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Mexico and Iraq faces Arm-Twisting Diplomacy
Posted: Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Council On Hemispheric Affairs

The U.S. is engaging in a deliberate policy of arm-twisting to pressure Mexico to support its co-sponsored Security Council measure authorizing the use of force against Iraq beginning on March 17. In doing so, Washington is exploiting Mexico's relative inexperience in international affairs, its intense desire for immigration reform, and most importantly, its dependence on U.S. trade relations.

U.S. pressure on Mexican President Vicente Fox is forcing him to turn his back on the overwhelming anti-war public opinion in his country and its historical legacy of pacifism, due to the need to maintain his nation's vital trade relationship with its powerful northern neighbor and his all-important hopes of immigration and NAFTA reforms with the U.S.

The Bush administration's abrasive diplomacy is further damaging its already sterile relationship with Fox and the ties of future U.S. presidents to successor Mexican governments, as well as jeopardizing the remainder of Fox's political career and his place in Mexican history.

The U.S' treatment of Mexico is indicative of an obsessive and cynical foreign policy that is ready to risk sacrificing valuable and longstanding alliances for controversial, expedient goals.

As the U.N. Security Council debates two proposed resolutions concerning Iraq's weapon capabilities, the U.S. is exerting an intense barrage of diplomatic pressure on the other members of the Security Council in order to gain support for its imminent invasion of that nation. Having written off permanent Council members Russia and China, the U.S. is focusing its pressure on the non-permanent Council members who have not yet declared a formal position on Iraq, particularly its hemispheric neighbors Mexico and Chile. A newcomer to the world of international politics, Mexico, under its conservative President Vicente Fox, was initially a strong opponent of the Bush administration's plans to invade Iraq but has significantly softened its anti-war stance and now seems poised to join the U.S. initiative, however reluctantly.

Fox's reversal was not by accident, but was the product of a relentless policy of arm-twisting by Washington policymakers. This produced a no-win situation for the Mexican president, which could prove perilous to any prospect that he might have of restoring his fading popularity and effectively dealing with an increasingly distressed economy. Fox must now carefully judge his next move, because the status of his standing in Mexican history could be at stake. He must weigh the pacifist tradition of his nation – certainly when it comes to the U.S. – as well as his personal anti-war views, against the importance of appeasing the U.S. in order to maintain Mexico's vital trade relationship with Washington and the need to keep alive long postponed critical immigration reform issues affecting the two nations.

Fully aware of the delicate balance of Fox's situation, the Bush administration has been heartily exploiting its dominant position due to its thriving bilateral trade relationship with Mexico, further embittering a once promising, but now strained relationship. As anti-war fervor registers throughout Mexico – especially in its political and intellectual communities – Fox cannot afford to ignore the Bush administration's sometimes vague and sometimes not so vague threats affecting their bilateral ties. As a result, Fox is potentially gambling his political career, as well as his nation's fate and good name, on Mexico's pending Security Council vote. Meanwhile, by stepping on the vulnerabilities of Mexico's political and economic structures in its march towards war, the Bush administration may be damaging not only its day-to-day ties to Fox, but Washington's long-term relationship with future Mexican governments as well. Moreover, its domineering diplomacy risks alienating many influential Mexicans, thereby stunting the country's appropriate growth as an independent player in international affairs.

The Debate in the Security Council

The U.N. Security Council is currently debating several proposed resolutions regarding Iraq. Spain, Britain, and the U.S. have sponsored a proposal which states that Saddam Hussein "has failed to take the final opportunity" for Iraq to disarm – essentially authorizing war – while Germany, Russia, and France have designed a rival resolution, calling for that country's "full and effective disarmament" through peaceful measures. Either resolution needs 9 votes without a veto to pass. Because the permanent Council members already have asserted their positions regarding an almost certain armed attack at this time (Great Britain and the U.S. are in favor, China, Russia, and France are against it), Washington is applying a heavy hand on the rotating members. But Russia and France, and possibly China, in any event, could veto the U.S. initiative.

While Spain and Bulgaria already have sided with the U.S. and Britain, and Syria and Germany stand firmly against the U.S. proposal, the Council's remaining non-permanent members – Angola, Guinea, Cameroon, Pakistan, Chile, and Mexico – have all called for more time for inspections to continue, but have not announced their final positions. It can be argued that Chile is hostage to possible U.S. retaliation in the area of free trade if it backs the Russian/French, or even a compromise proposal. But the outcome of the Security Council vote could potentially strain the relationship between the U.S. and the other non-permanent members if they vote against Washington's position, but no other nation more than Mexico, if it ends up getting its way.

