Union Tribune

March 12, 2002

Mexican dilemma at the U.N. complicates relationship with the U.S.

Copley News Service

WASHINGTON  With tensions rising between the two neighbors over Iraqi policy, Mexico's ambassador to the United States Monday called on both countries to "understand and respect" the other's position.

Ambassador Juan Jose Bremer said both the United States and Mexico need to "consider the broader context of the bilateral relationship," and "value the remarkable progress achieved and the daily benefits obtained by both countries from our cooperation."

Bremer's remarks came at a festive event at which the Mexican government honored the former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Jeffrey Davidow, with the highest award it bestows upon a foreigner: the Mexican Order of the Aztec Eagle.

They also came at one of the most delicate moments in the recent history of U.S.-Mexico relations. Without mentioning Iraq by name, he was clearly referring to Mexico's painful public indecision about how to vote on the United Nations Security Council resolution that the United States wants as authorization for an invasion of Iraq.

Mexico is concerned that it will have to pay a heavy price if it does not line up with the neighbor who buys 85 percent of its exports, has become the home of millions of its emigrants, and joins Mexico in what Bremer called "the most intense bilateral relationship in the world."

After pursuing one of the Security Council's non-permanent seats because it wanted to play a more assertive role in international affairs, the government of President Vicente Fox faces a decision some of its diplomats privately acknowledge they dread.

A vote in favor of the resolution would fly in the face of public opinion polls and constant press reports that show overwhelming opposition to the U.S. position. Fox, whose party faces crucial mid-term congressional elections this summer, would face the charge that he had humiliated his country by submitting to the will of an American president widely regarded in Mexico as a warmonger.

But a vote against the resolution would antagonize the United States at a time when the Bush administration is lobbying intensely, even desperately, for Mexico's support.

"Our message is: Look at what we're saying about this guy (Hussein), and the importance of getting him to disarm and the threat he poses," a State Department official said Tuesday. "The second thing we're saying is: This is a very important issue to us as a country."

The official said there has been no diplomatic horse trading, such as an agreement that Mexico would give the United States its Security Council vote if the Bush administration would renew stalled talks about Mexican immigration.

"For one thing, a dynamic like that would be insulting," the official said. "We think Mexico is trying to sort through this not in a mercenary way but with a sense of what is in Mexico's best interests. And we know that if we are blatant and overbearing it backfires on us."

But the official acknowledged that the U.S. is packaging this subtle diplomacy with a powerful subtext that has been underlined in recent weeks by Bush, by U.S. ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza, and by lower-level diplomats. They have expressed the concern that if Mexico abandons the United States at the U.N., it would risk the sort of backlash and ill will that are stinging France, the principal U.S. antagonist in New York.

"We're talking about the tone of the relationship - the way we think about them in the Congress, the media and the public," the official said.

Such a backlash could damage Mexico's efforts to build good will across the country on behalf of its estimated 4 million illegal immigrants.

Mexico has more than 40 consulates in U.S. cities, a diplomatic representation unparalleled in the world. Mexican officials have called the consulates "mini-embassies" because they lobby at the local level for a host of concessions from municipal, state and federal jurisdictions.

Mexico is seeking drivers licenses, in-state tuition, acceptance of consular ID cards and the biggest prize of all: legal status for those who are here illegally and send home billions of dollars that help prop up communities across Mexico.

Delal Baer, an expert on U.S.-Mexico relations, said that if Mexico doesn't support the United States at the U.N., it would have a more difficult time persuading Congress to change U.S. immigration law.

"That would be seen as a lack of concern for U.S. national security interests," said Baer, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "So it would be harder for congressmen to vote for something that will be seen - correctly or incorrectly - as a loosening of the border."

Davidow, widely admired in Mexico for his sense of humor as well as for his diplomatic skills, sized up the difficulty of the situation as he accepted the honor from Bremer.

Serving as ambassador in Mexico, Davidow said, had been a wonderful experience. Then, he added, slyly smiling, "I think almost better than being ambassador to Mexico in days like this is being the former ambassador to Mexico."