CIP Analysts Look at Obama’s First Year

After a year in office, we can no longer base our responses to Obama’s foreign policy on expectations. Although the administration is still in the process of consolidating its team, this year provided some key challenges that serve to define the new government’s positions.

To assess the pace of promised change in our part of the world—the Western Hemisphere—the Americas Program staff and our colleagues at the Center for International Policy (CIP) looked at four basic questions regarding progress (or lack thereof) in our areas of expertise: How we rate the Obama administration over the past year; what we expect in 2010; what policy changes are needed in 2010; and what issues we expect to be grabbing headlines and foreign policy attention in the upcoming year.

The idea is to not only weigh in on the performance of President Obama, Sec. of State Hillary Clinton, and other key players in the administration, but also to identify the most pressing needs for policy reform left pending or botched up to now.

Across the board, our analysts found that Obama is so far falling short of promoting the principles of reconciliation, self-determination, mutual respect, social equity, and peace that he espoused at the April 2009 Americas Summit. Looking back over the year, Adam Isacson on Colombia, Wayne Smith on Cuba, Laura Carlsen on Mexico, and Tom Barry on the U.S.-Mexico border conclude that Obama policies look a lot like the Bush administration’s.

Adam Isacson, director of the CIP Colombia Program, puts it bluntly: “In both personnel and policy, the Obama administration closely resembled the Bush administration on Colombia last year.”

“The State Department certified that the Colombian Armed Forces’ human rights performance was improving, even in the midst of unfolding scandals about extrajudicial executions and spying on human rights defenders. The administration also negotiated a defense agreement cementing the U.S. relationship with the Colombian Armed Forces, including the use of seven bases.”

Head of the Cuba Program, Wayne Smith, concurs. “We’d hoped for a new approach. We haven’t got it. Obama lifted restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances and has allowed a few more Cuban officials and cultural figures to come to the United States, but that is about it. The same attitudes that drove the Bush administration regarding Cuba seem to be present in Obama.”

Moving to the U.S.-Mexico border, Tom Barry, director of our Transborder Project, calls the Obama policies to date “politically opportunistic, financially wasteful, and predictably ineffective.”

“Border security programs at the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice are largely comprised of pork-barrel projects for local law enforcement, Border Patrol, and other federal law enforcement that continue the failed drug war, crime war, and anti-immigrant campaigns.”

On immigration, Barry recognizes some differences from the Bush era, but gives the Obama administration a failing grade in its first year.

“Immigration policy has seen some marginal improvements over some crude Bush enforcement practices, but reflected overall institutionalization and increased funding of immigrant crackdown and imprisonment.”

From Mexico, Laura Carlsen notes that campaign promises have fallen by the wayside on issues crucial to the U.S.-Mexico relationship. “Candidate Obama promised a major restructuring of relations in the region, including a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement and a less militarized approach. Instead NAFTA has not been reviewed, despite the crushing economic crisis in Mexico and widespread unemployment in the United States and demands from civil society organizations.”

“In the failed drug war, the Obama administration even one-upped the Bush administration by asking for and receiving supplemental appropriations for military equipment to the Mexican Armed Forces. The United States’ relationship with one of its closest and most strategic allies is now nearly 100% defense-driven.”

None of those surveyed responded that the Obama administration was a mere continuation of the Bush reign. Isacson notes that “the administration did differ with the Bush approach in a few respects. The executive branch stopped pushing Congress to ratify a free trade agreement signed in 2006. President Uribe, to whom Bush awarded the Medal of Freedom in January 2009, was not as warmly praised by Obama. During Uribe’s visit to the White House in June, Obama mentioned human rights concerns and pointedly indicated discomfort with Uribe’s effort to seek a third term. That would not have happened under Bush.”

In the case of the Honduras coup, Carlsen points out that the Obama administration “condemned the coup from the outset, something that Bush probably would not have done,” but adds, “however, I think the end result would have been much the same—an attempt to ‘legitimatize’ the coup through illegitimate elections.”

On what to expect in 2010, there is still guarded hope that the differences between the two administrations will produce better results in the future. Smith hopes that coordinated aid attempts will lead to an improvement in U.S.-Cuba relations, and Isacson notes, “Now that the Obama administration has its officials in place, we can expect modest change: perhaps a somewhat tougher line on human rights and democratic institutions, and more economic and social assistance.”

He warns not expect dramatic changes in Colombia policy though. “The hemisphere continues to be a low foreign-policy priority for an administration with more urgent issues in the Middle East. Neglect is the most likely scenario. Worse, I worry that concerns about Venezuela will prevent the administration from taking any bold moves that distance the United States from allies with poor human rights or corruption records.”

Barry sees a bleak scenario for positive policy changes from the government of change. He expects “more hard-line rhetoric, funding initiatives, and programs for border security, responding to political demands from the region, and its own effort to bolster its security credentials,” and “no real leadership to effect immigration reform.”

