Argument

Adios, Amigos

How Latin America stopped caring what the United States thinks.

As Hillary Clinton travels through Latin America this week, the U.S. secretary of state will find it profoundly transformed from the relatively serene and accommodating region she encountered as first lady in the 1990s. During that period between the end of the Cold War and the onset of the 21st century, Latin America lacked the political stirrings, fragmentation, and disarray that now define much of the landscape.

It was also much more willing to hear advice from its neighbor to the north. In sharp contrast to the environment that prevailed when President Bill Clinton presided over the first Summit of the Americas in 1994 (when the now moribund Free Trade Area of the Americas was launched), today the region, led by Brazil and Mexico, is a rising force in its own right. Many countries have global aspirations and interests, and they expect Washington to treat them as such. The secretary of state is no doubt getting a taste of that shift as she visits South America's Southern Cone of Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, and Brazil, as well as Central America's Costa Rica and Guatemala.

To be sure, there is a reservoir of personal goodwill for Clinton in the region, as there is for President Barack Obama. Despite some disappointment in government circles, the administration remains popular with most Latin Americans, and Obama is likely to be cheered when he heads to South America for the first time in the next several months. But personal popularity aside, there are underlying frictions and misunderstandings between the United States and Latin America that are profound and growing. Building that oft-invoked "partnership" between Washington and South American countries looks harder now than ever.

The fissures began to show as early as Obama's first Latin America event, the Summit of the Americas last April in Trinidad and Tobago. Many hoped that Obama's appealing rhetoric would translate into concrete progress on issues ranging from economics and energy to drugs and the environment. Such hope, however, proved ephemeral. On this visit, Clinton is essentially batting cleanup. Nearly a year (and much diplomatic disappointment) later, Clinton will have to reassure key allies that Washington really is serious about pursuing common hemispheric goals.

In the year since Obama so eloquently laid out his agenda for the region -- one that resonated with Latin Americans -- common goals got sidetracked by disappointment over the Honduras political crisis, suspicion following a U.S.-Colombia military cooperation pact, and continued displeasure over the invariably divisive issue of Cuba.

Finding common ground on these issues has been especially hard because what Latin Americans see as matters of principle tend to get entangled in U.S. domestic politics or tied up in bureaucratic inertia. For the most part, Latin Americans wanted Washington to act more forcefully and impose a solution after the coup in Honduras; shorten, not extend, military involvement in the region; and end the fruitless embargo against Cuba once and for all.

The United States did none of those things. On Honduras, Obama's administration was irritated when Latin Americans urged a more aggressive posture after they had been counseled to be more multilateral in dealing with regional problems. The administration was meanwhile getting flak from congressional Republicans, who expressed their displeasure at supporting a key ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez -- Honduras's ousted President Manuel Zelaya; key senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) held up administration appointments to make the point. Then, Washington was stung by the Latin American (particularly Brazilian) reaction to what the Pentagon surely regarded as a routine and innocuous deal with Colombia. And the Obama administration has been disappointed by the lack of any insistence among Latin Americans for democratic progress in Cuba. The frustration, it is fair to say, has been mutual.

Matters have been further aggravated by the sensitive matter of Iran's involvement in the region. The concern is less about Chávez's predictable anti-U.S. alliance with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than Brazil's unexpectedly indulgent posture toward Tehran's nuclear program. Ahmadinejad visited Brazil in November, and President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is scheduled to go to Tehran in May.

As a nonpermanent member of the U.N. Security Council, Brazil will have a say about adopting a tougher sanctions regime against Iran. Whether Brazil can be persuaded to go along with U.S. policy will be the biggest test of Clinton's diplomatic skills this week, and perhaps the most important part of her regional tour. Her warning to Latin America last December -- that "if people want to flirt with Iran, they should take a look at what the consequences might well be for them" -- is unlikely to help. For Latin Americans, such an admonition hails back to the old days of U.S.-Latin American relations and seems at odds with the spirit of the new Obama administration.

