Shadow Government

Is Obama's Latin America Policy Finally on Track?

Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue is one of the more astute observers of Latin American affairs in Washington. His analyses are usually a reliable barometer on the prevailing inside-the-Beltway sentiment on U.S.-Latin America relations. The concluding paragraph of his recent article on the Obama administration's failed policy to develop good relations with Ecuador's obstreperous President Rafael Correa thus merits particular attention.

Shifter writes:

In the second Obama administration, a slight shift can be discerned. U.S. officials now appear somewhat less inclined to invest scarce diplomatic resources in repairing relations with Ecuador and other unfriendly governments. Rather, the focus is on deepening ties with allies in the region, especially Pacific Alliance members -- Colombia, Peru, Mexico and Chile -- and, of course, Brazil, given its strategic importance.

If that is the case, it would mark a huge and welcome turnaround in U.S. policy toward Latin America. For five years, administration policy has been just that: squandering scarce diplomatic resources in a misguided effort to establish normal relations with the region's leftist leaders (presumably as a way to expiate the historical sins of the United States in Latin America -- real and imagined -- or at least deny justification for these populists' anti-American behavior.) 

Now, the administration should not be begrudged for at least making the effort in its first few months. The problem is that the administration clung to this policy long after it became painfully clear that governments in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia had no interest in reciprocating. The result being that, rather than leading to any moderation of these governments' behavior, it only emboldened them to further trample on democratic institutions, concentrate power, and openly snub U.S. attempts to cooperate on important issues like counter-narcotics.

I have written repeatedly on Shadow Government that U.S. interests in the Western Hemisphere are best served instead by embracing those countries that have made the choice to look forward rather than backward and pursue (at some cost internally) an outward-looking trade regime.

Clearly, there is not much time left in this administration, but late is better than never. Last week, it announced an encouraging new initiative "Look South," which is described as "a coordinated federal government effort" help U.S. companies do business with Mexico and the other 10 partners with which the United States has free trade agreements in Latin America.

Indeed, the best answer to the mess of pottage that the Rafael Correas of the region are offering their citizens is to demonstrate the tangible benefits of democratic pluralism, open economies, and free trade. Admittedly, countering demagoguery is not easy, but the laws of economics have a way of exposing these false messiahs --- witness the disaster that Venezuela is today. The administration needs to help demonstrate that there is indeed an alternative; it is not easy, but it does work if countries are willing to make the commitment.

This is not to argue that the United States should ignore what is going on in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Whether the administration likes it or not, democrats abroad look to the United States for solidarity when their fundamental rights are being trampled on by their governments. The administration needs to speak out on principle in order to provide some semblance of international scrutiny to the anti-democratic actions of these populist governments; the returns will be worth it.

Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Tehran's Offer to Fight al Qaeda Is Like the Arsonist Offering to Put Out the Fire

Aleppo is ablaze in Syria; Fallujah falls in Iraq; and Ramadi is raped. Yet Iran, the arsonist, offers to participate in Geneva II talks about Syria's security and provide arms to Iraq against al Qaeda.

The idea that Tehran and Washington face common enemies and hence should be friends overlooks Iran's facilitation of those adversaries. Due to Tehran, fighting occurs between the secular Free Syrian Army and the Islamist affiliate of al Qaeda in Aleppo, as battles occur between Bashar al-Assad's forces and Syrian oppositionists.

Tehran opposes the core of the June 2012 Geneva I communiqué. Article 9a: "The establishment of a transitional governing body … shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent," which means Assad must go. Opposing Geneva I makes Iran ill-suited for the Geneva II talks, which begin Jan. 22. Tehran's posture: Its "honor" precludes participation as less than a full partner. Good: no participation.

Tehran ferries arms across Iraqi airspace to Damascus; Iranian-armed and -trained Hezbollah from Lebanon saves the Assad regime. By aligning with Assad, his Alawite supporters, and Iran while fighting Sunni rebels, Hezbollah is at the center of a Shiite versus Sunni sectarian conflict. Quds Force paramilitary units of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps reinforce and command Hezbollah allies and the Syrian army against the rebels.

Consider Iran's collusion with Baghdad across the Shatt al-Arab waterway. Such cooperation provides a window for al Qaeda in Iraq after being defeated by U.S. forces a decade ago. Although Tehran claims it wants to help Bagdad battle al Qaeda "terrorists" in its Sunni-dominated western Anbar province -- the arsonist offering to put out the fire -- much violence erupting in Sunni provinces is because of Tehran's support for and promotion of sectarian policies pursued by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has become increasingly reliant on Iran as he seeks a third term in office.

Tehran's negative influence and Washington's desire to exit from Iraq undermined achievement of a status of forces agreement between Baghdad and Washington that ensures a residual combat presence of U.S. troops, Hence, Tehran set up proxy groups to marginalize and suppress Sunni political rivals.

The upheavals in Fallujah and Ramadi are not just the work of an al Qaeda affiliate. Local tribal militias, some of which I interviewed in 2008, said the recent fighters belonged to the Shiite Badr Brigade (established and trained by Iran two decades ago) and had been sent to Fallujah to set the stage for Iraqi military intervention.

A Sunni organization characterized the fighting as against Iran and said the group is expanding outside Anbar to join with Sunni tribes in other provinces to battle Iraq's Shiite-led government and against "Iranian occupation."

While many in the U.S. Congress do not favor arms sales to Iraq, Barack Obama's administration agreed to sell 75 Hellfire missiles and low-tech surveillance drones to assist Baghdad in counterterrorism activities without concessions on how it treats Sunni opponents and Iranian dissidents in Iraq.

But Congress has delayed shipment of Apache helicopters because Baghdad may use the weapons on domestic enemies, including Sunni tribes fighting al Qaeda and Iranian proxies. Congress is also very concerned about Baghdad's mistreatment of Iranian dissidents in Iraq.

Baghdad's complicity with Tehran results in murder, hostage-taking, and missile attacks against the Iranian dissidents. There have been three attacks by Iraqi security forces or proxies on Camp Ashraf: July 2009, April 2011, and September 2013. In the last one, 52 Ashraf residents were killed, and seven remain as hostages. There have been four rocket attacks against Camp Liberty: in February, April, June, and December 2013.

Washington's failure to hold Maliki accountable for these attacks emboldened Baghdad and Tehran. According to resistance intelligence, Iranian Quds Force officers arrived in Iraq with heat-seeking missiles to plan more attacks on Sunni neighborhoods in the capital and on vulnerable Iranian dissidents in Camp Liberty.

Iran proposes to stabilize Syria after Tehran destabilizes Syria; Iran offers arms to defend Iraq from al Qaeda after Tehran enables its affiliate to prosper in Iraq; Iraqi security attacks those whom it promises to secure. There is something rotten in such narratives.

What to do: Keep Iran out of the Geneva II talks on Syria; publicize Tehran's role in facilitating al Qaeda in Iraq; and delay arms sales to Iraq until Maliki compromises with Sunnis and ceases to repress Iranian dissidents. Finally, even without U.S. boots on the ground, it is incorrect to say, "This is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis," because it is also America's fight.

Photo: Sadam el-Mehmedy/AFP/Getty Images