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."
The 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 Union.
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 negotiated."
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, "unprecedented.")
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 America?
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."
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 America.
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 resources.
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 partner."
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 audience.
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 America.
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 Miami.
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.
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project, author of The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), thoroughly updated in a newly issued edition covering Iraq, and editor and contributor to the first best of Tomdispatch book, The World According to Tomdispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso).]