July 30, 2008

McCain and Obama on Latin America

MABB © ®

In the number of American elections I am following so far, there is a chronic lack of attention to Latin America. That is the reason why, in general, Latin America has to wait until the new administration is in office to find out more details on American foreign policy. But, I am surprised that this time there is very little attention to the region. As I did last time, this election year I am taking a look at the positions of the two incumbents towards Latin America.

The position John McCain, the republican candidate is not very illuminating. Basically, his position es laid out on a speech given to La Raza on July 14. There he mentions that it is important for the US to work with Latin American nations to lower trade barriers and expand commercial exchange. This is the way to, one, to fight instability and, two, to promote economic development, in the region. He does recognize there should be more attention placed in the region by the US government. (if you see more from McCain on Latin America please let us know)

On the contrary, Obama has a whole 13 page paper on Latin America policies. He has thought about it, one can see. The Obama approach to Latin America includes the reinstatement of the Special Envoy figure to deal with the region, enlarge Peace Corps and engage Latino immigrants in the US' relations with Latin America. This is based on three objectives: increase democracy and the rule of law, address common threats (drug trafficking, transnational gangs and terrorism) and combat poverty, hunger, health problems and global warming.

A significant policy change would be to weaken the Cuba embargo and allow more contact with Cubans in the island. Also, he would close Guantanamo.

On immigration, Obama is proposing to increase the number of border officers (with the aim of fighting not only immigration but crime as well).

He will continue supporting Colombia and also intends to be loud on countries who support guerrillas in the region. He will oppose the free trade agreement with Colombia.

On Bolivia, Obama wants to see 100% debt relief (as part of his debt reduction policy for poor nations).

He wants to use remittances as a form of financial incentive to work on social and economic development. He also plans to double foreign aid to 50 billion.

Obama will work to reduce global warming by working together with Latin American nations on sustainable energy such as biofuel, wind, solar and nuclear energy.

For a closer look at Obama's policies read the document linked above.

It is hard to make conclusions, though Obama has earned some points just because he has a paper on Latin America. I also agree that there is tremendous potential when integrating immigrants and first generation immigrants in the diplomatic machinery. After all, these are people who strongly identify with America and know their countries of origin very well.


Isabel said...

I have my doubts with Obama... let´s just hope this is not just another "enchantment" to win the support of the latin american electors.
To do all that he plans to... I would suggest: to reduce global warming, good luck on signing the Kyoto protocol, also, to really start on having a positive look towards the migrants (whatever generation they might be) first of all, take a tough stand on the building of this "wall of shame" please... then we will see if you had won some extra points there...

mcentellas said...

I worry that people too often forget that presidents can only do what Congress allows them to do. I, for one, would prefer presidents to be less "imperial" and more ceremonial.

mabb said...

Yes, it looks like Obama has a plate full, but I have to admit, some parts of his program, I like.

As for support from the latino vote, I've read somewhere that three in five latino voters were supporting him for this election. The majority young latinos. I am afraid he has the latino vote already. And besides, look at the alternative. Would a latino vote for McCain? I would think it is hard to identify oneself with McCain. For Obama, many things are in his favor. For example, the immigrant thing, the minority thing, and the age thing. I don't know, I think latinos will vote for Obama.

And as for the wall, he'll keep it because that's what many of his border supporters want. It is just a very important issue down at the border. And also, as I mentioned, he plans to increase the number of border patrols as well. I don't think he can come away from this piece of policy easily.

And Miguel, you are talking about parliamentarism here. Germans call their 'president' the top bureaucrat! :-) She is there to administer the country and, some times, to keep it running.

But, yes, definitely less imperial and more administering.

democraticvoice.net said...

When it comes to war the US president should not be able to act without congress. Of course when congress does authorize a war they authorize Iraq so.....I don't know.

Up until the iraq war started, I though for sure that the US and Europe were playing good cop bad cop with Saddam. You know...
BUSH: I am going to get you!
EUROPE: You better give him what he wants, Saddam, I cant hold him back much longer!

