Losing Latin America: What Will the Obama Doctrine be Like?

Latin America has been indispensable in the evolution of U.S. diplomacy. The region is often referred to as America's "backyard," but a better metaphor might be Washington's "strategic reserve," the place where ascendant foreign-policy coalitions regroup and redraw the outlines of U.S. power, following moments of global crisis.

Google "neglect,"
"Washington," and "Latin America," and you will be led to thousands of
hand-wringing calls from politicians and pundits for Washington to "pay
more attention" to the region. True, Richard Nixon once said that
"people don't give one shit" about the place. And his National Security
Advisor Henry Kissinger quipped that Latin America is a "dagger pointed
at the heart of Antarctica." But Kissinger also made that same joke
about Chile, Argentina, and New Zealand—and, of the three countries,
only the latter didn't suffer widespread political murder as a result
of his policies, a high price to pay for such a reportedly
inconsequential place.

Latin America, in
fact, has been indispensable in the evolution of U.S. diplomacy. The
region is often referred to as America's "backyard," but a better
metaphor might be Washington's "strategic reserve," the place where
ascendant foreign-policy coalitions regroup and redraw the outlines of
U.S. power, following moments of global crisis.

When the Great
Depression had the U.S. on the ropes, for example, it was in Latin
America that New Deal diplomats worked out the foundations of liberal
multilateralism, a diplomatic framework that Washington would put into
place with much success elsewhere after World War II.

In the 1980s, the
first generation of neocons turned to Latin America to play out their
"rollback" fantasies—not just against Communism, but against a
tottering multilateralist foreign-policy. It was largely in a Central
America roiled by left-wing insurgencies that the New Right first
worked out the foundational principles of what, after 9/11, came to be
known as the Bush Doctrine: the right to wage war unilaterally in
highly moralistic terms.

We are once again
at a historic crossroads. An ebbing of U.S. power—this time caused, in
part, by military overreach—faces a mobilized Latin America; and, on
the eve of regime change at home, with George W. Bush's neoconservative
coalition in ruins after eight years of disastrous rule, would-be
foreign policy makers are once again looking south.

Goodbye to All That

"The era of the
United States as the dominant influence in Latin America is over," says
the Council on Foreign Relations, in a new report filled with sober
policy suggestions for ways the U.S. can recoup its waning influence in
a region it has long claimed as its own.

Latin America is
now mostly governed by left or center-left governments that differ in
policy and style—from the populism of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela to the
reformism of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil and Michelle Bachelet
in Chile. Yet all share a common goal: asserting greater autonomy from
the United States.

Latin Americans are
now courting investment from China, opening markets in Europe,
dissenting from Bush's War on Terror, stalling the Free Trade Agreement
of the Americas, and sidelining the International Monetary Fund which,
over the last couple of decades, has served as a stalking horse for
Wall Street and the Treasury Department.

And they are
electing presidents like Ecuador's Rafael Correa, who recently
announced that his government would not renew the soon-to-expire lease
on Manta Air Field, the most prominent U.S. military base in South
America. Correa had previously suggested that, if Ecuador could set up
its own base in Florida, he would consider extending the lease. When
Washington balked, he offered Manta to a Chinese concession, suggesting
that the airfield be turned into "China's gateway to Latin America."

In the past, such
cheek would have been taken as a clear violation of the Monroe
Doctrine, proclaimed in 1823 by President James Monroe, who declared
that Washington would not permit Europe to recolonize any part of the
Americas. In 1904, Theodore Roosevelt updated the doctrine to justify a
series of Caribbean invasions and occupations. And Presidents Dwight
Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan invoked it to validate Cold War
CIA-orchestrated coups and other covert operations.

But things have
changed. "Latin America is not Washington's to lose," the Council on
Foreign Relations report says, "nor is it Washington's to save." The
Monroe Doctrine, it declares, is "obsolete."

Good news for Latin
America, one would think. But the last time someone from the Council on
Foreign Relations, which since its founding in 1921 has represented
mainstream foreign-policy opinion, declared the Monroe Doctrine
defunct, the result was genocide.

