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Staying Out of Peru

By Daniel Altman

In an overgrown jungle near the equator, a border conflict shows every sign of escalating into an all-out war. For the first time in years, the United States is leaving a 'bush-war' alone.

The fighting along the poorly defined border between Peru and Ecuador has not yet satisfied the usual criteria for multilateral, international intervention (read: U.S. and a few others bank-rolled by Germany and Japan). We can easily count down--in order of importance--and then disregard the reasons used in the past for U.S. involvement.

1. No U.S. commercial interests rely heavily on Peru and Ecuador. Conflicts in Panama and Kuwait threatened the purses of this country's wealthy and powerful, thus thousands of Americans flew in to make business safe again. Though Ecuador can claim membership in OPEC and some very rich oil reserves, those veins of black gold aren't anywhere near the fighting and are too small to mean much to the U.S.

2. No U.S. strategic interests rely heavily on Peru and Ecuador. This jungle is no Grenada. A parable: If Bosnia were situated on an island off the coast of Israel, perhaps the U.S. government would take a stronger interest in its plight.

3. No U.S. citizens rely heavily on Peru and Ecuador. Expatriate and emigre Peruvians and Ecuadorans aren't numerous or powerful enough in this country to sway opinion for U.S. involvement.

4. Neither country has clearly threatened the other's sovereignty. Peru seeks compliance with the 1942 Rio agreement, in which it is granted part of the demarcated jungle region, and has made no move to overthrow the Ecuadoran government. Even with a well-equipped air force, Peru hasn't extended the fighting beyond the strip of land in question.

The United Nations would argue that reason number four ranks above all the rest, but the U.S. government doesn't have the same noble priorities as the body it helped to found.

Nevertheless, the U.S. has probably made the right decision in this situation though partially for the wrong reasons. A good reason for the U.S. to stay out of Peru and Ecuador is that the border conflict does not threaten any civilian populations; only soldiers and tropical organisms currently inhabit the jungle terrain.

The criteria above don't say anything about civilian populations, but the U.S. hasn't been known for worrying about them in the past. The thousands of civilian casualties from the war in Bosnia constitute the strongest reason for international intervention there, but the U.S. has remained immobilized. In Iraq, too, the U.S. showed little regard for civilian lives as non-military targets fell victim to over-powering air strikes.

Another good reason for the U.S. to leave Peru and Ecuador alone is to allow the two nations to learn the costs of war. Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori can bask in his comparison to General George S. Patton in the New York Times for a while, but soon he'll have to deal with sizable dents in his military and larger dents in his federal budget. (At this point, the war hasn't reached a stage that would justify complete mobilization and an economic boom for Peru or Ecuador.)

Fujimori, the epitome of the successful Third World leader replete with Soviet-made weapons and a somewhat democratic mandate, could become an example of the peril of hawkishness. He has proven his readiness to assume dictatorial powers in the past--he declared martial law after a slew of political and economically-related protests--and he could yet have some totalitarian or expansionist ambitions up his camouflage sleeve.

At some point, given a change to a situation of total war, the United Nations could see grounds for international intervention. Attacks on Quito and other civilian centers or wartime atrocities would provide humanitarian grounds for forcing an end to the hostilities. Hopefully, the U.S. would then join a multinational force, despite the irrelevance of the conflict to its own particular interests.

Daniel Altman's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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