- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 7, 1999

What the president meant to say is … .” Any season-ed bureaucrat has had
to employ a variation on this theme from time to time.
Usually, the reason is because the occupant of the Oval Office has misspoken in some minor way, deviating unintentionally from the government’s chosen line on a point of policy.
Rarely if ever however, have all the president’s flacks and all the president’s bureaucrats had such a monumental challenge as the Clinton spinmeisters now face in walking back a statement the commander-in-chief made last week concerning Communist China and the Panama Canal.
On Nov. 30, Mr. Clinton dismissed concerns about a Chinese company’s acquisition of ports at both ends of the strategic waterway saying, “I think the Chinese will in fact be bending over backwards to make sure that they run it in a competent and able and fair manner… . I would be very surprised if any adverse consequences flowed from the Chinese running the Canal.”
The problem for Mr. Clinton is that this is no small mistake in which he innocently substituted “the Chinese [will be] running the Canal” when he really meant to say they will run two ports. The president is, after all, on record as a great admirer of how well the Chinese run strategically located ports. He personally held four meetings to try to help secure port facilities for COSCO, China’s merchant marine, at the former U.S. Navy base at Long Beach.
Indeed, the problem is not simply that it is the Panamanians who are supposed to be “running” the Canal after next week’s hand-over ceremony. Rather, it is that Mr. Clinton’s remarks, as delivered in all their insouciance, are entirely consistent with his well-documented, “see-no-evil” attitude toward Communist China in particular and, more generally,toward the unraveling security situation in much of the Western hemisphere to which Beijing is greatly contributing.
With regard to the former, a president who has authorized the sale to China of an array of militarily relevant technologies (for example, supercomputers, jet engine hot sections, sophisticated machine tools and fiber optic telecommunications gear) and failed to respond vigorously to China’s theft or diversion of others (notably, ballistic missile- and nuclear warhead-related know-how and equipment) is perfectly capable of viewing with equanimity the prospect that the Chinese will fill the vacuum of power we are creating with our withdrawal from Panama.
Worse yet, Mr. Clinton has been Neroesque in his attitude toward ominous developments in Latin America and the Caribbean and the Chinese role in exacerbating, or at least taking advantage of, them. Consider a few of the things “going south” south of the border:
c Colombia is in the throes of civil war, a war in which it seems likely the axis between drug traffickers and Marxist revolutionaries will at a minimum achieve the country’s de facto partition, if not the overthrow of its democratically elected government. Interestingly, Colombia’s revolutionary organization known as the FARC is said to be seeking Chinese permission to open a liaison office in Beijing.
Since neighboring Panama has no armed forces, Colombian money launderers, drug-smugglers, guerrillas and others operate from and through its territory with impunity. This greatly exacerbates the climate of corruption that is rampant in Panama (and much of the rest of the region), making especially problematic the prospects for stability so critical to the Canal’s reliable operations once the U.S. presence comes to an end.
c Colombia’s neighbor to the east, Venezuela, is undergoing its own momentous political transformation at the hands of its new president, Hugo Chavez. The implications if the United States’ largest source of foreign oil were to adopt a constitution that greatly consolidates power in Mr. Chavez’s hands, at the expense of pluralistic democratic institutions, are likely to be all the more serious in light of his travels. During recent state visits to China and Cuba, Chavez announced respectively his admiration for and his intention to emulate Mao’s and Mr. Castro’s revolutions.
It is worth noting that both energy-starved Beijing and economically destitute Havana have a keen interest in exploiting Venezuela’s oil resources and/or wealth. Both would be especially pleased to do so at American expense. It is no accident then that the huge, state-owned China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) is making a play for Venezuelan oil (even as it is seeking to exploit reserves in Sudan and Iraq). And one can only assume that Fidel and his Chinese friends are delighted at Mr. Chavez’s declared intention to nationalize foreign oil companies’ holdings in Venezuela.
c Ecuador, which also shares a porous border with Colombia, is in the throes of an economic meltdown. When Quito recently defaulted on bonds bearing the name of the man who engineered an earlier bail-out then-U.S. Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady the Clinton administration, in its wisdom, decided to make an example of Ecuador. Evidently, because they lacked nuclear weapons and/ or major sponsors among multinational corporations, the Ecuadorans have been denied the sort of emergency interventions that countries like Russia, Mexico and Indonesia have received. Meanwhile, thanks to improving military-to-military ties with China, the U.S.-trained and -equipped Ecuadoran military are providing “aggressor” units to help teach the People’s Liberation Army how to defeat our armed forces.
c The eased and increasingly unpoliced access to the United States’ market and territory afforded by NAFTA is making Mexico once again a transhipment point of choice for Colombian cocaine and Chinese and others’ alien-smuggling operations. Systemic corruption, rampant poverty and growing popular anger at the political elite may mean Mexico is approaching a pre-revolutionary situation.
c President Clinton’s hapless efforts to prevent Puerto Rican displeasure at the U.S. military’s use of the vital Vieques live-fire training range from harming the campaigns being waged by his wife and Vice President Gore is giving rise to the worst of both worlds: Navy and Marine battle groups unprepared for combat operations and increasingly expensive bribes for unappeasable separatists.
The reality is that these and other cancerous situations in our backyard have gone largely unaddressed while they metastasized on the Clinton-Gore administration’s watch. The squandered opportunity for democratic consolidation and free market economic growth in the Western hemisphere will be among the most malevolent aspects of the Clinton legacy a legacy made all the more reprehensible for Mr. Clinton neither meaning nor saying that he stands by the Monroe Doctrine when it comes to Chinese penetration of our neighborhood.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is the President of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.

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