Shortly before the end of the Bush administration in January 2009, I met with a senior official covering hemispheric affairs who said point blank, “You’re going to miss us when we’re gone. We actually accomplished a lot more than anyone gives us credit for.” The opening of the George W. Bush Library in Dallas today offers an opportunity for an early assessment of the Bush administration in hemispheric affairs, now that there is a little distance in time since the administration left office.
In hindsight, there is a lot to give the administration credit for doing.
Those who routinely dismiss the Bush administration’s efforts in the region as counterproductive or worse cite an overwhelming focus on the effort against Al Qaeda and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the facility at Guantánamo, and region-specific issues—such as the inartful steps by the Treasury that arguably contributed to (but did not cause) Argentina’s financial collapse, vocal support for a failed coup in Venezuela in 2002 and a proclivity to view hemispheric affairs through the Cuba lens.
I worked in the Clinton White House and have a certain sympathy for several of these criticisms, but a focus on this narrative to the exclusion of anything else is a caricature that begs a more even-handed historical assessment. Most significantly, it would be ahistorical to try to disaggregate policy toward Latin America from the global effort against terrorism in the wake of 9/11; virtually any administration faced with a similarly significant attack on the U.S. homeland would seek to mobilize efforts globally against the attackers. Meanwhile, the continued operation of Guantánamo as a terrorist holding facility deep into the Obama administration, despite efforts to close it, shows the vexing nature of the issue—and gives license to question the motivation of those who condemn Guantánamo as a stain on the Bush administration’s hemispheric record but have little to say about the matter under the Obama administration.
With the recent trip of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Mexico on January 24, and the even more recent visit of Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper to the White House on February 4, the past several weeks have seen a lot of high-level engagement on North American issues.
In many respects the relationship between the United States and its two neighbors is as strong as it has ever been. With Mexico, the level of cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking is unprecedented. North of the border, President Obama is extremely popular, and the bond between Obama and Prime Minister Harper is robust.
But, as with all relationships, not everything is perfect. Take, for example, the cross-border trucking program with Mexico. Agreed to under the North American Free Trade Agreement, it was implemented for the first time as a pilot project in 2007 by then-President George W. Bush. The United States suspended the program in 2009, and Mexico responded by imposing tariffs on about 90 U.S. agricultural and manufactured exports worth about $2 billion a year.
For months, the Senate has unnecessarily held up President Obama’s appointments for the U.S. ambassador to Brazil and the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. These actions have prevented the administration from assembling its Latin America team and have held hemispheric policy hostage to a few, lone voices.
We are stuck in gear. But if some conservative Republicans get their way, we risk being thrown into reverse, back to the Cold War. This time instead of communism, it’s through the prism of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
A more conspicuous and tangible evidence of the Cold War revival has been the recent campaign by some conservative Republicans against the nomination of Tom Shannon as ambassador to Brazil. This is the same Tom Shannon who was appointed and served as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs under George W. Bush.
The closed-door briefings and talking points that circulated in Congress are narrow and hollow criticisms of the United States’ Latin America policy over the last four years and are specifically tailored against Shannon.
Because the talking points are dangerous without context, I want to share them in full as they arrived to me. A major part of their context is this underlying partisan intent:
“In Honduras, Shannon remained silent as Manuel Zelaya attempted to subvert democratic institutions and the Honduran Constitution. But as the Congress and Supreme Court worked to remove Zelaya legally from office, the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa and Shannon worked diligently to dissuade the Honduran Congress and protect Zelaya (3 July Washington Post, columnist Carlos Alberto Montaner).”
“In Venezuela, Mr. Shannon constantly promoted narcotics cooperation with Chávez despite evidence—and objections from other U.S. agencies—that the Venezuelan government itself was facilitating narcotics trafficking. Mr. Shannon also denied support to Venezuela's civil society and sat by as Chavez dismantled the country's democratic institutions. Today, the Mayor of Caracas still cannot get into his office to perform his duties. In all this, Mr. Shannon’s rationale for shunning Venezuela's civil society has been that the U.S. and Venezuela have a strategic relationship based primarily on energy.”