Eric Farnsworth’s lecture at Christianity & National Security 2023.

Eric Farnsworth discusses Latin America, it’s relationship in United States strategy, and the Israel-Gaza conflict. The following is a transcript of the lecture.

Thank you, Mark. Good afternoon, everybody. How are you doing? So, Mark suggested I be a speaker to talk about Latin America after two days of speeches when it’s 80 degrees outside on a Friday afternoon. How’s that for a setup, huh? I said, “You know what? What did I do to upset you?” Having said that, I agreed, but I would like to keep this lively and interactive.

I’m going to take a slightly different approach than giving you a speech and asking continuous questions. I suspect that many, if not most of you, are here because you see yourselves at some point in the foreign policy establishment. You’re here to learn more about how Washington works, from people like me who have worked in the White House and the State Department, various other places. You’re here to understand what drives some people to pursue these careers, and you’re here to learn, obviously, substance, and you’ve been exposed to a lot of it from outstanding speakers to this point.

I also follow and focus on Latin America, which is not necessarily a topic discussed in a forum for National Security. There are reasons for that, not the least of which is that most people don’t think of Latin America in that context. I’m not going to try to convince you today to change your worldview, although there are reasons why I think perhaps you should pay more attention to Latin America. As much as anybody else, I want to link it to the previous speaker, Mark, who just gave you a real rundown in terms of just war theory and Hamas and some of the issues facing our country, as well as the world. He gave you a lot of thoughts to think about. Presumably, you’re struggling with some of these topics. Presumably, you’re not taking everything that all of us say as gospel necessarily. Presumably, this is causing you to think, and I want to do the same thing.

I’m going to say some things that you might agree with, and I hope you do because I worked in the Clinton White House. People look at the world a little bit differently and can look at the world a little bit differently, particularly when it comes to Latin America. Folks in Latin America don’t necessarily look at the world the way folks in Washington do. They don’t have to. There’s no reason, there’s no law that says people have to look at the world the same way. I want to take a look at some of the things that are being said right now about the Israel-Hamas conflict and why they might be, and linking it to all of you. If you do have future ambitions in terms of policy issues and foreign policy, why this should matter? How you can look at some of these issues from a more nuanced perspective and look at shades of gray when the world isn’t black and white.

How you can look at things approaching them from different perspectives and understand, perhaps not agree with all the time, but understand why people are looking at certain, at the same issues and coming up with dramatically different conclusions. So let’s take a look at some of the things that some of the leaders around Latin America have said about the terrorist attacks of Hamas on Israel. I’m going to read you some direct quotes from a number of leaders in the region. I’ll identify who said these, but it’d be interesting to see if you have any ideas of who said any of these, to the extent you follow Latin America at all. You’re going to hear a wide variety of reactions. You’re going to hear some people who are all in on Israel. You’re going to hear some people who are all in on Hamas, and you’re going to hear some people who are trying to split the difference, and we can talk about why and what it matters for the United States, and frankly, what it matters to folks like you who are trying to discern, well, what does all of this mean?

The President of Argentina, Alberto Fernandez, said, “I express my strong condemnation and repudiation of the brutal terrorist attack perpetrated by Hamas from the Gaza Strip against the state of Israel. May the people of Israel receive all the solidarity of this President and the Argentine people.” That’s pretty direct support for Israel. The President of Brazil, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, said, “I condemn the terrorist attacks carried out against the civilians in Israel and call on the international community to resume negotiations to find a solution to the conflict. Brazil supports a two-state solution in which Israel and Palestine live safely within their borders. Brazil will spare no efforts to prevent an escalation of the conflict, including during its tenure as President of the UN Security Council, where it currently resides.” The President of Chile, Gabriel Borich, said, “Our solidarity is and will always be with the victims of violence without distinction. Humanity hurts us. We condemn without any qualifications the brutal attacks, murders, and kidnappings by Hamas. Nothing can justify them or relativize the most energetic rejection. We also condemn the indiscriminate attacks against civilians carried out by the Israeli Army in Gaza and the decades-long illegal occupation of Palestinian territory in violation of international law. In pain, there are no possible ties. Each event is a tragedy in itself. From Chile, we will firmly urge peace in all spaces, recognizing the right to exist of both states, Israel and Palestine, and of the peoples that inhabit them, and have a dignified and safe life.” That was Chile.

Colombia – don’t worry, I’m not going to talk about all 35 countries, but I want to give a wide variety and then explain why I’m going into some of these issues. The President of Colombia, Gustavo Petro, said, “This is what the Nazis said about the Jews. Democratic peoples cannot allow Nazism to reestablish itself in international politics. Israelis and Palestinians are human beings subject to international law. This hate speech, if it continues, will only bring a holocaust.” The President of Colombia also compared AIT to Gaza, saying that he saw the concentration camp model of the former implemented in the latter. These are public statements. You can go to Twitter. You can go to whatever it’s called now. You can go to newspapers, etc. In contrast, the President of El Salvador said, “This, Naib Bukele, as a Salvadorian with Palestinian ancestry, I’m sure the best thing that could happen to the Palestinian people is for Hamas.” What do you think he’s going to say? Any ideas? You’re right. He’s of Palestinian background. But to complete the quote, he says, “is for Hamas to completely disappear. These savage beasts do not represent the Palestinians. Anyone who supports the Palestinian cause would make a great mistake, along with those criminals. It would be like if Salvadorans would have sided with MS-13 terrorists just because we share ancestors or nationality. The best thing that happened to us as a nation was to get rid of these rapists and murderers. Let the good people thrive. Palestinians should do the same. Get rid of those animals and let the good people thrive.” That’s the only way forward.

