Barack Obama meets with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
At the 34-nation Summit of the Americas over the weekend, U.S. President Barack Obama promised a new approach to Latin American relations, meeting with such harsh critics of the U.S. as Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.
Cuba was a hot topic, as Obama recently loosened travel and remittances restrictions for Cuban Americans. “The policy that we’ve had in place for 50 years hasn’t worked the way we want it to. The Cuban people are not free,” Obama said at the close of the summit on Sunday.
Worldfocus editorial consultant Peter Eisner, the former deputy foreign editor of the Washington Post, puts Obama’s position on Cuba in context.
No question about it: President Barack Obama brought his A-game to the Trinidad summit of Western Hemisphere leaders over the weekend and upstaged potential efforts to embarrass and castigate the United States over its 50-year embargo against Cuba.
The president was warm to overtures by Cuban President Raul Castro and held out the possibility for real changes; he also disarmed Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, by sprinting across the dance floor to break the ice. As in Europe, as in Mexico, President Obama also talked about a new beginning and said that the United States has made its share of mistakes.
The question is: How soon will action follow all the words?
Antonio Caño of the Madrid newspaper, El País, saw little more than “handshaking and good intentions.” Even that was an accomplishment, he said, compared to disastrous, confrontational meetings during the Bush era. However, he said, the good intentions “will be erased from memory quickly if no there are no quick, recognizable results.”
President Obama’s position on Cuba has to be viewed in context. So far, he’s done little more than roll back restrictions imposed by George W. Bush that limited the ability of Cuban-Americans to visit Cuba or send money to family members. Obama has opened the possibility of licensing telecommunications contacts with Cuba.
In fact, the president hasn’t completely rewound U.S.-Cuban relations to where they had been before the Bush years. It doesn’t take an act of Congress, for example, to quietly resume bilateral talks with Cuba. The president has not reinstated periodic meetings with Cuba as part of a 1995 migration agreement. The meetings, halted by Bush, grew out of decades of periodic chaos caused by Cuban refugees fleeing the island –- sometimes meeting death in the treacherous Florida Straits.
Phillip Brenner, a professor at American University who specializes on Cuban-U.S. relations, told me U.S. overtures so far “will move the two countries towards a normal relationship only a little.”
“Cuban officials rightly view President Obama’s decision as signifying nothing more than fulfillment of a campaign promise to Cuban-Americans.”
He said the U.S. plan on telecommunications with Cuba “was couched in the same language the United States has used for fifty years. They are intended to bring ‘freedom’ to Cubans, which Cuban officials see as code for ‘regime change.’ ”
President Obama has enough problems as he deals with the ongoing economic crisis, and the dire problems of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Certain to face conservative ire, including a vocal minority in Congress, how much Cuban political capital is the president willing to spend?
– Peter Eisner
Photo courtesy of Flickr user El_Enigma under a Creative Commons license.
April 15, 2009
No room for optimism in Mexico’s war on drugs
Police corruption is one problem facing Mexico. Photo: Megan Thompson
U.S. President Barack Obama is scheduled to venture to Mexico on Thursday for talks with President Felipe Calderon. Officials from the Obama administration say the president will work to curb the flow of U.S.-made firearms to Mexican drug traffickers.
Worldfocus editorial consultant Peter Eisner writes to argue that unless political leaders are willing to commit to real change and take the resulting flak, it will be impossible to alleviate Mexico’s drug problem. See more on our coverage of Mexico’s Drug War.
When President Obama meets with Mexican President Felipe Calderon in Mexico on Thursday, how many people will be thinking about the history of efforts by the two countries to deal with drug trafficking? Anyone who does will have to be listed as a skeptic about possibilities for real change.
Mexico has been stuck in the middle of modern drug trade ever since the rise of the Colombian cocaine and marijuana cartels more than three decades ago. But the United States preferred to look elsewhere. The Reagan administration declared a war on drugs and spent billions of dollars on eradicating crops in Colombia and Peru; the first President Bush invaded Panama, and imprisoned Manuel Antonio Noriega claiming he was a drug dealer. The United States also helped hunt down and kill Pablo Escobar, and even blamed Fidel Castro and Raul Castro for the drug trade. Cynicism abounded and little, if anything, was accomplished.