Mexico's Rude Introduction to International Affairs

Mexico is a relative stranger to the world of international politics, even though it had served two previous terms as a non-permanent member of the Security Council since the U.N. was first formed. For the past seventy years, under the one-party rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Mexico maintained a legacy of pacifism regarding the outside world, be it during the Central American wars of the 1980's or Korea and Vietnam. After the election of Fox in 2000, however, Mexico has become more involved in foreign policy issues. The country again acquired a seat on the U.N. Security Council through the aggressive efforts of its then-foreign minister, Jorge Castañeda. In the course of establishing a more assertive foreign policy for Mexico, many of Castañeda initiatives backfired due to his repeated deference to U.S. policy initiatives, which led to his resignation in veritable disgrace last January. Among his other achievements, Castañeda damaged Mexico's longstanding friendship with Cuba by criticizing Fidel Castro and also butted heads with other high-ranking foreign policy officials and Mexico's extended intellectual community on a range of ideological issues. Ultimately, Castañeda became increasingly frustrated with his inability to forge immigration reforms with the U.S. and resigned, knowing that his performance had become untenable for almost the entire political spectrum in Mexico.

Mexico is finding that there are unintended consequences of the more dynamic and assertive international role promoted by Castañeda, particularly when the wrath of its all-important neighbor is involved. The U.S. lacks no inhibitions in intimidating Mexico with veiled and not so veiled threats of restricting trade and burying hopes for immigration reform involving both nations if it does not vote "right" on Iraq. Washington need not be overly explicit to Mexico or issue specific demands to press its interests, for the latter is fully aware of the enormous leverage the U.S. can exercise with its all-important trade relationship and in conforming its immigration policy to harmonize with Fox's wish list. Also, Mexico has had almost two centuries of experience to discover that dealing with the U.S. has led to the loss of half of its national territory and its sovereignty continually being impugned.

Fox and Bush – A Relationship of Expedience

What were originally warm relations between Fox and Bush when both men first took office have since chilled. At first, Bush hailed Mexico as one of the U.S.' best friends and closest allies, and was intent on forging a landmark immigration reform with that nation. Since 9/11, however, Bush's interest in the accord has languished as the nation has refocused on restricting and more carefully monitoring immigration. As a result, relations with Mexico have become sterile. The Bush administration's ties to Fox became even more tenuous after Castañeda's departure, because Secretary of State Colin Powell warmly regarded his compliant counterpart.

Fox is aware of the economic incentives he potentially would be sacrificing by not siding with the U.S. on Iraq. Since joining NAFTA a decade ago, Mexico's economy has become – sometimes almost painfully – largely integrated with the U.S. Mexico today exports over 80 percent of its goods and services to its northern neighbor.

Furthermore, all hopes of a revitalized immigration pact with the U.S. would ebb if Mexico formally obstructed Washington's proposal. Fox's urgent strategy is to sign an agreement with Washington that would grant citizenship to the 3.5 million undocumented Mexican migrants now residing in the U.S and extend work-visa programs to hundreds of thousands of immigrants seeking to enter the U.S. in the future. This is the only way that Fox can fulfill his campaign pledge to create one million new jobs, even though they will mainly be in the U.S., and not in Mexico.

Fox Stands Firm

In early February, Fox was firmly committed to an anti-war stance, commenting, "our (Mexico's) position is clear. It is well known, it is no to war." He consistently lobbied with France and Germany to grant more time for U.N. weapons inspectors to do their job and stood firmly against any unilateralist action. A February 21 meeting in Mexico City with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, who stands tenaciously with the U.S. on Iraq, even though the sentiment of his country is hugely anti-war, failed to move Fox's obdurate anti-war position. Although Aznar denied that the intention of the talks was to rope in Mexico, many speculated that their meeting had no other purpose.

Fox's initial resiliency was both a prudent political stand and an expression of his personal beliefs. He is now closely watching public opinion polls as Mexico's version of mid-term elections approaches in July, when six governors and a new Congress will be voted on. If Fox supports the U.S. proposal on Iraq and opposes the sentiments of his own people, he could jeopardize the electoral success of his National Action Party (PAN) and severely weaken his two-year old presidency. Unquestionably, Fox's previous anti-war position reflects the current opinions of the majority of Mexicans. Recent polls in Mexico indicate that the overwhelming majority, over 85 percent of the population, is against a war with Iraq. Furthermore, Fox's religious beliefs conflict with the U.S.'s agenda. As a devout Catholic, he is morally opposed to the war, a position that the Pope has strongly argued.

