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.


David Rothkopf

No Labels

Why Washington shouldn't wage foreign policy by dictionary.

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn't just one of your holiday games;

You may think at first I'm as mad as a hatter,

When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.

--T.S. Eliot

The cats in the foreign-policy community are just as hard to label as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat were for poet T.S. Eliot. They have the names they give themselves, such as "realists" or practitioners of "smart power" -- the ones that make anyone who doesn't agree with them sound bad, in those two cases making opponents appear unrealistic or dumb. And then there are the names that others give them, like "idealists" or "pawns of the Israel lobby," which seek to pigeonhole them as naive or tools of secret cabals. And then, as with cats, there are their "ineffable effable effanineffable deep and inscrutable singular" names -- the ones that capture who they really are.

Recent events in Egypt have revealed that one particularly powerful group comprises those who, no doubt out of good intentions, find themselves confounded not so much by events as by semantics. The continuing debate over whether to call the upheaval in that country a coup or not and whether Barack Obama's administration is right or wrong to sidestep the term illustrates this. It reveals a group in the policy community that has done a great deal of damage to some of America's most enlightened impulses over the years. You might choose to call the group by the label that so many of its members have embraced professionally: lawyers. But another term that also captures their true nature is "literalists."

These literalists are the ones who have made the fundamental error of confusing democratic processes and democratic principles. Their views are the foundation on which illiberal democracies everywhere are based. They believe that if you check certain democratic boxes you are therefore advancing democracy, when, of course, in Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and, more recently, in Mohamed Morsy's Egypt, the people know better. The number of leaders who have hijacked the trappings of democracy in order to claim legitimacy and have then used the power they gained to crack down on the media, arrest comedians for the wrong kinds of jokes, or imprison their enemies is manifold and, thanks to the literalists, growing.

While it is too early to say whether the reforms the Egyptian military allegedly is seeking will be realized, and while anyone with experience in the region must view the military's power grab with some concern, fearing a replay of past abuses, the Egyptian situation makes the deficiencies of the literalists absolutely clear. Because to the literalist, a duly elected leader is to be protected at all costs as a manifestation of democratic processes, and the overthrow of that leader is always anti-democratic. Literalists ignore that such leaders often become anti-democrats themselves, as Morsy did, and that the actions that remove them from power may actually be essential to advancing democratic principles such as pluralism, greater tolerance, accountability of the government to the people, and so on.

To their credit, Obama and his team were willing to remain pragmatic, avoid trapping themselves by characterizing the events in Egypt simplistically, and thus maintain as much influence as they possibly could. Behind the scenes, they knew that their stance would inflame both sides in the country, and they took the mature stance of acknowledging that this was an inevitable cost, acceptable if it might ultimately lead to greater stability and prosperity in Egypt and fewer of the direct threats to U.S. interests that were regularly emanating from Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood (both within Egypt and throughout the region).

But as contentious as the debate over the meaning of what is or is not "pro-democratic" or what is or is not a "coup," a more important semantic debate looms concerning another confusion-inducing label: "moderate." No term or debate is more important to America's interests and future role in the region -- and none is more important to the future of the people and countries of the Middle East.

The swift action of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates in support of the interim Egyptian government -- among them the three promised $12 billion in aid, almost 10 times the amount the United States provides annually -- and the simultaneous crackdown on Al Jazeera in Egypt illustrate just how intense that debate is. At its core, the divide pits states that support a more Islamist view of "moderation," like Turkey and Al Jazeera's Qatari sponsors, against those who see Islamic extremism as a direct threat and seek a different model of an Islamic state. The United Arab Emirates is increasingly playing a leading role in this regard, working with many in the Saudi government, with Bahrain, with Jordan, and with others. (Elsewhere on ForeignPolicy.com, Marc Lynch argues that what the Saudis, Kuwaitis, and Emiratis are doing is meddling and that their formula for progress is not exactly America's. I have a lot of respect for Lynch, but I can't help but disagree with his critique in this case. Of course, these countries, like the United States and all others, provide aid to help advance their interests. And, of course, those interests are not aligned precisely with U.S. interests. But on net they are helpful -- possibly extremely helpful. And Lynch, in referencing an FP article by Emirati Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash on this subject, ignores Gargash's specific focus on some issues that are and should be very important to the United States, such as welcoming religious diversity, stopping the sectarian divide, supporting women's rights, etc.)

Until recently, the tension between these two groups was most clear in Syria, where the Turks and the Qataris were supporting anti-Assad groups that embraced a more Islamist ideology and where the Saudis, the Emiratis, the Jordanians, and others worked to actively promote different groups among the rebels. Both the Turks and the Qataris were closer to the Morsy government, and the fact that Al Jazeera seemed to have an inside line to the Brotherhood not only illustrated this but in the end led to perceptions of bias that produced mass resignations at the television outlet.

For the United States and the region, this is a critical divide -- and one that will require us to refine not only our definition of "moderate," but also what we mean by the terms "ally" and "national interest." Because whatever the Obama administration may say publicly, American direct involvement in the Middle East is only going to diminish. And U.S. resources are going to be limited. And, more importantly, as we have learned, America is never going to be able to impose or even engineer a transformation of the region.

So now it is clear: To maintain influence, the United States must work with new regional allies on the ground. And to be successful, it must find partners that embrace as many of America's values and goals as possible -- being careful not to be so literalist that the country rejects those that are not entirely like it. Literalists, absolutists, and idealists would set standards for American collaboration so rigidly that the potential for alliances, and thus influence, would dwindle to zero.

When the United States finally takes a step back from its very reactive, crisis-driven Middle East approach of the moment and starts getting strategic -- seeing the important links between the situations in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Iran, the Maghreb, and the Persian Gulf -- it will see that in all it must cultivate a moderate alliance with which it can work. Indeed, the United States must recognize that this alliance will do more of the work than it will, foot more of the bill than it will, be closer to the problems than it is, be better equipped to help find the economic solutions that work in the region than it is, and, in fact, really be the players on the field going forward. The United States must be, as one regional leader put it with regard to Syria, "the coach." America must be engaged. Its support is seen as important. Its links to economic and military resources are still the best in the world.

So America's job will be to find, cultivate, and help support and guide a new team. While that won't be a team with which the United States agrees on everything, that only means the team will be like America's other important alliances in Europe, the Americas, and Asia. We may call that team "the moderates," but we need to carefully decide what we want that term to mean. We can't let literalists define it too narrowly. And the United States can't let self-defined moderates who actually are promoting less-tolerant, less-Western-friendly, less-likely-to-succeed-economically-and-socially models take the lead. The bigger the group, the better. The sooner America reduces divisions between moderates, the more it does to help the group cohere, the clearer it is in its support for steps that potentially advance U.S. interests in the way a more pluralist Egypt would do, the better. But above all we must remember that the label that will best describe those governments that truly promote peace and U.S. interests in the Middle East is not one found on lists of ideological terms. It is "effective." Governments that work for their people are governments that will last. None will look exactly as we imagine an ideal state might. All will confound the literalists and those who think that to be successful every state must look just like America -- which means that the United States ought to promote policies less driven by semantics and more measured in terms of results. The one word most likely to bring peace and stability to the Middle East happens to be the same one that is most important in America. It is "jobs."