Enter the Liberal Establishment

That would be Sol
Linowitz who, in 1975, as chair of the Commission on United
States-Latin American Relations, said that the Monroe Doctrine was
"inappropriate and irrelevant to the changed realities and trends of
the future."

little-remembered Linowitz Commission was made up of respected scholars
and businessmen from what was then called the "liberal establishment."
It was but one part of a broader attempt by America's foreign-policy
elite to respond to the cascading crises of the 1970s—defeat in
Vietnam, rising third-world nationalism, Asian and European
competition, skyrocketing energy prices, a falling dollar, the
Watergate scandal, and domestic dissent. Confronted with a precipitous
collapse of America's global legitimacy, the Council on Foreign
Relations, along with other mainline think tanks like the Brookings
Institute and the newly formed Trilateral Commission, offered a series
of proposals that might help the U.S. stabilize its authority, while
allowing for "a smooth and peaceful evolution of the global system."

There was
widespread consensus among the intellectuals and corporate leaders
affiliated with these institutions that the kind of anticommunist zeal
that had marched the U.S. into the disaster in Vietnam needed to be
tamped down, and that "new forms of common management" between
Washington, Europe, and Japan had to be worked out. Advocates for a
calmer world order came from the same corporate bloc that underwrote
the Democratic Party and the Rockefeller-wing of the Republican Party.

They hoped that a
normalization of global politics would halt, if not reverse, the
erosion of the U.S. economic position. Military de-escalation would
free up public revenue for productive investment, while containing
inflationary pressures (which scared the bond managers of multinational
banks). Improved relations with the Communist bloc would open the USSR,
Eastern Europe, and China to trade and investment. There was also
general agreement that Washington should stop viewing Third World
socialism through the prism of the Cold War conflict with the Soviet

At that moment
throughout Latin America, leftists and nationalists were—as they are
now—demanding a more equitable distribution of global wealth. Lest
radicalization spread, the Trilateral Commission's executive director
Zbignew Brzezinski, soon to be President Jimmy Carter's national
security advisor, argued that it would be "wise for the United States
to make an explicit move to abandon the Monroe Doctrine." The Linowitz
Commission agreed and offered a series of recommendations to that
effect—including the return of the Panama Canal to Panama and a
decrease in U.S. military aid to the region—that would largely define
Carter's Latin American policy.

Exit the Liberal Establishment

Of course, it was
not corporate liberalism but rather a resurgent and revanchist
militarism from the Right that turned out to offer the most cohesive
and, for a time, successful solution to the crises of the 1970s.

Uniting a gathering
coalition of old-school law-and-order anticommunists, first generation
neoconservatives, and newly empowered evangelicals, the New Right
organized an ever metastasizing set of committees, foundations,
institutes, and magazines that focused on specific issues—the SALT II
nuclear disarmament negotiations, the Panama Canal Treaty, and the
proposed MX missile system, as well as U.S. policy in Cuba, South
Africa, Rhodesia, Israel, Taiwan, Afghanistan, and Central America. All
of them were broadly committed to avenging defeat in Vietnam (and the
"stab in the back" by the liberal media and the public at home). They
were also intent on restoring righteous purpose to American diplomacy.

As had corporate
liberals, so, now, neoconservative intellectuals looked to Latin
America to hone their ideas. President Ronald Reagan's ambassador to
the UN, Jeane Kirkpatrick, for instance, focused mainly on Latin
America in laying out the foundational principles of modern
neoconservative thought. She was particularly hard on Linowitz, who,
she said, represented the "disinterested internationalist spirit" of
"appeasement"—a word back with us again. His report, she insisted,
meant "abandoning the strategic perspective which has shaped U.S.
policy from the Monroe Doctrine down to the eve of the Carter
administration, at the center of which was a conception of the national
interest and a belief in the moral legitimacy of its defense."

At first,
Brookings, the Council on Foreign Affairs, and the Trilateral
Commission, as well as the Business Roundtable, founded in 1972 by the
crème de la CEO crème, opposed the push to remilitarize American
society; but, by the late 1970s, it was clear that "normalization" had
failed to solve the global economic crisis. Europe and Japan were not
cooperating in stabilizing the dollar, and the economies of Eastern
Europe, the USSR, and China were too anemic to absorb sufficient
amounts of U.S. capital or serve as profitable trading partners.
Throughout the 1970s, financial houses like the Rockefellers' Chase
Manhattan Bank had become engorged with petrodollars deposited by Saudi
Arabia, Iran, Venezuela, and other oil-exporting nations. They needed
to do something with all that money, yet the U.S. economy remained
sluggish, and much of the Third World off limits.