GS said...

mcentellas is exactly right. The key role of Congress in foreign policy is often over looked. This is specially so, I've found, with some foreigners. Recognizing the role of the US Congress is particularly important for a country like Bolivia, where US drug policy is so important. Bolivian gov't should take a page from the Armenians, Israelis, and Indians. If you want US foreign policy changed--particularly foreign policy that is inseperable from US domestic politics--lobby Congress as hard, if not harder, then the Executive.

As for imperial presidencies. Yes, please.

mabb said...

@demvoice - I think they were, but it is more on ideological basis rather than purely strategic. I think America is more let's take action and Europe is more let's wait and see.

@gs - I would say, foreign countries, in general, are aware of the difference. It is just that they recognize, as they should, that the US president has more discretion when it comes to foreign policy.

And here is where I diverge with the argument that the US president cannot do much. I would say, the US president has more power than we'd like to admit. Yes, of course, his power is kept in check by Congress. The system is designed that way, but that doesn't mean he cannot do 'things'.

For example, and here is the most obvious example, he can go to war. That is significant. Granted, in the end he has to ask for permission, but who wouldn't support America at war? Very difficult to disagree. Troops are already committed and soldiers are already dying.

In terms of domestic issues, he can achieve a lot through the executive machinery. Look at migration, for example. He might not be able to fix migration (but neither will Congress, I am sure) but he can have a significant impact. Bush merged the former INS into the Home land Security Department and therefore, life has gotten very difficult for illegal immigrants and I would even venture to say it has curved immigration somewhat.

The point is, he has significant discretion and influence over some policy aspects because he can appoint top officials. That is, the entire executive branch is controlled by him. Let's just remember that many governmental agencies have directives which can be implemented right away without any intervention by Congress.

The president is even more influential when he has a majority in any of the houses of Congress. He can initiate law just by writing a bill and giving it to a partisan member of Congress so he or she introduces it for consideration. This is very often underestimated. The politics of the complex relationship between the Executive and Congress (official and unofficial) is not to be underestimated.

Another weapon not to be underestimated is the veto. Even more, if the president obtains line item veto power, is pretty significant.

So, I would not underestimate the power of the president. I know you guys are not either, but just to keep it in mind.

GS said...

mabb, well said. I never said and certainly didn't mean to imply that the executive "cannot do much." The executive is a powerful position in foreign policy for all of the reasons you stated. I'm just saying that there is a parallel foreign policy apparatus in Congress that is often overlooked and which has significant influence in how the US conducts itself internationally. The president's discretion when it comes to foreign policy is significant but it is not absolute. He may set the course for US foreign policy but within that course there is very wide latitude for Congress to influence the policy.

Some examples:

Human rights vetting is a congressionally mandated policy that affects all US military assistance programs. Particularly in the case of Colombia, this has been a thorn in the side of US-Colombian relations for over a decade and the President is powerless to do anything about it except to find work-arounds.

Fast-track negotiating authority. The Executive loves it and wants it; Congress doesn’t love it as much and doesn’t want to give it to him. Sometimes the executive wins, other times he doesn’t. Lack of such authority affects US bilateral treaty negotiations and, in practical terms, diminishes the power of the Executive at the negotiating table and affects the way the US is perceived by international negotiators.

US drug policy. It is impossible to separate US counterdrug policy from domestic political concerns. Members of Congress do not care as much about the effects, consequences, and results of our foreign counterdrug policies as they do about making sure they are able to say “I’m tough on drugs” during the next election. And in the House of Representatives, where elections are every two years, Members are continuously on en election mode.

US policy towards Cuba. Helms-Burton legislation significantly tightened US policy towards Cuba after the shoot down of the Brother’s to the Rescue plane. This was legislation that was originally opposed by Presidents Bush and Clinton and a majority of the Senate. After the shoot down, it cleared Congress with ease and Clinton had little choice but to sign the bill, though some of its most draconian provisions were never acted on. More recently, Congressional pressure, largely coming from the Midwest, opened up the most trade space between the US and Cuba since probably the history of the embargo, much to the chagrin of the Bush administration.

