Union Tribune

March 6, 2003

White House tries to cool Mexico's ire


WASHINGTON – With a political firestorm raging south of the border, the White House insisted yesterday that President Bush had not meant to suggest the United States would punish Mexico if that country does not support the U.S. position on Iraq in the U.N. Security Council.

The controversy, which Mexico's largest newspapers yesterday splashed across their front pages, began with a comment by the president about "discipline" in the debate over Iraqi disarmament.

In a Monday interview with U.S. news organizations, the president responded to a question from Copley News Service about "the consequences for friendly and allied countries that don't vote our way in the United Nations" – specifically Mexico.

In a rambling response, Bush said he did not expect "significant retribution from the government" against those governments who buck the United States. He left open the possibility of a groundswell of public resentment, citing the popular backlash against France for its opposition to the U.S. position.

The president went on to note the importance of the NATO alliance. Then he concluded his answer, adding, "It's like saying are you going to be the president of the people who don't vote for you. Yes, I am. And there will be a certain sense of discipline. But I look for – I expect Mexico to be with us."

Copley News Service reported that Bush had "warned of possible 'discipline' if Mexico votes against a Security Council resolution the United States may sponsor to seek authorization for force against Iraq.

A White House official privately conceded Tuesday that the president's words were not clear, but insisted Bush used the word "discipline" to indicate hope that Security Council members would support the U.S. position.

Yesterday, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer offered a more detailed explanation.

"The president's exact words were 'a sense of discipline,' " Fleischer said. "That's not a verb. That's a sense of – if you're confident in the ultimate outcome of the vote, there's a clear belief that there is a sense of discipline. The people see the issue the same way, and that will be reflected on the day of the vote."

But in Mexico, where the press is on hair-trigger alert for any sign of heavy-handed U.S. pressure, Bush's comments were interpreted as an ultimatum.

"Bush threatens: I expect discipline from Mexico," blared the banner headline in the Mexico City daily El Universal.

The banner in Reforma, another influential daily in the Mexican capital, reported that Bush "Demands (Mexico) get in line."

Reforma turned Copley News Service's paraphrasing of Bush's remarks about discipline into a direct quote from Bush. It quoted Bush as having flatly said "there could be a certain act of discipline" for countries who opposed the United States. Bush made no such direct quote.

Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, an expert on Mexico at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., , said Reforma's approach to the story "sells papers and feeds into the anti-war sentiment" in Mexico. Public opinion polls show overwhelming Mexican opposition to a war to disarm Iraq.

Peschard-Sverdrup also faulted Bush in the controversy.

"This underscores the need for the White House to be a lot more sensitive to the language that is used, especially as seen from abroad," said Peschard-Sverdrup. "Using the word 'discipline' was not wise in that it can lend itself to different interpretations. You can make the same point while you soften the edges. . . . You could say there should be unity, or cohesion, or that you hope the members of the Security Council will show solidarity."

The Iraq controversy has become a diplomatic nightmare for the government of Mexican President Vicente Fox. In the third year of his six-year term, Fox is being pulled between public opinion and the claims of Mexico's powerful northern neighbor at a time when the two countries are developing ever closer economic, social and political ties.

While Mexico's political class has mobilized to oppose the U.S. position on Iraq, the business class has warned that Fox cannot afford to antagonize the country that buys 85 percent of Mexican exports. Other political observers have said Mexico cannot risk antagonizing the American public as it pushes for efforts to improve the lives of millions of Mexicans living illegally in the United States.

Political analyst Frederico Estévez downplayed the concern that Fox would undermine Mexico's efforts if he resists the Bush administration's lobbying on Iraq.

"We don't want to be on the United States' bad side, it's true," Estévez said. "But Iraq really doesn't have much to do with inter-American interests. Besides, Bush isn't promising anything in exchange for Mexico's vote except to take Fox's phone calls."

Estévez said that by not falling in line with Bush, Fox could gain politically in the run-up to July elections at the state and national level.

"If people start bashing Mexico in the U.S., so much the better," Estévez said. "That makes Fox more popular at home."

Fleischer said at his daily press briefing yesterday that the Bush-Fox relationship is strong.

"They remain very close friends," he said of the two presidents who had developed a close working relationship until the terror attacks of 2001 diverted Bush's attention.

Peschard-Sverdrup said that for Mexico and the United States, the best outcome of the Security Council controversy would be a U.S. decision not to press for a vote.

"Fox must be stopping by the basilica (of the Virgin of Guadalupe) every night to light a candle and pray for that to happen," said Peschard-Sverdrup. "That would solve his problem."

Also contributing to this story was Copley News Service Mexico City bureau chief S. Lynne Walker.