So, after Ronald
Reagan's 1980 presidential victory, mainstream policymakers and
intellectuals, many of them self-described liberals, increasingly came
to back the Reagan Revolution's domestic and foreign agenda: gutting
the welfare state, ramping up defense spending, opening up the Third
World to U.S. capital, and jumpstarting the Cold War.

A decade after the
Linowitz Commission proclaimed the Monroe Doctrine no longer viable,
Ronald Reagan invoked it to justify his administration's patronage of
murderous anti-communists in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador. A
few years after Jimmy Carter announced that the U.S. had broken "free
of that inordinate fear of communism," Reagan quoted John F. Kennedy
saying, "Communist domination in this hemisphere can never be

Reagan's illegal
patronage of the Contras—those murderers he hailed as the "moral
equivalent of America's founding fathers" and deployed to destabilize
Nicaragua's Sandinista government—and his administration's funding of
death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala brought together, for the
first time, the New Right's two main constituencies. Neoconservatives
provided Reagan's revival of the imperial presidency with legal and
intellectual justification, while the religious Right backed up the new
militarism with grassroots energy.

This partnership
was first built—just as it has more recently been continued in Iraq—on
a mountain of mutilated corpses: 40,000 Nicaraguans and 70,000 El
Salvadorans killed by U.S. allies; 200,000 Guatemalans, many of them
Mayan peasants, victimized in a scorched-earth campaign the UN would
rule to be genocidal.

The End of the Neocon Holiday from History

The recent Council
on Foreign Relations report on Latin America, arriving as it does in
another moment of imperial decline, seems once again to signal a new
emerging consensus, one similar in tone to that of the post-Vietnam
1970s. In every dimension other than military, Newsweek editor Fareed Zacharia argues in his new book, The Post-American World,
"the distribution of power is shifting, moving away from American
dominance." (Never mind that, just five years ago, on the eve of the
invasion of Iraq, he was insisting on the exact opposite—that we now
lived in a "unipolar world" where America's position was, and would be,

To borrow a phrase
from their own lexicon, the neocons' "holiday from history" is over.
The fiasco in Iraq, the fall in the value of the dollar, the rise of
India and China as new industrial and commercial powerhouses, and of
Russia as an energy superpower, the failure to secure the Middle East,
soaring oil and gas prices (as well as skyrocketing prices for other
key raw materials and basic foodstuffs), and the consolidation of a
prosperous Europe have all brought their dreams of global supremacy
crashing down.

Barack Obama is
obviously the candidate best positioned to walk the U.S. back from the
edge of irrelevance. Though no one hoping for a job in his White House
would put it in such defeatist terms, the historic task of the next
president will not be to win this president's Global War on Terror, but
to negotiate America's reentry into a community of nations.

Parag Khanna, an
Obama advisor, recently argued that, by maximizing its cultural and
technological advantage, the U.S. can, with a little luck, perhaps
secure a position as third partner in a new tripartite global order in
which Europe and Asia would have equal shares, a distinct echo of the
trilateralist position of the 1970s. (Forget those Munich analogies, if
the U.S. electorate were more historically literate, Republicans would
get better mileage out of branding Obama not Neville Chamberlain, but
Spain's Fernando VII or Britain's Clement Richard Attlee, each of whom
presided over his country's imperial decline.)

So it has to be
asked: If Obama wins in November and tries to implement a more
rational, less ideologically incandescent deployment of American
power—perhaps using Latin America as a staging ground for a new
policy—would it once again provoke the kind of nationalist backlash
that purged Rockefellerism from the Republican Party, swept Jimmy
Carter out of the White House, and armed the death squads in Central

Certainly, there
are already plenty of feverish conservative think tanks, from the
Hudson Institute to the Heritage Foundation, that would double down on
Bush's crusades as a way out of the current mess. But in the 1970s, the
New Right was in ascendance; today, it is visibly decomposing. Then, it
could lay responsibility for the deep and prolonged crisis that gripped
the United States at the feet of the "establishment," while offering
solutions—an arms build-up, a renewed push into the Third World, and
free-market fundamentalism—that drew much of that establishment into
its orbit.

