Monotony in the Americas

by , April 20, 2009

All right, I didn’t really expect President Obama to go to Mexico and issue a statement like this:

After long reflection, the U.S. government has decided that the single most constructive thing this country can do to reduce the current violence in Mexico is to legalize marijuana. Given that most experts believe that the vicious Mexican drug cartels derive 40-60 percent of their revenue from marijuana, this should be a good first step in undercutting their revenue and power. We also plan to convene a blue-ribbon commission, headed by Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance but including people from various points of view, to work on innovative harm-reduction approaches to other currently illicit drugs. We have no power to dictate policy to Mexico, nor do we wish to. But we understand that there is considerable sentiment in Mexico for rethinking the counterproductive War on Drugs. We hope those voices are heard during a comprehensive review of the country’s approach to currently illicit drugs.

But it would have been nice.

Instead, of course, President Obama, who at various times during his brief political career has shown signs of understanding just what an abject failure the drug war has been, promised to double-down on the strategy that has failed for decades: more money for law enforcement, more military weapons, more consultation from U.S. experts who have been so successful at stemming the flow of drugs into this country. It could have been Bush talking.

The predictable result will be to weaken the cartels that are somewhat vulnerable or have some shortcomings at the dark arts of concealment, bribery, and assassination, and open more of the market to the most vicious and ruthless criminals in the country. That is the inevitable eventual outcome of official efforts to ramp up the war on drugs into a real rather than metaphorical war, even though there may be brief periods when the cartels seem weakened and the flow of drugs is temporarily interrupted.

What is turning out the be the case, however, is that in foreign affairs Barack Obama is a conventional establishment liberal who differs in minor particulars from previous Democratic presidents since Truman – and thus differs only slightly, mainly in emphasis and tone, from recent Republican presidents. Republicans tend to prefer unilateral action and an us-vs.-them attitude, while Democrats like to think of themselves as more multilaterally inclined, showing respect for and consulting with our valued allies and acting whenever possible through international institutions like the UN – which makes certain kinds of conservatives and neoconservatives accuse them of weakness and placing foreign interests ahead of American ones.

But Republicans and Democrats alike view the United States as the "indispensable nation," the undisputed leader of not just the "free world" as in the old Soviet days, but of the entire world. They may focus on different sparrows around the world – Georgia for some, Darfur for others – but they share the notion that ideally not a sparrow should fall without the U.S. at least considering action to rescue it.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that despite the relative radicalism of his domestic program, at least in terms of total spending and the desire to transform a capitalist-oriented mixed economy to one with more government guidance and more focus on "green" technologies, Obama is far from a revolutionary in foreign affairs. He did give a nice speech before the Iraq war, opposing it in a straightforward manner, as few elected Democrats did at the time. But there is scant evidence in his biographies of any sustained effort to study or understand international relations at anything more than a superficial level. So of course he would tend to accept the received wisdom of reputed experts of a Democratic orientation.

Thus on his trip to Europe, he certainly did adopt a different tone than the lamentable Mr. Bush, though Bush was never quite the unilateralist cowboy of caricature, either. Obama listened, consulted, vowed to cooperate, and showed respect for the opinions of other leaders. And when he found that the Germans had come to the G-20 meeting in an unbending mood – they weren’t about to follow the U.S. and the Brits into large-scale "stimulus" spending – Obama didn’t push the matter. It was more important to him to be seen as the unBush.

He didn’t forget about the global reach of the American Empire, however. His trip to Turkey was generally seen as a goodwill gesture to a Muslim nation, with the hope that it might soften the attitudes of other Muslim nations. But there was an imperial aspect to the trip as well. It is likely that at least some Obama advisers see Turkey over the long run as a potential counterbalance to Russian interests in Central Asia, even the Caucasus. If Western Europeans, and especially the Germans, are in no mood to push back against Russia, perhaps the Turks can be used against them in the Great Game (though some Russian and Turkish interests coincide, and it is likely to be a long game).

As welcome as Obama’s modest opening to Cuba was, it was far from a dramatic step. Some U.S. business interests have been pushing for an opening to Cuba for years. The Cuban American National Foundation, long the old-guard keeper of the hard line against communist Cuba (and a huge factor in Florida politics), had already had a change of heart (in large part a generational matter) and called for "a break from the past." It seemed willing to consider scuttling the longtime economic embargo against Cuba that has failed to dislodge the Castros and has made the U.S. look ridiculous. So in a sense, Obama saw the way things were going and rushed to get ahead of the crowd and proclaim himself the leader, like so many politicians before him.

Is it possible now to talk of continuity in the Bush-Obama era – albeit, commendably enough, minus explicit orders from the top to torture people who are captured? Look at the war in Afghanistan. The major difference from the way Bush approached the country is the increase in civilian personnel and the emphasis on nation-building from the outset of Obama’s turn in the Oval Office, which will make the war even more difficult and long-lasting than focusing on the military or even – perish the thought! – pulling the military out and focusing on whatever remains of a plausibly real opponent, al-Qaeda remnants in Pakistan.

The president traveled from Mexico City to Trinidad and Tobago for a Summit of the Americas, one of those international photo opportunities calculated chiefly to let presidents feel important. No apparent discussion of the fact that China is quietly but busily making investments throughout Latin America calculated to lock up access to natural resources – which might not be a bad thing, but it certainly seems to warrant some attention. Instead the president acquiesced to the idea that the only item on the agenda worth discussing was Cuba. No acknowledgment of the fact that President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela in the past month has brought corruption or treason charges against four opposition governors and mayors and an opposition newspaper editor.

Perhaps President Obama felt that as the new kid on the block it was not his place to make dramatic gestures – though he has hardly been averse to them on the domestic front. So we didn’t see him, for example, announcing the introduction of legislation to lift the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba, not because Cuba "deserves" it or Hugo Chavez has emphasized it, but in the context of reviving one of the original purposes of the quadrennial summit meeting, a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), as the most constructive way to encourage hemispheric peace and prosperity.

Instead we got kissy-face sessions, photos of smiling leaders, and meaningless statements about "constructive dialogue." You could argue that once again Obama showed that he is not Bush, which has some significance. But in terms of policy, it is looking like change we can barely discern.

Read more by Alan Bock