Shadow Government

Just say no to new Ecuador trade benefits

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has made no secret of his support for Iran's controversial nuclear program. In fact, the fiery leftist revels in flaunting that support before the international community. But the relationship goes even deeper than that. Correa's foreign minister just returned from Tehran, where he blasted the United States and sealed a $400 million deal to purchase Iranian fuel products, a deal that might not be illegal under United Nations sanctions, but certainly violates the spirit of international efforts to isolate the Islamist regime over its rogue nuclear program.

At the same time, Iran's Vice President for International Affairs Ali Saeedlou was visiting President Correa in Quito, saying, "The Islamic Republic of Iran places no limits on the expansion of cooperation with Ecuador." (Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad paid a visit to Ecuador just this past January.)

What makes this all worth noting is that the Ecuadorean embassy in Washington has just announced a public campaign to convince the U.S. Congress that Ecuador is deserving of continued trade preferences under the Andean Trade Preferences Act (ATPA).

Where to begin?

ATPA was first passed by Congress in 1991 to provide certain Andean countries market access for key exports to boost alternative industries to the drug trade. Of the four original beneficiaries, only Ecuador remains. Colombia and Peru both now have free trade agreements with the U.S., while Bolivia lost privileges for its expulsion of the Drug Enforcement Administration in 2008.

Obviously, a fundamental prerequisite for ATPA eligibility is that a country shares a commonality of purpose with the U.S. in eradicating illicit narcotics, but such a commitment under President Correa has been nonexistent. In fact, he made a central component of his rise to power to expel a U.S. counter-narcotics unit from the coastal city of Manta, which monitored drug shipments heading north to the United States and beyond.

According to the State Department's 2012 international narcotics report, since the U.S. expulsion from Manta in 2009, drug seizures have gone down and trafficking has gone up. Moreover, last year the U.S. and Ecuador did not carry out a single joint counter-narcotics exercise, even as Mexican, Colombian, Russian, and Chinese transnational criminal organizations have increased their presence and activities in Ecuador.

Beyond counter-narcotics cooperation, ATPA also requires that the beneficiary respect the rights of U.S. companies operating within their borders. On that front, Ecuador has been involved in a high-stakes, multi-billion-dollar shakedown of the U.S. oil company Chevron, which it claims is responsible for the despoilment of a patch of the Ecuadorean rain forest years ago. The case has been replete with rigged judicial proceedings and political interference from the get-go.

Finally, Iran. One would think that extending trade benefits to another country would entitle the U.S. to some expressions of broader good will in return. Instead, the Correa government has responded with a reckless embrace of an international rogue that is pushing the world to a crisis point, for no other reason than to burnish its anti-American credentials.

ATPA does not expire until next year, but the U.S. Trade Representative has already asked for public comments on whether it should be renewed for Ecuador. The case for extension is not even close and the Obama administration ought to convey their opposition to any roll-over. Whether it is a joint commitment to fighting drugs, respecting U.S. investors, or hostility to fundamental U.S. foreign policy goals, Ecuador under the Correa government fails on all counts. 

If Ecuadorean exporters are going to be hurt by the end of ATPA benefits, they need to make their case to their own government, not the U.S. Congress. And they need to hold President Correa accountable -- and him alone -- if those benefits are lost.


Shadow Government

How North Korea plays us in an election year

The North Koreans don't care much for democracy, but they sure enjoy negotiating with democracies in an election year -- especially when they detect that mission number one in Washington is to avoid troubling foreign policy headlines until after November 6. The Obama administration actually started out with a pretty tough stance on North Korea, captured in an impressive statement of policy issued by Hillary Clinton while in Thailand in July 2009. By about mid-2011, however, the administration began getting nervous that its lack of "engagement" might tempt Pyongyang to conduct nuclear or missile tests. Once again, engagement slipped from being a marginally useful means to the end of the policy in itself. After a flurry of negotiations the North agreed in the February 29 "Leap Year" deal that it would stop nuclear and missile tests for a while and let IAEA inspectors back at the Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for food aid (now euphemistically called "nutritional assistance"). Nobody in the administration was convinced this was a breakthrough, but it seemed to kick the North Korea problem down the road for a while. Problem solved.

Well, not quite. Within days of the agreement evidence mounted that the North might go ahead with a missile test anyway. The White House rushed off a high level delegation to Pyongyang in early March to warn that a test would scuttle the food aid deal. That "secret" mission soon became widely known because of clearance requests made for the plane across the U.S., Korean and Japanese governments. It did not matter anyway, since the North Koreans ignored the White House entreaties and went ahead with their ballistic missile test a few days later.

It was obvious to a number of us (see my previous posts) that North Korea intended to test missile and nuclear weapons in 2012 under almost any circumstances. I said as much to colleagues in the administration and warned that we were pinning too much on this agreement, which I did not oppose, but did not think would hold for very long. Hopeful North Korea watchers in and out of government acknowledged any agreement with the North is tenuous at best, but seemed genuinely perplexed that Pyongyang would violate this one so quickly. It makes sense, though. A series of negotiations had yielded the outlines of an agreement with the North in December that probably would have been announced that month if Kim Jong Il had not died suddenly. By March, IAEA inspectors would have been on the ground in Yongbyon investigating the North's showcase uranium enrichment facility. After a test would the international community have supported U.S. sanctions that would have forced the inspectors out? Kim Jong Un is new at the job and went with the original plan anyway -- cut the deal and then test. It just turned out that the gap between deal and no deal was shortened.

We should know by now that the main point for North Korea is developing the missile and nuclear capability; not the diplomatic agreements. Within months of its last two missile tests, Pyongyang tested nuclear devices. Sure enough, last week the North changed the preamble of its constitution to declare itself a full nuclear weapons state (as promised for years but dismissed a feint by hopeful observers). A third nuclear test within 2012 seems likely. If it is a higher plutonium yield (the last one was about 4-5 kilotons), that is bad. If it is a successful test of a uranium-based device, that is worse.

The administration is now entirely in reactive mode. They went for a lesser Presidential Statement (PRST) from the UNSC in response to the missile launch so that they would have their one North Korea UNSC Resolution bullet ready for a nuclear test when that comes. That gives the president a talking point after the next test, but it is not clear what else. Beijing, which had supported some slightly tougher language in the PRST, is now to calling on all parties to be restrained and return to the February 29 agreement.

A proactive strategy to deal with the North Korean nuclear problem would have looked entirely different. Instead of (or perhaps in addition to) attempting to "engage" the North Koreans out of conducting a test, the administration could have done any number of things, including: supporting South Korean and Japanese requests to go to the UNSC to pressure Pyongyang before the launch; pressing China to actually implement sanctions under UNSC 1874 by spotlighting Chinese firms in violation (like the one that sold the North the mobile missile TEL that was paraded in the streets of Pyongyang recently); working with friends and allies to inspect any ships that have docked in North Korea in the previous 120 days (hundreds of such ships are estimated to pull into South Korean ports alone each year); cracking down on North Korean uses of "flags of convenience;" maintaining spending on missile defenses; keeping a more open mind on South Korean requests to extend their own surface-to-surface missile ranges so they can counterstrike deeper into North Korea...and the list goes on. None of these are radical proposals in light of North Korea's obvious intent to keep developing nuclear weapons and the means of delivery. Yet I doubt the administration will do even half of these in response to another North Korean nuclear test. I do not fault the administration for talking to the North, but talk is cheap if it isn't backed by muscle.