Case in point, the recent broohaha and near regional war that was just narrowly avoided in South America. This had the potential to get very ugly and very bad, was settled by regional diplomacy (happily advanced by our total absence from the scene), and parties are now stepping down their armies and settling back to normal.
What happened, exactly and why should we care? The short version most Americans got through our news had Columbia (our ally) taking out a FARC base. FARC is a Marxist terrorist organization that has been conducting a nasty guerrilla warfare in the region (with forays into drug dealing, kidnapping, and general thuggery) for three decades now. So when Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela and regarded by our press and foreign policy as South America's Saddam Hussein, sent Venezuelan troops to the Columbian border in response, this was regarded as deeply suspicious. But then it all quietly dropped to the back page.
Why? Because in going after the FARC, the Columbian government called in an air strike on neighboring Ecuador without troubling to notify the Ecuadorian government. There were a number of problems with this approach. For one thing, Ecuador is a sovereign country that does not appreciate getting bombed without warning. It is also an ally of Venezuela, and the two countries have mutual defense treaties. In addition, Columbia, Ecuador, and Venzuela had been involved in regional negotiations to get the FARC to lay down their arms in exchange for amnesty. This is why Chavez was involved in the negotiated release of several FARC hostages last month. It wasn't just a hostage negotiation, as the U.S. press suggested (hinting darkly that Chavez and Ecuadorian President Delgado were in league with FARC). It was part of an overall effort by regional powers to eliminate FARC through negotiation and possible amnesty.
(I will readily concede that there are plausible arguments for treating FARC lie common criminals and hunting them down. But it's not our decision to make. If the powers in the region want to try negotiation and see if they can eliminate a destabilizing influence that is their choice.)
but Columbia's military, locating the main FARC base and believing it had the opportunity to deliver a "knock out blow" to a terrorist/criminal syndicate, took the opportunity to do so and ignored the fact that the base was located in the sovereign territory of another country. Again, there is an argument for striking stateless enemies taking refuge in sovereign states. The U.S. in Afghanistan, the Israelis in Lebanon, and the Turks in Iraq are recent examples, but it is not surprising that the sovereign state in question or its allies will respond with military force.
In the aftermath, Columbia found itself unpopular in the region and the U.S. reluctant to do more than issue vague support. Columbia did claim it had evidence FARC was manufacturing a "dirty bomb," but the claim failed to convince either Columbia's neighbors with mobilized armies (Venezuela, Ecuador, and Nicaragua) or other powers in the region. And, in fine South American style, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Nicaragua began their own posturing on Columbia's aggressive intentions, U.S. involvement, and warnings that Columbia would face war if it again violated the sovereignty of border countries. Accompanied to the closing of emabassies, expelling of ambassadors, and other tension escalating moves.
Happily, in the last two decades, South and Central America have evolved diplomatic means to resolve these disputes through diplomacy. The Organization of American States (OAS) condemned the cross-border raid, which set the stage for a meeting of the "Rio Group" of Andean nations in the Dominican Republic where the leaders of Columbia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Nicaragua agreed to take steps to normalize relations. As part of the settlement, OAS will conduct an investigation of the raid and the camp to resolve the accusations between the countries as to whether there was U.S. involvement, whether the raid led to the death of uninvolved civilians, and other accusations traded over the last week. Venezuala has re-opened the Columbian embassy and established diplomatic ties.
As a few follow up articles in the major U.S. newspapers have observed, the big winners here are really the region as a whole, which demonstrated it can handle its own internal problems without interference from El Norte or imperialist wannabees like China. But the big losers will, as usual, be the U.S. public, which have no idea what is actually going on in South or Central America. That a region critical to world oil production danced up to the brink of war last week should have been big news, and understanding the why of it critically important. But other than the opportunity to restate the U.S. opposition to Chavez (and his allies in the region), both the coverage and our foreign policy were a great big flop.
How on Earth do we expect to understand issues like foreign trade with our neighbors if we do not even notice when a major war is on the verge of breaking out? Or when we fail to appreciate how it was resolved?