict issues within their borders—as Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos.  After the death of Hugo Chávez, his successor Nicolás Maduro has shown far less ability to become a world personality. Other leftwing leaders in the region have also lost international clout after the death of Chávez.  


As a result, Latin America has remained outside of the debate over how to best respond to the Syrian government.  Without leaders who have a respected voice in the international arena, Latin America’s position has not been heard.  The Syrian crisis shows that the influence Latin America used to have in helping shape—or at least in being present in—international affairs no longer exists.