The genesis of the much-commented on power of the US military over foreign policy via the Combatant Commands is Congressional legislation passed in 1986 commonly referred to as Goldwater-Nichols.

There are numerous other examples but I don’t want to beat a horse to death. Anyway, your point is well taken, but I still think you are underestimating the power and influence of Congress over US foreign policy.

mabb said...

GS, I agree. I think in the effort of making our point, we come across as underestimating the other side of the coin. When in fact, we might be very well aware of the arguments. :-)

GS said...

Right you are. To use an over-used cliché, great minds think alike.

Kevin said...

If Obama's policy on Bolivia is to write off the debt - I would have to ask if anyone of hs team have been to Bolivia recently. As far as I can tell (have not looked at the Ministero de Hacienda web site)... but I think the majority of the external debt of Bolivia has been written through the HIPC initiative and by the Morales govt. What remains is a massive and growing internal/domestic debt which is one of the causes of the current inflation. I am not voting for Obama - he is a rookie just like Evo - in fact they are quite similiar.... someone should do a post on the similiarities... but if he becomes US president then he better have a better plan to help Bolivia before Evo and the MASistas turn it into Cuba Dos.

mabb said...

Well, actually one of the main causes of the current inflation is government spending. This, coupled with the increased intake from natural gas, is driving the amount of money in circulation through the ceiling. Those Chavez checks are also accounted for. :-)

A further reduction of debt would significantly improve Bolivia's financial situations. The country would have more money to spend with discretion.

Now, if that is good, it depends who argues... For some people it would be good because Morales would have more money to give it to the poor (simply put) and others would right away point to the economy and inflation.

mcentellas said...

Actually, I (slightly) disagree w/ MABB on the power of presidents. US presidents can do a lot because they're presidents of the US (the global hegemon). But they are very constrained by the legislature in a way that most prime ministers aren't (and even executives in most other presidential countries).

The president can set the tone for foreign policy, of course. But all treaties must be approved by the Senate. And the US president can't really go to war w/o Congress either. Yes, Congress authorized the Iraq expedition. But Bush wasn't prepared to go w/o them. The US president can mobilize troops for smaller things (like rescue operations or cover ops), but he's always relied on Congress for larger undertakings (including Vietnam & Bosnia).

Prime ministers, on the other hand, are by definition in control of a parliamentary majority. It's easier for them to simply "do" things, because they can count (often) on disciplined party support. I can't remember the author now (it was grad school), but there was an interesting study that found that prime ministers used decree powers MORE frequently than presidents (including Latin American presidents).

There are plenty of areas where the US president can do as he pleases. But w/ anything involving money or large numbers of troops, he'll have to get Congressional approval. And even if the president's party controls Congress, unlike in parliamentary systems w/ PR electoral systems, individual legislators answer to their local constituents, not party bosses. That's why they say getting Congress to "do" anything is like herding cats.

mabb said...

Well, I would have to differ too. First, with the notion of US as hegemon. Now a days, there is a growing literature, in international relatio,ns increasingly questioning the US as hegemon. Such discussion is taking place as I write this in my institute, GIGA. There is a project called regional powers, where they take upon this question. Very interesting, btw.

Also, in the US, only Congress can declare war. That is true, however, reality hasn't work exactly that way. The president has had much discretion of launching 'police actions' based on legislation such as the Gulf of Tonking Resolution (which led to Vietnam) and the Authorization for the Use of Force (more recently in 2002). Also, that is one of the reasons why Bush was so keen on getting a US resolution he liked, namely to use force.

And if I remember correctly, once these actions are launched, the President has 90 days to present a formal petition to Congress. That means, the the President, first sends the troops and then asks. In such a situation, Congress has very little choice. Especially when it has to do with war. The pressure on Congress members is very strong, often too heave to resist.

Anonymous said...

McCain could be the first Hispanic president. He was born in Panama, after all.

schaskel said...

For more info on the candidates' policies toward Latin America, see latamthought.org