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.A more balanced read of the historical record would add several Bush administration successes and several “what ifs.” Concretely, the Bush administration concluded and passed trade agreements with Chile, Central America, the Dominican Republic, and Peru. It also concluded and signed agreements with Colombia and Panama, although those were not passed by Congress until five years later, in 2011. As well, the administration began efforts to link free trade partners together through the Pathways to Prosperity initiative, launched at the Council of the Americas in late 2008, and brought the United States into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an initiative that holds great promise for the United States and the nations of the Pacific Basin as negotiations continue and since Japan has just joined. Efforts to isolate Brazil on trade did prove to be unproductive, as was predictable at the time, but subsequent steps to engage Brazil bilaterally have been expanded by the Obama administration.
Similarly, the Bush administration made real progress in building North America as a joint production platform and a more integrated economy. Building on NAFTA—a bipartisan initiative negotiated by the George H.W. Bush administration and passed and implemented by the Clinton administration—the United States, Canada and Mexico launched the Security and Prosperity Partnership and its private sector counterpart, the North American Competitiveness Council. The focus that this effort brought to North American issues at senior levels of both government and business directly led to improved political and economic relations and an emphasis on the need and desirability of a more unified North America to compete in the global economy. This effort was dropped after the presidential transition, although it may once again be gaining steam as the three countries are now party to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations and, hopefully, also to the trans-Atlantic trade negotiations to be launched shortly with Europe. The pending 20-year anniversary of NAFTA provides an opportunity for an update.
Politically, the Bush administration was a strong voice generally for democracy and anti-corruption across the region. As the chief architect and proponent of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, signed on September 11, 2001 in Lima, the Bush administration was instrumental in helping to establish a baseline for common democratic expectations by each signatory nation. The fact that the charter is now routinely being flouted by several of the signatories—and that the Inter-American system has proven unable to uphold it—is a sign of how far the region has regressed in terms of democracy and good governance. But now there is at least a standard which each government has committed to uphold.
Finally, the Bush administration must be given credit for efforts that fall into the “what if” category: namely, the prioritization of relations with Mexico and a strong desire to reform immigration. Many people forget that the Bush administration hosted Mexico’s then-President Vicente Fox as Bush’s first state visitor in September 2001, and both governments had been working intensively on immigration reform at the most senior levels in the run-up to the visit. Beyond the important symbolism of hosting Mexico’s president in such a visible manner, the deliverables produced for the trip were designed to chart a path for a fundamentally different relationship with Mexico. Of course, 9/11 intervened—and, for obvious reasons, the domestic priority immediately became border security, stalling immigration reform. Yet another effort for immigration reform was made during the second term, both by the White House and the Senate, but the political moment was not yet ripe for comprehensive reform, and that effort failed as well. After the 2012 elections, the effort is once again on offer and may well be successful this time.
This is not to discount any failings or missed opportunities. Some were significant. But an objective assessment also demands that successes not be overlooked or willfully ignored. As the Bush Library opens today with the presence of each living U.S. president, Republican and Democrat alike, that’s an important point to affirm.