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Obama on Latin America

By Judd Legum

"Obama on Latin America"

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There’s a tendency, given the urgency of the moment, to treat “foreign policy” as equivalent to “Iraq” for political purposes but of course it’s a whole much broader subject than that. The world’s a big place, and nobody can say what’s really going to look important in 2011, so it’s always good to look at people’s ideas about other subjects. In that vein, I liked Barack Obama’s Latin America speech a lot:

No wonder, then, that demagogues like Hugo Chavez have stepped into this vacuum. His predictable yet perilous mix of anti-American rhetoric, authoritarian government, and checkbook diplomacy offers the same false promise as the tried and failed ideologies of the past. But the United States is so alienated from the rest of the Americas that this stale vision has gone unchallenged, and has even made inroads from Bolivia to Nicaragua. And Chavez and his allies are not the only ones filling the vacuum. While the United States fails to address the changing realities in the Americas, others from Europe and Asia – notably China – have stepped up their own engagement. Iran has drawn closer to Venezuela, and just the other day Tehran and Caracas launched a joint bank with their windfall oil profits.

That is the record – the Bush record in Latin America – that John McCain has chosen to embrace. Senator McCain doesn’t talk about these trends in our hemisphere because he knows that it’s part of the broader Bush-McCain failure to address priorities beyond Iraq. The situation has changed in the Americas, but we’ve failed to change with it. Instead of engaging the people of the region, we’ve acted as if we can still dictate terms unilaterally. We have not offered a clear and comprehensive vision, backed up with strong diplomacy. We are failing to join the battle for hearts and minds. For far too long, Washington has engaged in outdated debates and stuck to tired blueprints on drugs and trade, on democracy and development — even though they won’t meet the tests of the future.

When you think about the tension in U.S. foreign policy between the internationalist strand and the imperialist strand, Latin America — the part of the world we encountered before the rise of liberalism — has always been a locus of imperialist thinking. As Greg Grandin fairly persuasively argues, one way of understanding the Bush foreign policy is that he’s taken ideas and techniques developed in America’s (mis)treatment of our near abroad and gone global with them. Obama wants to do the reverse, and bring the internationalist spirit of respectful engagement and cooperation to the Western Hemisphere:

No wonder, then, that demagogues like Hugo Chavez have stepped into this vacuum. His predictable yet perilous mix of anti-American rhetoric, authoritarian government, and checkbook diplomacy offers the same false promise as the tried and failed ideologies of the past. But the United States is so alienated from the rest of the Americas that this stale vision has gone unchallenged, and has even made inroads from Bolivia to Nicaragua. And Chavez and his allies are not the only ones filling the vacuum. While the United States fails to address the changing realities in the Americas, others from Europe and Asia – notably China – have stepped up their own engagement. Iran has drawn closer to Venezuela, and just the other day Tehran and Caracas launched a joint bank with their windfall oil profits.

That is the record – the Bush record in Latin America – that John McCain has chosen to embrace. Senator McCain doesn’t talk about these trends in our hemisphere because he knows that it’s part of the broader Bush-McCain failure to address priorities beyond Iraq. The situation has changed in the Americas, but we’ve failed to change with it. Instead of engaging the people of the region, we’ve acted as if we can still dictate terms unilaterally. We have not offered a clear and comprehensive vision, backed up with strong diplomacy. We are failing to join the battle for hearts and minds. For far too long, Washington has engaged in outdated debates and stuck to tired blueprints on drugs and trade, on democracy and development — even though they won’t meet the tests of the future.

I think this is the correct way of making the Bush-McCain linkages. A lot of people chafe at the idea that Bush and McCain are “the same” since the animosity between them is well known and insofar as one can tell about these things (not so far, in my view, but nevertheless…) they seem to have rather different characters. But across very large swathes of the issue landscape, they have the same policies with Bush having adopted some of John McCain’s 2000-vintage ideas and McCain having adopted some of Bush’s ideas, leaving us with few areas in which McCain even says he wants to change Bush’s policies.

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