Tuesday, September 30, 2014
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George W. Bush and America's Neglected Hemisphere

When the NATO Allies gather in Istanbul, much of the talk will concern the divisions between America and Europe over Iraq. But Europe is not alone in its estrangement from the United States under President George W. Bush's leadership. Among the vast list of unforeseen consequences springing from the US fiasco in Iraq is the vital fact that, across Latin America, anti-Americanism is on the rise and is rapidly generating myriad grim effects on the region's politics.

The parallel with Europe does not end there. Before the Bush administration, various American presidents worked hard to change the US relationship with Latin America from one of hegemon and dominated states to something like the relations that exist with the European allies. All of that is now gravely at risk - a dangerous turn of events. Complete estrangement from the US in Latin America will not only harm hemispheric relations, but may discredit broader ideas that are closely associated with the US.

Many of these pernicious side effects can already be perceived. The first, and deepest, consequence consists in plummeting prestige of and respect for the US and the Bush administration in Latin American public opinion.

This was not the case at the beginning of Bush's term as president. On the contrary, many capitals south of the Rio Grande had high expectations for the team that moved into the White House in 2001. After all, during his first nine months in office, Bush declared that he would devote tremendous attention to the hemisphere, and his actions seemed to back up his rhetoric. He visited Mexico before any other country, renewed Temporary Protection Status for Central American immigrants, maintained President Bill Clinton's waiver of certain trade restrictions on countries and companies doing business with Cuba, and gave new impetus to the negotiations to create a Free Trade Area of the Americas.

Iraq changed all of this. The invasion, the absence of any weapons of mass destruction or any link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, the pictures of Iraqi civilian casualties, and the subsequent scenes of humiliating mistreatment or torture of Iraqi prisoners and detainees have all contributed to a wide, deep, and probably lasting collapse of sympathy for the US in the region. This can be measured in public opinion polls, in newspaper editorials, congressional resolutions, summit declarations, and street demonstrations.

A second effect follows directly from the first. At least rhetorically speaking, government parties or leaders with a strong anti-US tilt are gaining ground, from Mexico City's Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador to the Frente Amplio party in Uruguay, from Schaddick Handal in the old FMLN in El Salvador to Evo Morales in Bolivia, not to mention governments like Hugo Chávez's in Venezuela and Nestor Kirchner's in Argentina. These anti-US forces are not all necessarily left wing; they are, however, stridently critical of the US. In all likelihood, they will become more vociferous and vituperative before they mellow, because public opinion seems to be rewarding stances and tones such as theirs.

America's friends in Latin America are feeling the fire of this anti-American wrath. They are finding themselves forced to shift their own rhetoric and attitude in order to dampen their defense of policies viewed as pro-American or US-inspired, and to stiffen their resistance to Washington's demands and desires. In many cases, American demands and desires are contrary to Latin interests, and should be resisted. But in other cases, opposition to America's preferences is wrought by public sentiment and goes against the instincts of leaders who know better.

The Bush's administration has brought all of this upon itself. It could have either avoided a monumental mistake, as Iraq has now proved to be, or it could have brought the United Nations on board from the outset, ensuring that military action, and the subsequent occupation and reconstruction of the country, would have broad multilateral support. At worst, the Bush administration could have acted alone, but with sufficient force, skill, and diligence - and with the appropriate and imperative respect for human rights and international law - to get the job done quickly.

Instead, the Bush administration, for reasons that are increasingly perplexing, went at it alone. Moreover, it did so without an endgame strategy, and with a level of force so "underwhelming" that it made the outrageous behavior at the Abu Ghraib prison almost inevitable. By so doing, Bush's team left America's friends in Latin America - no less than in Europe and elsewhere - in a hapless situation: rightly unable and unwilling to support the US march of folly, and understandably reluctant to poison hemispheric relations in general with the type of strident criticism that local public opinion demands.

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