These days, most Latin American countries don't depend on the United States as much politically; nor do they have to listen like they used to. Brazil in particular is not just a regional power but is increasingly assertive on the global stage. Within the G-20, Brazil is more inclined to form an alliance with China, India, and Russia (the so-called BRIC group) than it is with the likes of the United States, Canada, or even Argentina or Mexico. On Iran, Brazil wants to please some domestic constituencies who long for national greatness, while flexing its foreign-policy muscles to show that it can defy Washington's attempts to set the agenda.

Iran is not alone in trying to take advantage of Latin America's gradual metamorphosis and enhanced confidence in global affairs; China, India, and Russia are all jumping in. And though less worrisome than Iran, these new actors certainly pose a challenge to Washington's traditional mindset and way of operating in the region.

But Latin America is hardly just waiting for others to point out the growing distance between itself and Washington; regional meetings and negotiations are also moving that way. Just a week ago in Cáncun, Mexico, Latin American governments moved to create a new regional organization made up exclusively of Latin American and Caribbean countries -- and not the United States or Canada -- to challenge the current Organization of American States (OAS), which does include them. Countries in the region have vowed to do this countless times before. In fact, several smaller groups have already popped up, including the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), headed by Chávez.  This time, however, it appears that the all-in Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations will actually get off the ground at next year's meeting, to be held in Caracas. Although there are many doubts about the viability of such an organization -- its mandate, for example, remains nebulous, and Latin America has hardly been a model of unity -- its likely fruition won't go unnoticed in Washington as a not-so-subtle hint.

What, then, will become of the OAS? The world's oldest regional organization, housed in one of Washington's most majestic buildings, has been particularly maligned in recent years. True, the OAS has always had image problems, but now they have become acutely visible -- a reflection of other disputes now appearing the region. The many good deeds done (not least election monitoring and an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that has shone a necessary spotlight on violations of the rule of law) are slowly being overshadowed by mutual suspicions between Washington and its southern neighbors -- decades after they first cropped up in Cold War days.

On March 24, OAS Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza will probably be re-elected for a second five-year term. Although the Chilean diplomat has his share of critics -- Washington Post editorials and a minority report of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have accused Insulza of being politically selective in responding to democratic problems in the region -- he is the only serious candidate and has already garnered support from major Latin American countries.

The key question, though, is whether anyone in the hemisphere is prepared to take the OAS seriously anymore. It won't take much to keep the organization alive, despite its acute financial difficulties (the United States provides some 60 percent of its budget). But it is less likely to be useful in tackling the myriad, shared problems that afflict the hemisphere. With persistent irritation with the inter-American agenda -- and with the emergence of a parallel bloc that excludes Washington and Ottawa -- the main temptation of many U.S. policymakers will be to simply let Latin American countries go their own way and maintain only a perfunctory involvement in the region and the OAS. In many ways, this is happening already.

That temptation should be resisted. U.S. withdrawal from Latin America would be myopic and counterproductive. U.S.-Latin American country relationships, for all their occasional drama, require less and give back more than most bilateral ties that Washington has. The Americas' economies are tightly intertwined, to the benefit of all sides. Most U.S. citizens, for example, probably don't realize that their country exports as much to Latin America as to the entire European Union. Meanwhile, if threats such as drug trafficking and criminality are not tackled head-on, and jointly, they will imperil the entire region's security, including the United States'. And at the end of the day, the United States and Latin American countries are neighbors whose similar values and increasingly shared cultures really ought to mean that it's pretty easy to get along.  

Perhaps the shock of Washington's first real (if gradual) "ouster" from the region in this new regional grouping should get the message across: The United States will have to jettison its often patronizing attitude and engage patiently in hard diplomatic work if it hopes to work with its neighbors.

These days, Washington's quick and generous responses to the tragic earthquakes in Haiti and Chile won't be enough. Clinton's visit to Chile indeed shows solidarity and sends the right message, gaining regional goodwill. But if the warm feelings grow cold, Washington will be left with a host of issues that are too pressing -- and the opportunities too fleeting -- to allow Latin American disillusionment to set in once again.

PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Down the AfPak Rabbit Hole

The village of Marjah is a meaningless strategic backwater. So why are the Pentagon and the press telling us the battle there was a huge victory?