The Arm-Twisting Gets Heavy

Despite constant denials by Mexican government officials, along with some members of the Bush administration, persistent U.S. pressure clearly motivated Fox to weaken his fervent anti-war stance and come closer to siding with the U.S. on Iraq. On February 21, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Tony Garza, who only took up his post in November, made his first official speech as ambassador to a gathering of university students in central Pueblo state. Garza not only dismissed Fox's pleas for a multilateral approach that would extend the deadline for weapons inspectors in Iraq, but alluded to economic consequences if Mexico did not follow the U.S. While Garza laughably dismissed the thought that the U.S. was attempting to pressure Mexico, he directly implied that continued U.S. support for Mexico's interests was contingent on its vote in the Security Council. Garza stated to the students that "we're [the Bush administration] not asking Mexico to do any favors for the United States," but "we expect Mexico to act based on their own interests, and on its responsibilities to the international community." But in the same speech, Garza contradicted this lofty gesture by saying, "we frequently speak about a special relationship between our two countries. The real proof that a special relationship exists is to act in each other's interest in times of difficulty. There's an old saying that in good times, your friends find out who you are; in bad times, you find out who your friends are." Clearly, this statement was a definitive verdict on the consequences of Mexico not joining in behind Bush's proposal.

Then on February 22, President Bush personally called both Fox and Ricardo Lagos, the president of Chile, a nation which also holds a strategic vote as a non-permanent Council member, with the specific intention of recruiting both nations to join the U.S. team against Iraq. It is widely speculated that Bush pledged, during his talk with Fox, to place the moldering immigration accord back on the bargaining table if Mexico complied with his request, while Chile had to be mindful that Santiago had just signed a bilateral free trade accord with Washington, which still must be ratified by Congress.

Crying Uncle

Despite incessant denials, it is clear that Fox is yielding to U.S. pressure. Directly after Bush's call and Garza's public definition of the meaning of friendship, Fox de-fanged his previously vocal anti-war rhetoric and appeared to shift towards supporting the U.S. initiative. In a meeting with Mexican business leaders sponsored by the Council on Americas and the Mexican International Trade Council (COMCE) on February 25 (with Garza in attendance), Fox declared that "it is urgent that Iraq complies with the demands of the inspectors to immediately dismantle prohibited missiles…the only path towards peace is the disarmament of Iraq. The world wants peace, but only disarmament by the Iraqis can ensure peace."

Mexico's new foreign minister, Luis Ernesto Derbez, denied on February 26 that Mexico was shifting its policy, maintaining that his nation was "contemplating all positions," and insisted that the U.S. did not pressure his nation. He did not, however, reflect or reiterate the same calls for peace Fox echoed earlier in the month.

Furthermore, a February 28 Christian Science Monitor report cited a Mexican foreign ministry directive, later confirmed by Derbez, which indicated that the Fox administration was ready to sacrifice domestic support at home for maintaining an all-important, prosperous relationship with the U.S.

Fox, after another phone conversation with President Bush on March 7, said that the U.S. President appeared to be more flexible regarding Iraq and that each side was continuing to look for a compromise. Bush's supposed adoption of a less hard-line stance, however, only came after his initial barrage of pressure and only after he was sure Mexico understood the stakes. What was being seen was more a half-hearted attempt at reconciliation and a reflection of Fox's groundless optimism, than a legitimate, multilateral effort to forge a compromise regarding Iraq.

Then in a speech to the Security Council on March 7, Derbez cemented Mexico's stance by reflecting the Bush administration rhetoric regarding Iraq, emphasizing the need for that nation to disarm and not a lengthening of time for the weapons inspectors. While he expressed his "conviction that it is as necessary as it is possible to reconcile our differences," and reiterated that he "is the convinced of the need to explore all the avenues," Derbez confirmed Mexico's path by declaring Mexico's alarm over Sadam's "lack of active, immediate and effective cooperation."

Fox has come to accept the inevitability of war with Iraq and the relative powerlessness of Mexico to stop it. On March 9, Fox called for his people to remain calm and united before the prospect of war which "humanity could be facing in the next few days, or the next few hours." He also told his nation to be prepared for economic instability and new terrorist threats in Mexico that will accompany the impending war.