Now, these are public statements. You already see, and there are others, you already see a wide divergence from countries, many of them even in the same region. Why? Why are there these differences? And what does it mean for the United States? Well, there’s a lot of reasons, some of which I think you can understand. There are historical ties between some of these countries and the Middle East. There are significant diasporas in some of these countries from the Middle East, particularly from Lebanon and Syria, Palestinians as well, but also Jewish populations in some of these countries. So, they bring with them some of these issues and conflicts. And that’s not a negative. It’s just a reality. The other thing is that some of these countries are more tied economically or have historical ties to the United States or to other countries that are supporting Israel.

Others, not so much. Others, maybe more tied to Russia or to China or others that are supporting Palestinians. So, you’re going to get these variations. Now, why should it matter to you? You’re here, presumably, because you’re interested in foreign policy and maybe you’re thinking about pursuing a career in foreign policy. Well, let’s take a look at what some of these leaders have said. And I’m not going to read you all the quotes from all the leaders, but let me just pick a couple more just to illustrate this. The President of Guatemala, Alejandro Giammattei, said, “I condemn the constant and disproportionate attacks against the civilian population of Israel by the terrorist group Hamas. We also regret the loss of innocent lives on the Palestinian side and call for a cease-fire and dialogue to establish peace. As we have always stated, we support the right of the State of Israel to live in peace within secure and internationally recognized borders.” Contrast that with the President of Mexico, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who said, “We must express our regret over the loss of human lives in Palestine. The most powerful should not take advantage of the weakest. We must always defend the principle of the right to self-determination, the peaceful solution of disputes, human rights, and avoid the use of force.”

Now, I’m not going to get into a debate about the right and wrong of the conflict between Israel and Hamas, but let’s look at the different perspectives these leaders are bringing. Why should that matter to you? Because you’re here to study foreign policy, and you’re thinking about it. Let me give you an example of why it might matter. I’m not sure how much attention you paid to this, but last year, the U.S. government was considering whether to provide military assistance to Colombia. Now, Colombia has been a strong ally of the United States. We’ve been providing military assistance to Colombia for many, many years. In fact, there are U.S. military personnel in Colombia providing training, providing support, providing equipment, etc. And the Colombian military, for a long time, has been fighting guerrilla groups, fighting narco-traffickers, etc. The U.S. government was considering whether to provide more military assistance to Colombia.

There were voices in Congress and in the public saying, “Wait a minute. Is this the right thing to do? Should we be providing military assistance to Colombia?” And one of the arguments was that the Colombian military was using excessive force, was violating human rights, etc. Now, whether that was true or not, I’m not going to get into that. But here’s the interesting thing. At the same time that the U.S. government was considering this, the Colombian military was providing assistance to the government of Saudi Arabia. Now, why is that interesting? Because Saudi Arabia, at that time, was involved in a conflict in Yemen. And there were allegations, credible allegations, that the Saudi military, with the assistance of the Colombian military, was violating human rights, was using excessive force, was causing civilian casualties, etc. Now, why is that interesting for us here in the United States?

Because you could have a situation where the U.S. government is saying, “We’re concerned about human rights abuses by the Colombian military, so maybe we shouldn’t provide military assistance to Colombia.” But at the same time, the Colombian military is providing assistance to Saudi Arabia, and there are human rights abuses there as well. So, if you’re sitting in the foreign policy establishment, if you’re sitting in Congress, if you’re sitting in the State Department, if you’re sitting in the National Security Council, you have to think about these things. You have to think about the implications of the decisions you’re making. You have to think about how your decisions are going to be viewed by other countries, how they’re going to be viewed by other leaders, how they’re going to be viewed by the public, by Congress, etc. So, when you see these leaders making these statements about Israel and Hamas, and you see these variations, it’s not just because they have different opinions. It’s not just because they have different perspectives.

It’s because they’re thinking about their own interests. They’re thinking about their own alliances. They’re thinking about their own historical ties. They’re thinking about their own domestic politics. They’re thinking about their own diasporas. They’re thinking about their own economic ties. And when you’re sitting in the foreign policy establishment, when you’re sitting in the U.S. government, you have to take all of these things into account. And you have to think about, “Okay, if we make this decision, what’s the impact going to be not just on us, but on our relationships with other countries, on our relationships with other leaders, on our relationships with the public, with Congress, etc.” So, that’s why it’s important for you, as future leaders, as future policymakers, to understand these dynamics, to understand these perspectives, to understand these nuances.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you have to agree with one side or the other. That’s not the point. The point is to understand why these leaders are saying what they’re saying, why they’re taking the positions they’re taking, and how that might impact U.S. foreign policy, how that might impact decisions that the U.S. government makes, how that might impact relationships with other countries, etc. So, as you’re thinking about your careers, as you’re thinking about your future, and you’re thinking about foreign policy, keep these things in mind. Keep in mind that it’s not just about the substance. It’s not just about the policy. It’s also about the politics. It’s also about the relationships. It’s also about the alliances. It’s also about the historical ties. It’s also about the economic ties. It’s also about the diasporas. It’s also about the domestic politics in those countries.

And when you’re sitting in the foreign policy establishment, when you’re sitting in the U.S. government, you have to take all of these things into account. So, I’ll leave it at that. I’m happy to take questions. I’m happy to have a discussion. But I just wanted to give you a little bit of a different perspective on how to think about these issues, how to think about foreign policy, and how to think about your future careers in this field. So, thank you, and I’ll turn it back to Mark.