Union Tribune

April 3, 2003

Strains in the U.S.-Mexico relationship

Copley News Service

The legacy of Jorge Castañeda, Mexico's brilliant and irascible former foreign minister, was at war with itself last month as Mexico resisted U.S. pressure at the United Nations Security Council to support the war against Iraq. As a result, the U.S.-Mexico relationship suffered some of the earliest collateral damage of the U.S. campaign.

It was Castañeda who pushed last year for Mexico to take a rotating seat on the Security Council, a position it had avoided for two decades precisely because it did not want to take the risk of antagonizing its northern neighbor. Castañeda wanted Mexico to be more active in international organizations, asserting the principled self-confidence it could claim as a full-fledged democracy after ending seven decades of authoritarian one-party rule with Vicente Fox's dramatic 2000 election.

Castañeda was also the architect, long before he took a job in the administration of President Fox, of Mexico's plan to use its several dozen consulates across the United States to lobby local public opinion on issues important to Mexico. Back in 1987 he had called for the consulates to shape U.S. policies from the bottom up and "in the provinces, so that they rise to the surface in Washington, where they will produce results in federal policy."

And finally, Castañeda was the lead strategist of Mexico's bold campaign with President Bush to win a new immigration deal which would provide legal status for millions of Mexicans who now work illegally in the United States. He resigned as foreign minister earlier this year largely out of frustration that the plan had bogged down in Bush's preoccupation with terrorism and Iraq.

So Castañeda was back in private life when Mexico resisted intense U.S. lobbying that cast the Security Council vote on Iraq as an acid test of friendship.

Tony Garza, the U.S. ambassador in Mexico City, warned publicly that Mexico could lose friends in the United States unless it proved itself to be a friend at a time of urgent need. Secretary of State Colin Powell lobbied his Mexican counterpart, Luis Ernesto Derbez. Bush himself called Fox to stress the importance of the vote.

Meanwhile, other State Department officials were less than subtle in invoking the example of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to make the point that Bush holds grudges. They pointed out that the president still fumes over Schroeder's decision last summer to make criticism of U.S. policy on Iraq a centerpiece of his successful campaign for re-election.

Fox equivocated for a while, swearing vigilance in the war against terrorism even as he avoided taking a clear position on the U.N. resolution. But ultimately he backed away from the United States, acceding to the demands of Mexican public opinion and invoking Mexico's long-standing principle of opposition to armed intervention.

In an address to the nation, Fox proudly claimed to have honored Mexico's values even as he said there should be no change in the relationship with the United States, which he called "our closest partner, our neighbor and friend."

A State Department official summed up that decision's diplomatic aftermath this way:

"I think it has further chilled the relationship, and it's not good to have a chilled relationship with the United States. I'm not saying the relationship will be hostile. I just think that on many dozens of issues that come up every day, people are not going to tie themselves into pretzels to help Mexico."

Delal Baer, a Mexico expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the dust-up at the United Nations will undermine the Mexican consulates' efforts at public outreach.

As Castañeda's urging, she said, "They were given the green light to be mini-embassies." She added that the Mexican government also heeded Castañeda's advice to make sure that its consuls had the English-language and public relations skills they would need to lobby public opinion at the local level. Now, said Baer, Mexico will face the challenge of repairing the damage, especially when it seeks to reactivate its immigration agenda.

Noting that any immigration bill would have to be approved by Congress, she said that because of the rift at the United Nations, "it will be harder for members of Congress, particularly those in border states who have security concerns, to vote for something that will be seen – correctly or incorrectly – as a loosening of the border. Mexico's position at the U.N. will be seen as showing a lack of concern for U.S. national security interests."

Professor George Grayson of the College of William & Mary said Bush's domestic political adviser, Karl Rove, will work to soften the effects of any residual resentment from the controversy at the United Nations.

"Karl Rove sees Mexico through the optic of Bush's re-election," said Grayson, noting the growing importance of the Mexican-American vote. "He wants to have good relations between los dos amigos in the run-up to 2004."

Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.