General Kelly’s South American nightmare

General John Kelly, South Com, Haiti

General Kelly’s ’empire’: This is the United States Southern Command’s area of interest

To many, the new commander of U.S. forces for Latin and South America sounds like he’s either been reading – or misreading – General George Washington.

On Thursday, as Foreign Policy reports, General John Kelly was at the Pentagon, warning countries in the region not to trust the ongoing Iranian diplomatic and cultural offensive in Latin America. He urged them to be especially wary of people claiming to be “an Iranian journalist or Iranian peace worker or something”.

If he sounded unnecessarily bellicose, might it be because he was going by General Washington’s oft-quoted advice – one of the best ways to keep peace is to be prepared for war?

A soft war of words, ideas, cultural initiatives?

Not really. This seems an increasingly familiar script out of Washington. Back in April, the previous US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta warned that Iran was dangerously expanding its influence in South America and “in my book, that relates to expanding terrorism.”

Now, Kelly, whose ‘empire’ extends to the 45 countries in the Western Hemisphere, including Central and Latin America as well as Haiti and the Caribbean, is repeating the warning. With added emphasis on fake Iranian journalists and peace workers. (This is disturbing. What if CNN reporters or US do-gooders were routinely seen as CIA spies?)

It is not a particularly original script. Kelly is doing almost exactly the same as his predecessor almost exactly a year ago. Last March, General Douglas Fraser, warned that Hamas and Hezbollah leveraged their connections to narcotraffickers and other transnational crime syndicates in South America “to finance their operations in the Middle East…(through) licit avenues such as charitable donations, and illicit means, including trafficking in drugs, counterfeit and pirated goods.”

The US is wary of Iran’s increased engagement with its South American allies. It is true that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has visited the region seven times in as many years, most recently, of course, for Hugo Chavez’s funeral. True too that from 2006, Tehran has expanded its network of embassies and cultural centers in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua.

But what point is there in this war of words – this rushing tide of similar words and ideas, flowing from Kelly, Fraser and Panetta? Perhaps merely to illustrate the wisdom of a man who outranks them all, for Dwight Eisenhower was US president and a five-star general (Kelly and Fraser are four-stars).

“Things are more like they are now than they ever were before,” he remarked. Enough said.