All the while, the Mexican narco industry was thriving and growing, and no one came up with the key to change the reality –- drug dealing and the associated violence in Mexico operates with impunity. The Mexican drug business is successful because of corruption, weak justice and police structures in Mexico, and because of the driving market right across the border.
Consider this report from the Washington Office on Latin America, prepared in the leadup to Obama’s one-day trip:
The ability to identify, prosecute, and punish drug traffickers is a key element in containing the drug trade. There were over 10,000 drug-related killings in Mexico in the past three years. As staggering as these numbers are, it is noteworthy that the majority of these murders may never be solved. The Mexican Citizen Institute for Research on Insecurity (INCESI) found that initial investigations are begun for only 13 percent of the reported crimes and in only 5 percent of these crimes are the alleged perpetrator brought before a judge. (1) The same institute estimates that of every 100 investigations, only 4 cases result in sentencing the person responsible.
What are the real prospects for change? Well, the American president is stymied by mistrust from the Mexican side –- where officials and the public always feel the United States is trying to bigfoot Mexican government policy. And at home, there’s no possibility on the horizon of ever decriminalizing drugs to puncture the market.
Meanwhile, what American politician would ever get away with curbing the sale of guns, which Mexican traffickers can easily haul in and use in their murderous business? Without meaningful change brought on by officials who see the reality and are willing to take the political flak, there isn’t much room for optimism.
– Peter Eisner
April 9, 2009
Wait…the surge in Iraq didn’t work?
General David Petraeus.
In Iraq on Wednesday, another bombing threatened security and raised new fears of violence between Sunnis and Shiites once American troops withdraw. Worldfocus editorial consultant Peter Eisner, the former deputy foreign editor of the Washington Post, discusses how the 2007 surge of American troops has fared.
Anyone bereft of a basic filing system, or who perhaps doesn’t take time to face reality in the form of Google searches, might just want to focus on the words of General David Petraeus exactly one year ago before the Senate Armed Service Committee.
Back then, Democrats found difficulty in criticizing the surge. Meanwhile, Senator John McCain was proud to declare that he was at the forefront of the idea to send 20,000 U.S. troops to Iraq.
Despite the resident wisdom during the presidential campaign that promoted the success of then-President George W. Bush’s vaunted surge, Petraeus was closer to the ground, saying “We haven’t turned any corners. We haven’t seen any lights at the end of the tunnel” and warning that “Countless sectarian fault lines still exist in Baghdad and elsewhere.”
A year later, there seems to be surprise in the air every time a particularly bloody bomb attack is staged in Baghdad or other Iraqi environs. Petraeus wasn’t running for office and he was quick to mention that any U.S. successes in Iraq might be “fragile and reversible.”
The surge was a quick fix to be sure, and there are all sorts of statistics to show a decrease in violence. But in the long term, the battle lines are still drawn. Rival Sunni and Shiite factions keep their powder dry, but are still geared up for the coming battle whenever U.S. troops pull back. That’s mixed in with the baggage encased in a dilemma, one of many inherited by President Obama.
My friend and former colleague at the Washington Post, Thomas E. Ricks, describes the dilemma in his book, The Gamble, focusing on Petraeus and the surge. Commenting separately on the book, he has written that one basic problem is to understand what is meant by saying the surge “worked.”
“Yes, it did, in that it improved security. But it was meant to do more than that. It was supposed to create a breathing space in which Iraqi political leaders could move forward. In fact, as General Odierno [General Raymond T. Odierno, Petraeus’ successor as U.S. commander in Iraq] says in the book, some used the elbow room to move backward. The bottom line is that none of the basic problems facing Iraq have been addressed–the relationship between Shia, Sunni and Kurds, or who leads the Shias, or the status of the disputed city of Kirkuk, or the sharing of oil revenue.”
– Peter Eisner
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Jon-Phillip Sheridan under a Creative Commons license.
April 6, 2009
Diplomacy should trump name-calling in dealing with Korea
North Korea launched a rocket on Sunday, but failed to put a satellite into orbit as hoped.
Worldfocus editorial consultant Peter Eisner, the former deputy foreign editor of the Washington Post, discusses the implications of the launch and the changing face of the U.S. approach to North Korea.
It’s pretty early for the U.S. government to be raising the missile shields after the latest rocket launch by the saber rattlers in North Korea.