Chile's Similar Bind

Chilean President Ricardo Lagos finds himself in a comparable no-win situation. Like Fox, he must weigh his nation's demonstrated anti-war sentiments against the economic incentives being dangled by Washington. Chile desperately wants to forge a free trade agreement with the U.S., which is now awaiting Congressional approval. Aware of this leverage, the U.S. is strongly pressuring Santiago with tantalizing prospects of a lucrative trade relationship in exchange for its support. In addition to President Bush's call, special envoy Otto Reich, the former U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, who has been shifted to the National Security Council, met with Lagos in Santiago on February 28. The question is, how long can Chile hold out?

Although both nations deny that U.S. intervention has been attempting to influence Santiago's decision, the Lagos administration is exhibiting its own vulnerability to Washington's persuasion. The Chilean Deputy Foreign Minister Cristian Barrios commented to Reuters that, "every time the United States calls, it's to discuss the situation from their point of view. We couldn't pretend neutrality."

Both Mexico and Chile have been futilely probing for an escape route from their dilemmas of being relatively weak, dependent, and with a history of lacking backbones, particularly Chile. On February 28, each country endorsed a Canadian initiative, which was previously rejected by both the U.S. and France, that would postpone the date for the announcement of official U.N sanctions against Iraq until March 31, but would have authorized war if Sadam Hussein had not met the terms of disarmament by then and remained in "material breach." Lagos has pleaded for a multilateral solution in the Security Council. Chile, through its ambassador to the U.N., Christian Maquiera, has been noticeably more vocal than Mexico in its opposition to the U.S/Spanish/British resolution that would establish a March 17 deadline for Iraqi compliance, believing that one week is simply not enough time for Iraq to disarm. He commented to Reuters, that "the diplomats in the Security Council have a better chance of getting a date with Julia Roberts than Iraq's chances of disarming in a week."

The Reaction in Mexico

The issue of Iraq is as dominant in Mexico as it is in the U.S. Some members of the Mexican media and political sectors steadfastly maintain that Fox is seeking a peaceful resolution independent from the U.S.' unique perspective, despite his apparent concessions. There is still an overwhelming fervor in Mexico to maintain its pacifist tradition, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that it will not be honored in this instance. Mexican Senator Fernando Margain Berlanga, the president of the Senate Committee on International Relations, commented to the prominent Mexican newspaper El Economista on March 4, that Mexico does not necessarily agree that either President Bush's or Fox's diplomatic efforts are "based on democratic values and seek peace." He continued, expressing his belief that, "Mexican foreign policy should serve authentic democracy and lasting peace…violence cannot be the ideal path for rational human beings to solve their problems. On the contrary, violence means going back to ancient times, where problems were solved with knives."

Many believe that Mexico could and should avoid military confrontation in spite of many commonalities of purpose with the U.S. Carlos Fuentes, the highly regarded Mexican intellectual and writer, dismissed U.S. pressure as an empty threat. He expressed a common belief that Mexico should properly see itself as relatively invulnerable to U.S pressure in the Security Council because the U.S. is intimately and lucratively involved in the trade relationship as well as his country. A relationship by definition is two-sided and involves the interests of each party. Any restriction of trade with its southern neighbor by the U.S. as punishment for its failure to obtain Mexico's vote in the Security Council, would "redound against its own interests" by weakening the U.S. economy. Therefore, Fuentes remarked, "if Mexico has to vote against war it will do so. Mexico will follow its tradition and vote with independence…if the United States takes any action against Mexico it will harm itself." While many Mexicans recognize that even though the U.S. has the upper hand, they correctly identify that the American economy today is also heavily invested in the bilateral trade relationship and will suffer a tremendous loss if trade with Mexico is curtailed.

Fuentes then let out a salvo against U.S. ambassador Garza, labeling him as a "meddling, inexperienced, greenhorn," ambassador. He feared the repercussions that invading Iraq would have on the international security, believing that the war would "go beyond Iraq, and could set all of the Middle East on fire and then the entire world."

Mexico Asserting Its Honor

For many Mexicans, the decision on the Iraqi vote in the Security Council will serve as a defining moment of Mexico's honor and autonomy. On March 8, when asked if Mexico would vote against the U.S., Mexican foreign Minister Derbez responded that Mexico, "can say no to a resolution it doesn't agree with…this matter does not involve bilateral relations." When asked if Mexico was feeling U.S. pressure in the Council, Derbez denied it, and said, "if there was any pressure, we [Mexico] would have to respond with our conscience anyway." Mexico's repeated efforts to deny the extent of U.S. pressure stems from its ostensible desire to uphold its dignity and independence and to make a moral decision regarding Iraq.