The release of Tim Burton's new blockbuster movie, Alice in Wonderland, is days away. The timing could not be more appropriate. Lewis Carroll's ironically opium-inspired tale of a rational person caught up inside a mad world with its own bizarre but consistent internal (il)logic has now surpassed Vietnam as the best paradigm to understand the war in Afghanistan.

The war in Afghanistan, as we have written here and in Military Review (pdf), is indeed a near replication of the Vietnam War, including the assault on the strategically meaningless village of Marjah, which is itself a perfect re-enactment of Operation Meade River in 1968. But the callous cynicism of this war, which we described here in early December, and the mainstream media's brainless reporting on it, have descended past these sane parallels. We have now gone down the rabbit hole.

Two months ago, the collection of mud-brick hovels known as Marjah might have been mistaken for a flyspeck on maps of Afghanistan. Today the media has nearly doubled its population from less than 50,000 to 80,000 -- the entire population of Nad Ali district, of which Nad Ali is the largest town, is approximately 99,000 -- and portrays the offensive there as the equivalent of the Normandy invasion, and the beginning of the end for the Taliban. In fact, however, the entire district of Nad Ali, which contains Marjah, represents about 2 percent of Regional Command (RC) South, the U.S. military's operational area that encompasses Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Zabul, Nimruz, and Daikundi provinces. RC South by itself is larger than all of South Vietnam, and the Taliban controls virtually all of it. This appears to have occurred to no one in the media.

Nor have any noted that taking this nearly worthless postage stamp of real estate has tied down about half of all the real combat power and aviation assets of the international coalition in Afghanistan for a quarter of a year. The possibility that wasting massive amounts of U.S. and British blood, treasure, and time just to establish an Afghan Potemkin village with a "government in a box" might be exactly what the Taliban wants the coalition to do has apparently not occurred to either the press or to the generals who designed this operation.

In reality, this battle -- the largest in Afghanistan since 2001 -- is essentially a giant public affairs exercise, designed to shore up dwindling domestic support for the war by creating an illusion of progress. In reporting it, the media has gulped down the whole bottle of "drink me" and shrunk to journalistic insignificance. In South Vietnam, an operational area smaller than RC South, the United States and its allies had over 2 million men under arms, including more than half a million Americans, the million-man Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), 75,000 coalition troops, the Vietnamese Regional Forces and Popular Forces (known as "Ruff-Puffs"), the South Vietnamese police, the Civilian Irregular Defense Groups (CIDG) and other militias -- and lost.

Yet the media is breathlessly regurgitating Pentagon pronouncements that we have "turned the corner" and "reversed the momentum" in Afghanistan with fewer than 45,000 men under arms in all of RC South (including the Afghan army and police) by fighting for a month to secure a single hamlet. Last year this would have been déjà vu of the "five o'clock follies" of the Vietnam War. Now it feels more like the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. "How can we have more success," Alice might ask, "when we haven't had any yet?"

So here we are in the AfPak Wonderland, complete with a Mad Hatter (the clueless and complacent media), Tweedledee and Tweedledum (the military, endlessly repeating itself and history), the White Rabbit (the State Department, scurrying to meetings and utterly irrelevant), the stoned Caterpillar (the CIA, obtuse, arrogant, and asking the wrong questions), the Dormouse (U.S. Embassy Kabul, who wakes up once in a while only to have his head stuffed in a teapot), the Cheshire Cat (President Obama, fading in and out of the picture, eloquent but puzzling), the Pack of Cards army (the Afghan National Army, self-explanatory), and their commander, the inane Queen of Hearts (Afghan President Hamid Karzai). (In Alice in Wonderland, however, the Dormouse is "suppressed" by the Queen of Hearts, not the White Rabbit or the Cheshire Cat, so the analogy is not quite perfect.)

For his part, as the Economist noted this week, Karzai has made fools of all the Western officials who sternly admonished him to begin a new era of transparent democracy, seizing control of the Electoral Complaints Commission to dismiss its independent members. Like the Queen of Hearts, Karzai has literally lost his marbles, according to our sources in the presidential palace. Or, as U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry more diplomatically phrased it in his leaked cable, his behavior has become "erratic." He hasn't started shouting "off with their heads" yet, but the legitimacy thing is toast. Only the massive public relations exercise in Marjah kept Karzai's kleptocracy out of the media spotlight in February.

