WASHINGTON -- Traveling salespeople always have a hard job. That's especially true when the economy isn't exactly booming -- and the product you are selling will go off the market in a year. That kind of describes Secretary of State Condi Rice as she tries to pitch American foreign policy to domestic and international "customers" in the last 12 months of the Bush administration. That's not to say she isn't trying, but it's proving to be a tough sell.
January started with Ms. Rice trying to convince "moderate Arab regimes" that Iran is a major threat; that a peace deal can be worked out between Israel and the Palestinians; that NATO and Afghanistan's neighbors need to do more to help quash a resurgent Taliban; and that the price of oil is too high.
At the end of the sales pitch -- which included an eight-day presidential swing through the Middle East -- Iran's nuclear program continued unabated; Hamas had increased attacks on Israeli civilians; and 3,300 more U.S. Marines have to be sent to Afghanistan because neither NATO nor "the neighbors" did anything. Though the price of oil dropped somewhat, that too might not last longer than next month's OPEC meeting.
Undaunted, saleswoman Rice returned from the Mideast, repacked her suitcases and headed off to the posh resort at Davos, Switzerland, where the World Economic Conferees were gathered to discuss "eco-collaboration" in between apres-ski cocktail receptions. At Davos, Rice tried to convince Bono, Al Gore and other assembled celebrities that the Bush administration really is "green" and that we care more than they know about global warming. Unfortunately, reality intervened, and the attendees were distracted by stock markets plummeting around the world. Apparently, the participants were more concerned about their portfolios in a global economic meltdown than about melting polar ice caps.
From Switzerland, saleswoman-in-chief Rice raced back to Washington, repacked her bags in less than 12 hours, picked up new traveling companions and flew off to Medellin, Colombia -- the hometown of America's staunchest ally in Latin America, embattled Colombian President Alviro Uribe. The ostensible purpose of the two-day mission was to secure congressional approval for a new free trade agreement -- thus the 10 Democratic members of Congress who accompanied her.
Trade pacts are always a tough sell with Democrats in an election year -- more so with a lame-duck president. And none of the congressmen who accompanied Rice was empowered to say how Speaker Nancy Pelosi will rule on the deal. But at least they allowed President Uribe to state his case and respond to critics who allege that he has done too little to address human rights abuses.
Perhaps most importantly, Uribe had the opportunity to showcase how Medellin has been rebuilt from a violent haven for the world's most notorious drug cartel into a thriving commercial center in the Andean foothills. For those paying attention, it was also a chance to see how threatened all this progress is by the actions of Venezuelan strongman, Hugo Chavez and his support for the FARC -- the Colombian Marxist-narcoterrorist organization.
On the eve of the visit, Chavez "recognized" the FARC as a "political movement engaged in legitimate armed struggle." Though the group holds more than 700 hostages -- including three Americans -- Chavez also demanded that the U.S. remove the group from its list of international terror organizations. He then proceeded to deploy a regiment of soldiers along the Venezuelan-Colombian border -- a region long known to be a FARC stronghold. According to Chavez, the additional troops are needed to stop Venezuelan farmers from "smuggling milk and produce into Colombia," where these goods can be sold for higher prices than Caracas' state-controlled economy permits.
Briefing papers provided to the congressional delegation accompanying Secretary Rice also described Venezuela's growing ties with Russia, China and Iran and Chavez's willingness to use his petrodollars to spread his Bolivarian Revolution throughout the hemisphere. Omitted from the briefs -- perhaps in deference to the delegation's political party affiliation -- was any mention of the dubious deal between Chavez and former Massachusetts Rep. Joseph Kennedy to provide "free home heating oil" for "needy" Americans. Interestingly, Chavez has pledged to press for higher oil prices at next week's OPEC meeting in Vienna, Austria.
One can hope the 10 members of Congress who accompanied Secretary Rice on this venture will now help pitch the U.S.-Colombian trade pact to their colleagues in Washington. If they do, Secretary Rice will be able to chalk her most recent sales call off as a success. We need one.
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.
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