Shadow Government

A crisis of his own making

There are two major criticisms of President Obama's foreign policy that, I believe, are beginning to resonate. The first, argued forcefully by Bob Kagan, is of his harsh or negligent treatment of allies, in contrast to his rather more gentle treatment of dictators and adversaries.

The second is that he cares not a wit about foreign policy, especially if it gets in the way of his domestic agenda. Let me focus on the second.

In the case of Asia policy, his preoccupation with his domestic agenda is deleterious in two ways. First, despite all the snarky bragging by Obama officials about how "America is back" (see recent posts by Dan Twining and Walter Lohman), he cancelled a trip to Asia for the second time to deal with a crisis of his own making: health care. I believe this is unprecedented.

It is one thing for a president to cancel a trip because of a domestic disaster, but Obama himself created this mess. When Obama became president there was a long list of economic and foreign policy challenges to which everyone agreed he had to attend. Instead, he launched the country on a long, divisive, and distracting debate about health care. This choice has real consequences as Indonesians and Australians learn that they are not as important to Obama as is his domestic agenda.

The second problem is related to his first: the same commitment to a leftist agenda creates obstacles to an effective Asia policy. Even if he had made it to Indonesia and Australia, he would not have had much to offer. Obama cannot move an inch on the foreign policy agenda items that matter most to Asians: trade and security. Either he is uninterested in these issues or his party will not let him act on them. On trade, even so much as a mention of the South Korea free trade agreement resulted in severe resistance from his party. If Obama cannot ratify agreements already negotiated, how can he possibly offer a free trade, open investment vision to compete with China's more mercantilist one?

On security, Asians already know Obama will not invest in the military resources necessary to assure the region of American staying power. That too would obstruct his domestic spending agenda. This is a president who essentially asked every Department except for the Defense Department to figure out ways to spend more as part of his fiscal stimulus. He did so while America is fighting two wars and dealing with the menace of China's growing military. Some friends get the picture: Australians are already embarked on a military strategy that hedges against American withdrawal from the Asia-Pacific.

Here is some hopefully constructive advice: despite the misguided bravado of his lieutenants, President Obama has to repair relations with Asia allies. In order to do so, he'll have to take on the left and show up with something that makes us regionally relevant.

Shadow Government

Mexico can no longer be ignored

The murders of two employees of the U.S. consulate in the violent Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez serve as a grim, and likely unwanted, reminder to the Obama administration of the drug-fueled carnage taking place just across our southern border. With the range of foreign policy challenges on the President's plate, the last thing he probably wants to contemplate at this point is a deepening involvement in a messy entanglement involving ruthless drug cartels and a besieged government and society on our doorstep.

But foreign crises operate by no calendar, and, given the stakes involved, the Obama administration has no choice but to give higher priority to supporting Mexican President Felípe Calderón's declared war against the cartels in what will be a long, drawn out (and, in many quarters, controversial) struggle for the future of our neighbor and third-largest trading partner.

The administration deserves credit for following through on President Bush's commitment to President Calderón in Merida in 2007 to provide U.S. support for his effort to seize back his country from the grip of the drug mafias. Under the subsequently named Merida Initiative, the U.S. is providing more than $1 billion over three years in counter-narcotics assistance to Mexico, to include weapon-detection technology, surveillance and intelligence-gathering equipment, helicopters and training for police, prison, and military personnel. Look at that as a down-payment.

The effort in Mexico will involve a transformation no less dramatic than what Colombia has undergone over the past decade (and where the U.S. has invested some $7 billion in counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency assistance). From fundamental overhauls of the military and police, the judiciary and financial systems, and social and economic programs to head off the descent into the drug culture by the citizenry, the challenge Mexico faces is steep and costly.

And the United States is no innocent bystander. It is our society's insatiable demand for illicit narcotics that fuels the drug violence in Mexico. The demand for cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamines is a plague visited not only on our own youth and social fabric but on Mexico's as well. As such, we have a responsibility and duty to not only combat the demand on the home front through prevention and rehabilitation programs, but also assist our neighbors combating the criminal elements profiting off such trade.

Just as Plan Colombia before it, the Merida Initiative has generated controversy: from the NGO industrial complex, that fears an empowered Mexican military and police will run roughshod over human rights; to those who oppose a military strategy in favor of attacking the social and economic roots of the drug culture or targeting the cartels' financial structures; and those who argue for decriminalization of drug use to end the carnage. (Former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castaneda, concluding the drug war is lost after only three years, recently made that case elsewhere on this site.)

Yet aside from the latter, there is no reason why all of that cannot be incorporated into a comprehensive strategy, much as we have done in our partnership with Colombia. Certainly the drug war in Mexico will not be won without fundamental reforms of the judiciary, rooting out corruption, addressing broader societal ills, and employing sophisticated financial strategies to choke off the cartels' profits. But neither will those initiatives have any chance of succeeding without robust military and police pressures on the cartels that include arresting kingpins, breaking up networks, and interdicting drug shipments: anything and everything that drives up the cost of doing their nefarious business.
The Obama administration can signal its continuing support and commitment to President Calderon's brave and unprecedented campaign to save his country from further damage by the drug mafias by formally committing to a follow-on phase to Merida, a Merida Initiative II, just as was done in Colombia. This would key of the progress made to date and expand, in partnership with the Mexican government, the "softer" side reforms so desperately needed to strengthen the judiciary and civil society -- while continuing the "hard" side of taking the war to the cartels.
With some 90 percent of the cocaine and much of the marijuana crossing our borders from Mexico, our security and societal well-being is directly affected by what is happening there. President Calderón has embarked on a campaign that none of his predecessors has dared, despite years of U.S. pleadings; that is, rescue his country from the violence and lawlessness of the drug trade and welcome U.S. partnership in doing so. The country has already paid a high price, with up to a reported 18,000 deaths in the past three years (albeit many of those caused by internecine gang warfare over turf).
The Obama administration has acknowledged a "shared responsibility" to combat the drug trade. Today, more than ever, that sentiment needs to be backed by strong action in support of a friend of the U.S. trying to do the right thing.