While not as straight forward as France's opposition to the U.S. initiatives towards Iraq, Mexico's and Chile's initial reluctance to immediately and automatically support the U.S reflects a similar yearning to make autonomous decisions about international affairs free from Washington's imperatives. They do not want to be puppets, but want to establish themselves as independent, responsible actors in the international community.

As a responsible member of the world community, many Mexicans believe that their nation has an obligation to preserve multilateralism and oppose the U.S. resolution. The columnist Enrique Krause editorialized on March 9 in the Mexican newspaper, La Reforma, that Mexico must make "a vote of responsibility" in the Security Council. "The American representatives ask ‘who cares what Mexico thinks?' But we can tell the whole world that we don't have to declare war, support the war effort with our products, or send troops to the Persian Gulf. The U.N. is falling apart in front of us. But we can assure our responsibility if we give a reasonable vote that would stop the division in the U.N."

The Depth of Fox's Dilemma

President Fox has been likened to a distraught parent trying to feed two screaming infants. Indisputably, the anti-war pitch in Mexico is deafeningly loud and resonates through the vast majority of its people, politicians, and intellectuals. At the same time, the U.S.' willingness to utilize its economic leverage is of equal concern to Fox.

While Fox cannot be completely exonerated for Mexico's pending policy shift, the Bush foreign policy team has created a scenario in which Fox could only accurately express the will of his people and his true opinions regarding Iraq by being prepared to jeopardize his country's economic relationship with the U.S. If Fox sides with Washington, he will be mercilessly denounced for lacking moral resolve and political courage. For Fox, the gamble is that he may be risking his political future and possibly his reputation, by buying into a sound economic future with the U.S., but meanwhile alienating his own people. The temptation to resist Washington's blandishments, maintain an independent foreign policy for Mexico and support noble, multilateral goals are powerful, but could be sadly imprudent. While relationships are two-sided, most of the cards appear to be in President Bush's hand. Garza ‘s speech was not off the cuff. Every word of it was drafted in Washington after being carefully though out. The U.S. is heavily invested in its trade relationship with its neighbor; Mexico is utterly dependent on it and is well aware that Washington expects political dividends from it. The verdict is that Chile and Mexico may ultimately buckle when they contrast the self-serving benefits of a close relationship to Washington with taking an independent position towards Iraq.

Both nations have a third, less discussed option to abstain from voting in the Security Council. While some view abstention as a compromise that would preserve each nation's economic ties to the U.S. without overtly supporting war, others, such as Krause, see no difference between abstaining and supporting the U.S. resolution. If Mexico and Chile do not participate, they would confirm their lack of influence and resolve in international affairs with a whimper. For this reason, Mexico and Chile can possibly, but will not likely, abstain from voting.

The Reality of International Affairs

As a new player in the world community, perhaps Mexico was somewhat naïve when it came to Washington's raw knuckles approach to diplomacy. Meanwhile, many Mexicans pragmatically will argue that maintaining a strategic relationship with the U.S. is in Mexico's best interest, both in terms of its economy and national security.

The Bush administration's arm-twisting of Fox is not an unavoidable consequence of regional politics, but is a conscious policy decision designed to change the criteria of Mexico's decisions in the Security Council. The U.S. was in a position to either manipulate Mexico's Security Council performance or respect its newly acquired voice in the international community. By slyly reminding Mexico who butters its bread, the U.S displayed it choice, forcing Mexico to choose between its soul and its wallet.

The Problem of U.S. Foreign Policy

The need to disarm and depose Sadam Hussein is not at question, but Bush's rhetoric and tactics in dealing with the international community is. Its treatment of Mexico is indicative of a cynical foreign policy which willingly is prepared to sacrifice friends and allies for narrow-minded, immediate, and highly controversial goals. In its push for war against Iraq, the U.S is engaging in brash and domineering diplomacy that is alienating both new friends and its ancient allies. The U.S. must make every effort to maintain its strategic alliances, and there is no other relationship more strategic for the U.S. than the one with the country that shares its 2,000-mile southern border. Resentfully, Washington is playing fast and loose with a friendship that over the years has helped secure many of its policy goals.

This analysis was prepared by Jason Ballet, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Issued Monday, March 10, 2003.

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being "one of the nation's most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers." For more information, please see our web page at; or contact our Washington offices by phone (202) 216-9261, fax (202) 223-6035, or email

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