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The Blind Spot

Can President Obama get away with neglecting half a billion people?

It would have been so easy. A couple of years ago, when he was visiting Brazil, all President Barack Obama would have had to do is what he did when visiting India. Call an audible. Offer to support Brazil as a candidate for permanent U.N. Security Council membership. It was very important to the Brazilians. And no one -- not one single person on Earth -- would have expected the U.S. president to actually follow through on the promise during his term. He would have gained much at virtually no cost.

But, no. The D team of the foreign-policy community -- which is to say those responsible for U.S. Latin America policy at the time (with a few notable exceptions) -- felt it was more important to punish Brazil for having had the audacity to actually have a foreign policy of its own, working with the Turks to try to reopen a constructive dialogue with Iran. An easy opportunity was squandered by pettiness and shortsightedness. But before you blame the worker bees in the government, it is important to note that senior policymakers -- even if they had a larger strategic view -- didn't do much to advance it.

What made the blown opportunity worse was that, because the administration viewed its relationship with Turkey as special, because the president felt a special bond with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey was never similarly punished despite its partnership with Brazil on the initiative. Of course, Erdogan rewarded the president for his support by undercutting democracy in his country and supporting some pretty nasty factions in Syria, despite U.S. opposition.

Oh, and to add insult to injury, on the very same Brazil trip, even as the president was visiting with President Dilma Rousseff in her offices in Brasilia, yards away senior U.S. officials were availing themselves of Brazilian hospitality to run the White House command center overseeing incipient operations in Libya.

But this was not the only missed opportunity for the United States in Latin America during the past four years. Despite the efforts of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to put Mexico atop the list of U.S. policy priorities, precious little concrete has been done to strengthen the relationship on the economic, social, or energy side of the ledger. (The United States has been helpful in fighting the war against cartels, but at the same time, on the 20th anniversary of NAFTA, when Mexico is doing well and the United States should be working to strengthen ties with its neighbor, its main conversation is about building a higher wall to divide the two countries.) Despite finally getting around to approving the Bush-initiated trade deals with Colombia, Peru, and Panama, the United States has made zero progress toward a next step in trade policy in the region (like trying to establish a Mercosur-NAFTA road map to closer cooperation) -- a fact made all the more awkward given its intensive focus on next-generation trade deals to the east and to the west.

But mostly what has resonated in the Western Hemisphere during the past four years is a general lack of any U.S. interest or material activity in the region -- beyond regularly bumping heads with the Latin American left and patently dismissing the agenda items that Latin Americans want to discuss when meeting in multilateral settings (a drug policy that addresses demand in the United States, the flow of U.S. guns into the region, or a more rational Cuba policy).

The administration should have seen the death of Hugo Chávez as a chance to recast the relationship with that substantial group of left-leaning leaders in the region. After all, Obama and those around him not so secretly harbor the desire to bring the U.S.-Cuba relationship into the 21st century by developing a road map to end the embargo, one of the all-time greatest flops in U.S. foreign-policy history. That would win some points. And some of the region's top officials from the left, like Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, have been more constructive on issues like drug-enforcement cooperation and even seemingly more open to progress on some trade issues. And given that the left has so much clout in many of the region's most important countries -- like Venezuela, Brazil, and Argentina, not to mention Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Nicaragua, Cuba, and perhaps Chile, where former President Michelle Bachelet is poised for a comeback -- it seems that would be worth the United States' while. (Not to mention the fact that making nice with the Pacific half of Latin America to the exclusion of the Atlantic half seems strategically silly.)

Since the United States is perfectly happy to work with left-leaning governments everywhere else in the world (and others that are authoritarian or worse -- yes, I mean you, Vladimir), we have to ask, why is the Latin America policy establishment having such a hard time getting over the 1980s? Or the 1960s? (The joke in the community goes that there are two factions in the Latin America policy community -- those still living in the '60s and those still living in the '80s. But all seem more familiar with the Cold War's tactics and more inclined to discuss import substitution and old school North-South politics than they are with the new realities of this century.)

If the answer is hard to fathom, the consequences could not be more obvious. The absence of any real focus on the region except to complain about trade disputes or quibble with the likes of Chávez (an understandable pursuit but not a suitable basis for a regional policy) has created a void that means when something goes wrong, it actually is seen as the totality of U.S. policy in the Americas.

So it loomed larger than it otherwise might have when there was a fiasco concerning the grounding of Bolivian President Evo Morales's flight in Europe because he was thought to be ferrying Edward Snowden to a new destination. It inflamed Morales's colleagues throughout the region. The big bully of the North was dissing them again, extralegally violating their sovereign prerogatives. And then, when it was discovered that the National Security Agency was actively intercepting communications of millions of Brazilians, the United States actually succeeded in sending U.S. relations with the region hurtling back to the periods of the last century in which some U.S. policymakers seem most comfortable. It certainly hasn't helped that it has also been reported that the surveillance efforts extended to Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Venezuela, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica, and others. The U.S. intelligence community was in everyone's business again. The United States was treating them like second-class citizens again. And it was hard to name major countervailing positive initiatives -- as you might find in the case of China or even Russia -- that could counterbalance and at least keep the relationships "complex" rather than just lousy.

It is sometimes thought that the failure to pay much attention to a region at least has the advantage of doing no harm. Not true. It leaves the door open for the unexpected and uncomfortable to define the totality of the relationship and gives the United States little leverage to offset problems when they do arise. It is akin to the U.S. stance in Syria, where doing nothing doesn't mean the United States is off the hook. Sometimes you own a problem not because you "broke it," but because your neglect has exacerbated it or made it possible.

For this reason, if the Obama team does not want to preside over the descent of U.S.-Latin America relations to their worst level in years, it's going to have to start thinking about concrete, meaningful, positive initiatives of the kind it has thus far sidestepped or failed to follow through on during the past few years. A breakthrough on Cuba, recognition of Brazil as a true partner in the community of major powers, prioritization of collaborative rather than divisive policies with Mexico, a new trade road map, trailblazing policies in areas associated with the Internet economy and data security, and meaningful energy and climate cooperation could all be elements of a more constructive approach. But most important would be recognizing that policy isn't something that the United States does to a region only when it feels like it. The most effective and enduring policy initiatives are ones the United States takes with its partners -- based not just on its needs and agenda but on listening to theirs and finding common ground. In other words, the best policy initiatives are based on the kind of genuine mutual respect that has been lacking from the U.S.-Latin America agenda for years -- well, forever.

And while U.S. officials may condemn and pursue Edward Snowden, they must also pause and ask what it says that, of the countries that have offered him asylum, the vast majority were in our own neighborhood -- in Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and, reportedly, Ecuador. In fact, it is worth asking what role the Morales fiasco played in pushing some of these countries to offer him asylum. In any event, this may all seem like a sideshow to those in the Washington foreign policy community who spend most of their time these days worrying about the Middle East, China, cyber-conflict, terrorism, and big trade deals -- which is of course, precisely the problem. In today's world, there is no such thing as benign neglect.

EZEQUIEL BECERRA/AFP/Getty Images

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