Today, the Right
wholly owns the current crisis, along with its most immediate cause,
the Iraq War. Even if John McCain were able to squeak out a win in
November, he would be the functional equivalent not of Reagan, who
embodied a movement on the march, but of Jimmy Carter, trying
desperately to hold a fraying coalition together.

The Right's decay
as an intellectual force is nowhere more evident than in the fits it
throws in the face of the Left's—or China's—advances in Latin America.
The self-confidant vitality with which Jeane Kirkpatrick used Latin
America to skewer the Carter administration has been replaced with the
tinny, desperate shrill of despair. "Who lost Latin America?" asks the
Center for Security Policy's Frank Gaffney—of pretty much everyone he
meets. The region, he says, is now a "magnet for Islamist terrorists
and a breeding ground for hostile political movements… The key leader
is Chávez, the billionaire dictator of Venezuela who has declared a
Latino jihad against the United States."

Scare-Quote Diplomacy

But just because
the Right is unlikely to unfurl its banner over Latin America again
soon doesn't mean that U.S. hemispheric diplomacy will be
demilitarized. After all, it was Bill Clinton, not George W. Bush, who,
at the behest of Lockheed Martin in 1997, reversed a Carter
administration ban (based on Linowitz report recommendations) on the
sale of high-tech weaponry to Latin America. That, in turn, kicked off
a reckless and wasteful Southern Cone arms race. And it was Clinton,
not Bush, who dramatically increased military aid to the murderous
Colombian government and to corporate mercenaries like Blackwater and
Dyncorp, further escalating the misguided U.S. "war on drugs" in Latin

In fact, a quick
comparison between the Linowitz report and the new Council on Foreign
Relations study on Latin America provides a sobering way of measuring
just how far right the "liberal establishment" has shifted over the
last three decades. The Council does admirably advise Washington to
normalize relations with Cuba and engage with Venezuela, while
downplaying the possibility of "Islamic terrorists" using the area as a
staging ground—a longstanding fantasy of the neocons. (Douglas Feith,
former Pentagon undersecretary, suggested that, after 9/11, the U.S.
hold off invading Afghanistan and instead bomb Paraguay, which has a
large Shi'ite community, just to "surprise" the Sunni al-Qaeda.)

Yet, where the
Linowitz report provoked the ire of the likes of Jeane Kirkpatrick by
writing that the U.S. should not try to "define the limits of
ideological diversity for other nations" and that Latin Americans "can
and will assess for themselves the merits and disadvantages of the
Cuban approach," the Council is much less open-minded. It insists on
presenting Venezuela as a problem the U.S. needs to address—even though
the government in Caracas is recognized as legitimate by all and is
considered an ally, even a close one, by most Latin American countries.
Latin Americans may "know what is best for themselves," as the new
report concedes, yet Washington still knows better, and so should back
"social justice" issues as a means to win Venezuelans and other Latin
Americans away from Chávez.

That the Council
report regularly places "social justice" between scare quotes suggests
that the phrase is used more as a marketing ploy—kind of like "New
Coke"—than to signal that U.S. banks and corporations are willing to
make substantive concessions to Latin American nationalists. Seven
decades ago, Franklin Roosevelt supported the right of Latin American
countries to nationalize U.S. interests, including Standard Oil
holdings in Bolivia and Mexico, saying it was time for others in the
hemisphere to get their "fair share." Three decades ago, the Linowitz
Commission recommended the establishment of a "code of conduct"
defining the responsibilities of foreign corporations in the region and
recognizing the right of governments to nationalize industries and

The Council, in
contrast, sneers at Chávez's far milder efforts to create joint
ventures with oil multinationals, while offering nothing but pablum in
its place. Its centerpiece recommendation—aimed at cultivating Brazil
as a potential anchor of a post-Bush, post-Chávez hemispheric
order—urges the abolition of subsidies and tariffs protecting U.S.
agro-industry in order to advance a "Biofuel Partnership" with Brazil's
own behemoth agricultural sector. This would be an environmental
disaster, pushing large, mechanized plantations ever deeper into the
Amazon basin, while doing nothing to generate decent jobs or distribute
wealth more fairly.