He expects that the Obama administration will “continue to condescendingly dismiss constructive proposals for drug decriminalization and an end to drug war overseas.” Carlsen concurs that the security-driven agenda will produce little change for U.S. relations with Mexico and Central America.

What changes are needed for policy changes in these regions? Analysts agree that the list is long, after the debacle of the Bush administration, which had one of the worst approval ratings in the region in history.

Isacson says that for Colombia, “it could start with cuts, and stricter enforcement of human rights conditions, in aid to Colombia. This would be coupled with efforts to help Colombia govern its territory without militarization and without impunity, which means supporting civilian governance, the judicial system, and human-rights defenders.”

“Throughout the region—whether the leader is right or left—the U.S. government must accompany people denouncing abuse and corruption, including NGOs, the media, and the judiciary. Our anti-drug strategy must take more into account the region’s critiques, and do far more to reduce U.S. demand by increasing access to drug treatment.”

“The United States needs to do so much in terms of bringing about a more sensible relationship with Cuba,” Smith notes. Specifically, “It needs to take Cuba off the list of terrorist states. There is absolutely no evidence that Cuba should be on it. It needs to lift travel controls across the board, and especially educational travel. And there is really no reason we cannot now again have diplomatic relations.” He adds, “But don’t hold your breath on any of these things.”

For the border region, Barry states that “The administration should call an end to ‘enforcement-first’ immigration policy, noting the policy’s multibillion-dollar price tag, its tragic impact on U.S. communities, and the failure to fix the broken immigration system through congressional reform. Our nation has other priorities, and cannot afford to institutionalize these anti-immigrant backlash politics.”

“President Obama should officially end the ‘war on drugs’ and invigorate national and international debate by leading a collective call for an end to drug prohibition policies and a commitment to treat regular use of harmful drugs with medical programs and education.”

“The administration must call a halt to the exorbitantly expensive, unproven, mismanaged virtual fence, and tear down the border fence outside of border cities. It should also refocus Homeland Security away from ideologically driven immigration enforcement and border security to targeted intelligence gathering on prospective threats.”

Carlsen urges a more integral relationship with Mexico and Central America, especially given the economic crisis. “Poverty and unemployment exacerbate the so-called security priorities of undocumented immigration and organized crime. Unless we work together with the governments and civil society organizations to build stronger communities among our neighbors, these problems will continue to spiral out of control and the militarized approach will add more bloodshed and fiscal burdens to already over-burdened societies.”

Finally, we expect that 2010 will present even more critical challenges in the Western Hemisphere. In predicting 2010’s big news stories Isacson believes that elections in Venezuela and Colombia will grab the media’s attention, while organized crime will continue to be a big issue.

Wayne Smith expresses hope that “an ambitious program of U.S.-Cuban cooperation in providing assistance to Haiti could grab headlines.” Tom Barry predicts little progress in moving away from Bush border and immigration policies. He foresees “further exposés regarding how Homeland Security serves as a haven for private contractors like Boeing, CACI, and Lockheed Martin that manage themselves and provide no effective goods or services, like the virtual fence and information systems.”

The drug war in Mexico will be the big news, Carlsen predicts, as it grows more violent and citizen groups step up protests over army and police human rights violations. She adds that the economic crisis is far from over in Mexico and will feed calls for political reforms in a year that is charged with the historical significance of the combined bicentennial and centennial anniversaries of Independence and the Mexican Revolution.

Both Carlsen and Isacson agreed that the coup d’etat in Honduras on June 28 was a pop quiz in 2009 that the Obama administration clearly failed. Carlsen states that with the majority of nations refusing to recognize the presidency of Porfirio Lobo and the Honduran resistance movement mobilized in its demand for a constitutional assembly, the attempt to sweep the coup under the rug of history is likely to cause a bigger mess and risk distancing the United States from powerful countries such as Brazil and Argentina.

Isacson notes the dangerous precedent set by the coup and the U.S. diplomatic failure to restore democracy. He fears “that the Honduran precedent could be repeated in other countries where presidents who dare to confront elites find their popularity begin to slip: military coups could follow.”

As 2010 events unfold, watch the virtual pages of the Americas Program to find out how predictions match up to reality on these issues and many more.

—Laura Carlsen

Laura Carlsen (lcarlsen(a) is the director of the Americas Program for the Center for International Policy in Mexico City.

Adam Isacson is director of programs and Latin America specialist at the Center for International Policy.

Wayne S. Smith is currently a Center for International Policy senior fellow and director of the Cuba Program. Smith served as chief of the U.S. Interest Section in Cuba from 1979 to 1982.

Tom Barry, a senior policy analyst at the Center for International Policy in Washington, directs the TransBorder Project of CIP’s Americas Program. He blogs at:

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