Viewed from one perspective, the North Korean government achieved nothing more than reminding President Obama that attention must be paid. That’s especially true since the weekend launch apparently failed — pity the poor engineers who weren’t able to launch the rocket’s payload into orbit.
The North Koreans are often transparent in their petulant style of demanding that they be placed front and center among all the other potboilers to be dealt with.
Predictably, calls from the right demanded new sanctions against North Korea for firing the missile over the Pacific. But even the Bush administration, unaccustomed as it was to choosing diplomacy over threats and war, learned that engaging the Pyongyang government in talks was the most fruitful means of reaching peaceful objectives.
The Bush administration scored one of its only successes in international relations when Ambassador John Bolton was shoved aside in 2005 in favor of Christopher R. Hill as chief representative to the six-party international talks aimed at resolving the North Korean nuclear problem.
Bolton dealt with North Korea by stringing together insults against Kim Jong Il (he called the dear leader “a tyrannical rogue” and said life in North Korea was “a hellish nightmare.” North Korea was happy to respond by calling him “human scum” and a “bloodsucker.”) It may be fun to engage in name-calling, but Hill met with more success on decreasing tensions when he visited Pyongyang and spoke respectfully with North Korean officials.
Hill has now taken the post of U.S. ambassador to Iraq. North Korea is serious business and it is in everyone’s interest for the new representative to the talks, Ambassador Stephen W. Bosworth, to dig in and follow through on the six-party talks. North Korea’s salvo is a strident reminder to the new president that it wants priority on his list of action items.
– Peter Eisner
April 3, 2009
What’s a trillion here or there, among friends?
|Press coverage of the G-20 Summit in London.
Worldfocus editorial consultant Peter Eisner, the former deputy foreign editor of the Washington Post, discusses what really came out of the G-20 meeting (besides the $1.1 trillion pledged), including Fidel Castro’s positive outlook on U.S.-China relations.
You’d be hard-pressed to figure out — in terms of old-fashioned greenbacks — what exactly came out of the G-20 meeting in London this week. But perhaps warm, fuzzy feelings are all we need.
The stock markets were sharply up at the end of the week, so maybe appearances — and promises — are reality.
Does anybody really know how much money is needed to attack the world recession, and how much of the money pledged by G-20 nations was already en route?
The consensus is that the G-20 leaders pledged $1.1 trillion in total funds. But President Obama said, “Nearly all G-20 nations have acted to stimulate demand, which will total well over $2 trillion in global fiscal expansion.”
And meanwhile, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has also indicated that there’s an escalation clause somewhere, and that the stimulus based on the G-20 agreement will add up to $5 trillion by the end of next year.
No matter the fine print, it sounded good to many.
Jeremy Warner, writing Friday in The Independent, said that “it’s easy to be cynical, but the summit has also achieved something genuinely impressive…For the first time in a long time, there’s reason for optimism.”
Nobel Prize winning economist and columnist Paul Krugman, who has criticized the Obama administration for not pumping enough into the stimulus, is still pessimistic, but wrote that he saw “glimmers of good news — the G-20 summit accomplished more than I thought it would.”
He was writing about that in the context of concern about the Chinese government, which he says “hasn’t yet faced up to the wrenching changes that will be needed to deal with this global crisis.”
And speaking about China, that late entry in the news analysis game, Fidel Castro, also had an optimistic take on the G-20 Summit.
“The experts on economic issues have made a tremendous effort,” Castro wrote on Friday in his occasional column, “Reflections of Fidel,” in Granma, the official Cuban government newspaper.
Castro singled out special praise for Obama and for Chinese President Hu Jintao, who plan to meet soon to discuss a broad range of issues. That he said, may be “one of the most important news items in relation to the G-20 Summit.”
– Peter Eisner
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Soitu.es under a Creative Commons license.
March 25, 2009
Border fence can’t hide growing challenges in Mexico
A fence at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Over the last year, Mexico has been swept up in a tidal wave of drug violence. Things have gotten so bad that, according to a recent Pentagon report, the country risks a “sudden collapse.” For more, listen to our online radio show on Mexico’s war on drugs.
