“While there are certainly security-related issues in the region that deserve our close attention – like the foiled plot to murder the Saudi Ambassador – I think it’s a mistake to view our neighborhood as a constellation of threats rather than a series of opportunities,” – Congressman Howard L. Berman

Washington, DC – Congressman Howard L. Berman, Ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, delivered the following opening statement at today’s committee briefing entitled “Emerging Threats and Security in the Western Hemisphere: Next Steps for U.S. Policy”:

This is the first full committee hearing we have had this congress that touches on our own hemisphere, and the title is revealing. While there are certainly security-related issues in the region that deserve our close attention – like the foiled plot to murder the Saudi Ambassador – I think it’s a mistake to view our neighborhood as a constellation of threats rather than a series of opportunities.

This approach is not only out of date – it has a real cost for the United States.

In his first term, the administration of President George W. Bush emphasized threats and confrontation in the Americas. But in his second term, his administration adopted a very different tone.

Why? Because it became painfully clear that his initial approach did not serve U.S. interests. And in fact, it did considerable damage.

The U.S. is still recovering from the colossal loss of influence in the region that resulted from those policies. And our constant post-9/11 lectures on terrorism – to a region that had suffered from home-grown terrorism for 50 years – left a bad taste. Today, much of Latin America perceives that we hold them at arm’s length, or worse – as the title of this hearing implies – that we see them as a problem rather than as partners.

To its credit, the Obama administration signaled early on that it understood the need to chart a different course. In his speech to this region’s leaders a few months after taking office, President Obama sought to defuse the “threats and security” legacy by emphasizing that trust has to be earned over time and pledging that the U.S. seeks an “equal partnership” in the hemisphere. “All of us,” he said, “must now renew the common stake that we have in one another.”

This administration has made significant strides in regaining that damaged trust, as well as the influence that flows from it. The President’s trip to the region this past March was understated, but it was self-assured and purposeful. Secretary Clinton’s frequent presence and engagement in the region have also paid great dividends.

In his first State of the Union speech, President Obama said “our power grows through its prudent use, our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example.”

Nowhere is this notion more fitting than in our own hemisphere. And much more needs to be done.

To be sure, the US must remain aware of all security concerns in this region – and the list is long. It ranges from the fight against barbaric drug cartels in neighboring Mexico, to the possibility of a mass migration to the US from Cuba or Haiti in case of political upheaval in those countries.

But these issues must be placed in a policy context and in a framework that permits the U.S. to understand and forcefully pursue its strategic interests and its values.

The witnesses before us today represent bureaus which deal only with, as some call it, the “drugs and thugs” issues in the Western Hemisphere. This is no reflection on the panelists, whose work I hold in the highest esteem. But it paints an incomplete and skewed picture of our relations with our neighbors. Assistant Secretary Brownfield, because of your past work in the State Department bureau best positioned to frame these issues for us – the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA) – I will look to you to help us understand the complete picture.

Just last week, the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee held a second hearing intended to peddle the notion that in the fight against the drug cartels, Mexico is facing a full scale “insurgency” from politically motivated “terrorists”. Then a Republican candidate for President declared in cavalier fashion that we should send US troops into Mexico. This a clear slap in the face to our Mexican neighbors – and particularly to our ally President Calderon – on an issue that both of our governments have declared is a shared problem, and that requires a true partnership to solve.

It is critical that our policy toward the region be based on solid facts. Yet we sometimes seem to be chasing ghosts or creating caricatures of security threats.

We should roundly condemn the horrific bombings of the Israeli embassy and the AMIA center in Argentina by Iran and Hezbollah back in the 1990s. And if the foiled Iran-backed plot to murder the Saudi Ambassador on US soil proves true, and I assume it is, this would represent a significant escalation of Iranian government terror tactics reminiscent of those actions in Argentina decades ago.

At the same time, the persistent and bizarre statement that Iran has built its largest embassy in the world in Managua – or alternatively, Caracas – is simply untrue, and only distracts from what should be a serious discussion of the true nature and dimension of the Iranian threat and what we should do to prepare for it.

This is neither a semantic nor academic exercise. The stakes are real and they are high. This hemisphere is by far our biggest trading partner and our biggest energy supplier. We aspire to the same values. Overwhelmingly, the constitutions of these countries are based on ours.

If we don’t keep relations with our neighbors on the right track, there is a real risk that the biggest regional threat facing the United States could become our own inability to take advantage of the irreplaceable ties we enjoy with the diverse and dynamic countries of our hemisphere.