Shadow Government

The U.S. is MIA in Latin America

An end-of-the-year assessment of U.S. policy towards Latin America could possibly qualify for the world's shortest blog.  For a President who has clearly established that foreign policy is not something that gets him up in the morning (or appears to keep him awake at night), Latin America must rank just above Antarctica in descending areas of interest.

This uneven, sporadic focus on the region has led to only adverse consequences for U.S. interests.  What effort the administration does expend seems only directed toward placating a smattering of hostile populist regimes, while ignoring the interests of our friends.  Indeed, the predictable response is that we have only emboldened our enemies and despaired those in the hemisphere who share the U.S. vision of open political systems, free markets, and robust trade. 

Radical populists in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia have run roughshod over democratic institutions and the best Washington can come up with is asking for the terms under which a U.S. ambassador would be allowed to return to their capitals.  In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega is likely chuckling at the feeble U.S. response to his recently rigged re-election.

It also appears that the administration has lulled itself into complacency over a cancer-stricken Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, ground zero for regional instability, seemingly content to wait and see what happens after Chávez passes from the scene.  But even as his circus antics continue, he is leaving behind what my colleague Roger Noriega calls a mountain of toxic waste that will take years to clean up.

Chávez's days may indeed be numbered, but his friends in Iran, Russia, China, and Cuba are certainly taking the long-term view of things.  All four have been great beneficiaries of Chávez's political solidarity and oil-fueled largesse and can be counted on to want to maintain that access with or without him in power.  In other words, don't count on them to support a democratic transition away from Chavismo, only a succession.  Every day, the United States stands idly on the sidelines, the chances they will succeed improve. 

The administration's complacency may also be due to the current economic boom the region is experiencing, as commodity producers are riding the great wave of Chinese demand.  If the U.S. profile in the region has diminished, does it really matter?   Times are good, government coffers are relatively full, and poverty is declining.

The problem with this scenario is that Chinese demand will not always be there.  The Chinese economy as it exists today will not be the same one a decade from now.  Moreover, long-term regional prosperity is not going to be built on producing raw materials for the development of the Chinese economy today.  All the current boom is accomplishing today is masking over the deep structural changes that are still desperately needed in most of the region's economies.

There will be many who will cheer-lead that Latin America is finally out from underneath the United States' long shadow and doing great "on its own" - but such sentiments are short-sighted.  Many challenges remain:  transnational criminal organizations involved in the drug trade continue to wreak havoc, making a mockery of rule of law along with corruption in many countries; too many citizens in the region are shut out of their country's economies through excessive regulation and other barriers; and doing business in the region is still too difficult to draw the kind of investment that is flowing to Asia.

It's not the United States has all the answers for what ails the hemisphere, but what we can offer is steady partnership over the long-term to confront the challenges together.  For security, economic, energy, and political reasons, we have a vested interest in the fortunes of our neighbors to the south.  And they in ours.  It's time we elevated those relationships to reflect that reality.


Shadow Government

A Cheer for Obama on the terrorism issue

My Shadow colleagues have already taken the best choices for best and worst foreign policy moves of 2011.  

I might quibble with them on minor points.  For instance, contra Inboden, Obama has not "creat[ed] a new strategic posture in Asia." Rather, after meandering a bit with some failed efforts (G-2, the 2009 Myanmar outreach), by the end of 2011 Obama can finally and truthfully claim that "America is Back," by which I mean, "America is back to pursuing the successful Asian strategic posture that President Bush bequeathed to Obama."  And, contra Blumenthal, I think the Trans Pacific Partnership announcement is less significant than it otherwise should be precisely because the Obama Administration's record on free trade is so equivocal.  If the gap between vision and execution gets too large, then the vision itself becomes a source of friction rather than inspiration.  The soundings I have taken in the region convince me that we are uncomfortably close to that point when it comes to trade.  But these are quibbles; my Shadow colleagues have done a good job compiling cheer-worthy and jeer-worthy steps taken this past year.

Since I have already weighed in with critiques and would like to end the year on a high point, I will only flag a cheer-worthy move (there will be time aplenty in the coming year for further critique): 2011 marked the year when Obama irrevocably embraced the bipartisan war frame in confronting the challenges of transnational terrorism.

Candidate Obama campaigned unevenly against the war frame.  On the one hand, he criticized Bush for underemphasizing the war on terror, as when he alleged that Bush took his "eye off the ball" and when Obama boasted about a willingness to do unilateral strikes against Pakistan.  On the other hand, Obama blamed what he considered to be excesses in the fight precisely on the war frame and promised to undo a long list of Bush policies. 

The unevenness continued into the first year or so of Obama's tenure.  On the one hand, he ramped up some aspects of the war on terror, particularly drone strikes and the surge in Afghanistan.  On the other hand, he tolerated demoralizing witch-hunts to ferret out "wrongdoing" in the Bush Administration, promised rashly to close Gitmo without accurately counting the costs, and famously attempted to relabel activities (combat became "overseas contingency operations," and so on).

The unevenness was enough for reasonable people to debate whether Obama marked radical discontinuity or fundamental continuity in the war on terror. Reasonable people such as President Obama and former Vice-President Cheney used to plausibly claim the former.  As 2011 closes and one by one the attempted changes fell by the wayside, only the latter is plausible.  

As I argued earlier, resolving the question in favor of bipartisan continuity does not resolve all policy debates about what to do.  There is still plenty to debate about the handling of the terrorism file, and the 2012 campaign will provide an opportunity to do so.  But the cartoons and chimeras that contributed confusion to earlier rounds have finally been put to rest and that is a cheer-worthy foreign policy achievement.

Dennis Brack/Pool via Bloomberg via Getty Images