Dominated by
representatives from the finance sector of the U.S. economy, the
Council recommends little beyond continuing the failed corporate "free
trade" policies of the last twenty years—and, in this case, those scare
quotes are justified because what they're advocating is about as free
as corporate "social justice" is just.

An Obama Doctrine?

So far, Barack
Obama promises little better. A few weeks ago, he traveled to Miami and
gave a major address on Latin America to the Cuban American National
Foundation. It was hardly an auspicious venue for a speech that
promised to "engage the people of the region with the respect owed to a

Surely, the
priorities for humane engagement would have been different had he been
addressing not wealthy right-wing Cuban exiles but an audience, say, of
the kinds of Latino migrants in Los Angeles who have revitalized the
U.S. labor movement, or of Central American families in Postville,
Iowa, where immigration and Justice Department authorities recently
staged a massive raid on a meatpacking plant, arresting as many as 700
undocumented workers. Obama did call for comprehensive immigration
reform and promised to fulfill Franklin Roosevelt's 68 year-old Four
Freedoms agenda, including the social-democratic "freedom from want."
Yet he spent much of his speech throwing red meat to his Cuban

Ignoring the
not-exactly-radical advice of the Council on Foreign Relations, the
candidate pledged to maintain the embargo on Cuba. And then he went
further. Sounding a bit like Frank Gaffney, he all but accused the Bush
administration of "losing Latin America" and allowing China, Europe,
and "demagogues like Hugo Chávez" to step "into the vacuum." He even
raised the specter of Iranian influence in the region, pointing out
that "just the other day Tehran and Caracas launched a joint bank with
their windfall oil profits."

Whatever one's
opinion on Hugo Chávez, any diplomacy that claims to take Latin
American opinion seriously has to acknowledge one thing: Most of the
region's leaders not only don't see him as a "problem," but have joined
him on major economic and political initiatives like the Bank of the
South, an alternative to the International Monetary Fund and the Union
of South American Nations, modeled on the European Union, established
just two weeks ago. And any U.S. president who is sincere in wanting to
help Latin Americans liberate themselves from "want" will have to work
with the Latin American left—in all its varieties.

But more ominous
than Obama's posturing on Venezuela is his position on Colombia.
Critics have long pointed out that the billions of dollars in military
aid provided to the Colombian security forces to defeat the FARC
insurgency and curtail cocaine production would discourage a negotiated
end to the civil war in that country and potentially provoke its
escalation into neighboring Andean lands. That's exactly what happened
last March, when Colombia's president Alvaro Uribe ordered the bombing
of a rebel camp located in Ecuador (possibly with U.S. logistical
support supplied from Manta Air Force Base, which gives you an idea of
why Correa wants to give it to China). To justify the raid, Uribe
explicitly invoked the Bush Doctrine's right of preemptive, unilateral
action. In response, Ecuador and Venezuela began to mobilize troops
along their border with Colombia, bringing the region to the precipice
of war.

Most interestingly,
in that conflict, an overwhelming majority of Latin American and
Caribbean countries sided with Venezuela and Ecuador, categorically
condemning the Colombian raid and reaffirming the sovereignty of
individual nations recognized by Franklin Roosevelt long ago. Not
Obama, however. He essentially endorsed the Bush administration's drive
to transform Colombia's relations with its Andean neighbors into the
one Israel has with most of the Middle East. In his Miami speech, he
swore that he would "support Colombia's right to strike terrorists who
seek safe-havens across its borders."

Equally troublesome
has been Obama's endorsement of the controversial Merida Initiative,
which human rights groups like Amnesty International have condemned as
an application of the "Colombian solution" to Mexico and Central
America, providing their militaries and police with a massive infusion
of money to combat drugs and gangs. Crime is indeed a serious problem
in these countries, and deserves considered attention. It's chilling,
however, to have Colombia—where death-squads now have infiltrated every
level of government, and where union and other political activists are
executed on a regular basis—held up as a model for other parts of Latin

Obama, however, not
only supports the initiative, but wants to expand it beyond Mexico and
Central America. "We must press further south as well," he said in

It seems that once again that, as in the 1970s, reports of the death of the Monroe Doctrine are greatly exaggerated.

Greg Grandin teaches history at New York University. He is the author of Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism and The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War.

Source: TomDospatch.com