WASHINGTON - Washington's strong backing for President Alvaro Uribe has all but removed it from playing any significant diplomatic role in defusing the crisis sparked by Saturday's attack by Colombia on anti-government guerrillas on Ecuador's territory, according to analysts here.
The incident, which resulted in the death of at many as 22 members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), including a top commander, Raul Reyes, provoked Quito to break relations with Bogota and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to deploy troops and tanks to the Colombian border in support of his Ecuadorean ally.
President George W. Bush also used the incident to press his case for Congressional approval of a long-pending free trade agreement (FTA) with Colombia, which his administration has increasingly depicted as a bulwark against radical regimes in the region led by Chavez.
"My message to the United States Congress is that this trade agreement is more than a matter of smart economics," he told reporters after speaking by telephone to Uribe Tuesday morning.
"It is a matter of national security. If we fail to approve this agreement, we will let down our close ally, we will damage our credibility in the region, and we will embolden the demagogues in our hemisphere," he declared.
Bush's statement provoked some dismay among analysts here and in the region not only because of its awkward juxtaposition of trade with questions of war and peace, but also because of its unqualified support for Uribe at a moment of fast-rising tensions.
"The more we can keep this within the Latin American sphere, the better the chance of a solution and avoiding a polarisation in the region," said Brazilian Foreign minister Celso Amorim, a key mediator in the crisis, when he was asked to comment on Bush's remarks.
Adam Isaacson, a Columbia specialist at the Centre for International Policy (CIP) here, called Bush's statement "kind of cynical".
"According to Bush, the incident is not why we have to lead a diplomatic offensive to calm the situation or to increase aid to the region," he said. "It's why the Democrats have to pass the FTA." He added that Democrats may now be even less likely to approve the measure than they were before.
Apart from Bush's plea for passage of the FTA, however, the official U.S. reaction to the crisis has been relatively restrained, as Washington's diplomats acquiesced in mediation efforts led by Amorim and the secretary-general of the Organisation of American States (OAS), Jose Miguel Insulza.
Those efforts resulted in the OAS's approval Wednesday of a resolution to mount an official investigation of the incident and convene a foreign ministers' meeting to review its results.
During the sometimes acrimonious debate that preceded the resolution's approval, the U.S. was the only country that backed Colombia. The Uribe government admitted and apologised for its forces' intrusion into Ecuadorean territory, which took place after Colombian aircraft fired cluster bombs on the rebel encampment.
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Colombian officials later told reporters that U.S.-provided spying equipment and intelligence assistance had helped them track Reyes and guide them to the site, although officials here declined to comment on those reports.
U.S. diplomats "know they have very little credibility as a broker in this situation," said Michael Shifter, an Andes expert at the Inter-American Dialogue, a prominent think tank here.
"The U.S. is completely aligned with Colombia, and it's pretty widely believed that it helped with intelligence and provided technical support to help pinpoint the target, although I don't think there is any evidence that (the raid itself) was a U.S. decision."
For most of the past decade, Colombia has been by far the biggest recipient of U.S. military and intelligence assistance in the Americas. Bogota has received an average of some 600 million dollars a year in military, intelligence, and security aid from Washington for the past several years to help it combat drug trafficking and the FARC insurgency, which has lasted more than four decades.
As part of its counter-drug efforts in the Andean region, Washington has also leased Ecuador's Manta Air Base from which its planes conduct surveillance flights over the area.
To Washington's dismay, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, whose populist politics have brought him into a loose alliance with Chavez, the Bush administration's bete noire, has pledged to end the lease when it expires next year.
"If the U.S. did provide real-time intelligence for the Colombian raid -- which is very possible -- then Correa is going to be even more sensitive about meddling on its territory by the U.S. and Colombia," said Isaacson. "This will be another nail in Manta's coffin."
Indeed, the incident and the diplomatic aftermath appeared to underline Washington's loss of influence in the region. In addition to Amorim's rather blunt reaction to Bush's statement, some analysts argued that his staunch support for Uribe could well prove counter-productive.
"Does the U.S. help Colombia by issuing a statement of support?" asked Roger Atwood, an Andean specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). "This administration's standing is so tattered in Latin America, that I'm not sure it does. People in Latin America just don't listen to Bush anymore."
Washington's diminished influence also offers Uribe himself an important lesson, according to Shifter, who noted that Brazil was the one regional power whose legitimacy as an honest broker was accepted by all three of the most-affected countries -- Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela.
"Colombia needs to diversify its diplomacy," said Shifter. "Uribe is in a real bind because he's just been looking to the United States for support and digging in, when he really needs to have a much broader set of relationships in the region."
© 2008 Inter Press Service