The military and political madness of the AfPak Wonderland has entered a new chapter of folly with the detention of a few Taliban mullahs in Pakistan, most notably Mullah Baradar, once the military strategist of the Quetta Shura, the primary Taliban leadership council headed by Mullah Omar. Like the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon in Alice in Wonderland, this has the Washington establishment dancing the whacked-out Lobster-Quadrille: Instant Afghanistan experts at the White House and pundits at august Beltway institutions like the Brookings Institution are absurdly calling the detentions a "sea change" in Pakistani behavior.

In fact, it is no such thing. Pakistan has not abandoned overnight its 50-year worship of the totem of "strategic depth," its cornerstone belief that it must control Afghanistan, or its marriage to the Taliban, and anyone who believes that is indulging in magical thinking. What has happened is, in fact, a purge by Taliban hard-liners of men perceived to be insufficiently reliable, either ethnically or politically, or both. It is well-known that there had been a schism in the Quetta Shura for months, with hard-liner and former Gitmo prisoner Mullah Zakir (aka Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul) coming out on top over Mullah Baradar. Baradar sheltered fellow Popalzai Hamid Karzai in 2001 and possibly saved his life after an errant U.S. bomb in Uruzgan province killed several men on the Special Forces team that was escorting him. Baradar later became a confidant of the president's  brother, paid CIA informer Ahmed Wali Karzai, and met occasionally with the president himself in the tangled web of Afghan politics.

The core Ghilzai leadership of the Taliban had long suspected Baradar of being too willing to negotiate and too partial to his kinsmen in making field appointments. Indeed, this suspicion led to the creation of the Quetta Shura's Accountability Council in late 2009, whose job apparently included removing many of Baradar's excessively Durrani and Karlani appointments.

This explains why when Mullah Zakir, the hard-line military chief of the Quetta Shura along with Baradar, was detained near Peshawar two weeks after Baradar was detained, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) - Pakistan's powerful military spy service -- released him immediately. Meanwhile, all of the other lesser figures currently in detention (including Abdul Kabir, aka Mullah Abdul Kahir Osmani, the RC East regional commander; Mullah Abdul Rauf Aliza, an Alizai Durrani, former Gitmo prisoner, and Taliban military chief for northern Afghanistan; and Mullah Ahmed Jan Akhundzada, former shadow governor of Uruzgan province and Ishaqzai Durrani) are known moderates and allies of Baradar.

In other words, the Quetta Shura has used the ISI, its loyal and steadfast patron, to take out its trash. Those few mullahs suspected of being amenable to discussions with the infidel enemy and thus ideologically impure have now been removed from the jihad. This is not cooperation against the Taliban by an allied state; it is collusion with the Taliban by an enemy state. Pakistan is in fact following its own perceived strategic interests, which do not coincide with those of the United States. Pakistan has masterfully plied the Western establishment with an LSD-laced "drink me" cocktail of its own, convincing everyone that it is a frail and fragile Humpty-Dumpty that must not be pushed too hard, lest the nuclear egg fall off the wall. This is nonsense. In fact, what is needed against Pakistan's military leaders is a lever more powerful than "strategic depth" to force them into compliance and make them stop sheltering al Qaeda, destabilizing Afghanistan, and killing hundreds of Americans by proxy.

Unfortunately, in this AfPak Wonderland, there does not appear to be any magic mushroom to get back to normal. Instead, Afghanistan and Pakistan policy is trapped in an endless loop in a mad policy world operating under its own consistent internal illogic. Unlike Alice, the handful of Afghan analysts in the United States who actually understand what is happening cannot wake up or break through the corporate media noise. Far worse, thousands of brave U.S. Marines and soldiers are caught up in this deadly political croquet game where IEDs, not hedgehogs, are the game balls. The Duchess's baby really has turned into a pig, and there seems to be no way out of this increasingly insane rabbit hole.

POOL/AFP/Getty Images