On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Mexico for a series of high level talks. Not only does the Pentagon assessment have Mexican officials bristling, there are lingering resentments over other issues too — there’s a growing trade dispute and ill will over the construction of that giant border fence.
Worldfocus editorial consultant Peter Eisner, the former deputy foreign editor of the Washington Post, writes about engaging with Mexico and its troubles rather than building fences.
“Show me a 50-foot fence, and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder.”
That quote from Janet Napolitano when she was governor of Arizona makes more sense every day. Napolitano, now the Secretary of Homeland Security, was referring to the multibillion dollar, 700-mile long fence being built along the U.S.-Mexican border.
The idea of the controversial fence was to stop illegal immigration and drug trafficking across the border. Many people — including most people in the Mexican government — agree with Napolitano that the fence was a bad idea.
For many, the fence has come to symbolize arrogance and disinterest in dealing with real issues, such as poverty that fuels immigration, and consumer demand that supports the multibillion dollar cocaine, marijuana and heroin trade out of Mexico.
And if anybody in the United States still thinks the fence can hide the uncomfortable reality across the Rio Grande, they’re deceived.
The wave of drug violence in Mexico is bleeding over into the United States, and U.S. military officials fear a worse scenario: One Pentagon study says that Mexico, like Pakistan, faces the prospect of being unable to deal with the violence and could become a failed state.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is diving right into talks about drug cooperation, trade and other issues today and tomorrow in Mexico City and Monterrey. And President Obama is scheduled to go to Mexico in less than a month.
The administration has an opportunity to come up with answers that would include engagement with the Mexican government rather than building barriers. The answers will probably be costly, but there is rising sentiment in Washington that Mexico can’t be left, as one analyst recently said, to “muddle through somehow” on its own.
– Peter Eisner
Photo courtesy of Flickr user jcarter under a Creative Commons license.
March 23, 2009
Reading between the lines of Iran’s response to Obama
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran.
After President Barack Obama sent a video message to Iran appealing for better relations between the two countries, Iran’s leaders wasted no time in replying. On Saturday, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said,”They chant the slogan of change but no change is seen in practice.” See more from Worldfocus on the response: Iran dismisses Obama’s video message.
Worldfocus editorial consultant Peter Eisner, the former deputy foreign editor of the Washington Post, dissects Khamenei’s statement and both countries’ political positioning.
Don’t expect that 30 years of hostility between the United States and Iran will turn around on a dime, or a rial or a shekel for that matter. But it would be wrong to think that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has rejected President Obama’s call last week for a change in relations.
Something subtler is going on here. First of all, look at the source: Ayatollah Khamenei is the top leader in Iran. We’re used to hearing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ranting about the United States; this time, Ahmadinejad was conspicuously silent. Khamenei’s answer, meanwhile, was mostly a recitation of Iran’s grievances with the United States, along with the comment that nothing has changed. In concrete terms, he was right, even though change is in the air.
From the U.S. side, Obama not only issued his televised greeting last week for the Iranian new year; he also has invited Iran to be part of a solution to the war in Afghanistan. There are also reports that Obama sent former defense secretary William Perry to Iran as a secret emissary to emphasize his interest in improved relations.
Iran, meanwhile, is gearing up for presidential elections on June 12. Any response to Obama’s overtures will play heavily in the campaign, in which Ahmadinejad is expected to be a candidate, though not yet a declared one. There are also reformist candidates, and many Iranian voters are interested in improved relations with the United States.
Obama and Khamenei appear to have one thing in common. While they make public statements, each is making sure not to go too far, too quickly in the direction of rapprochement, minimizing criticism from the right.
In Obama’s case, we can count Israel’s incoming prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in the hawkish camp. To maintain balance in dealing with Israel, Obama has to go slowly to maintain U.S. leverage with Israel toward larger goals for Middle East peace; some Israelis advocate unilateral bombing of nuclear reactors in Iran.
– Peter Eisner
Photo courtesy of Flickr user ManilaRyce under a Creative Commons license.
Peter Eisner is an editorial consultant with Worldfocus and a 30-year veteran of international news. He has been an editor and foreign correspondent at The Washington Post, Newsday and The Associated Press. He co-authored “The Italian Letter,” which details fraudulent intelligence leading up to the Iraq War. He was founder and president of Newscom, an international online news service, and speaks Spanish and Portuguese.