Messin' Where We Shouldn't Oughta

A User's Guide to Thoroughly Stupid Foreign Policy

April 19, 2009

I strain for words to describe adequately Washington’s policy toward Latin America. Candidates come to mind: Imbecilic, moronic, catatonic, Pollyannaish, blind, incurious. No, these are poor creatures and frail, not equal to the task. Retarded? Anencephalic? Those too lack descriptive power. The EEG has flat-lined. The patient is dead.

I recently found the following from McClatchey news service:

WASHINGTON — As the Pentagon eyes a bigger role in Mexico's drug war, the military's efforts to open the door to a new relationship with its southern neighbor ….”

Book me a ticket to Mars. The Pentagon is eyeing something, a sure recipe for disaster. Previously it has eyed Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and made a horrendous mess of each. Now the Five-Sided Sand Box is eyeing Mexico. Oh good. Let’s get involved in another third-world catastrophe by meddling in what we don’t understand.

Continues McClatchey: “During a trip designed to expand U.S. Mexican-military relations, Adm. Michael Mullen, the highest-ranking U.S. military officer, visited the graves of American troops who died during the Mexican-American war just as Gates did during his first visit in August.”

How stupid can you get? (The question is rhetorical. Pentagonal stupidity does not converge, but increases without limit.) To improve relations with the Mexican army, we rub its nose in having defeated them. “Haha, Pedro, you got a few of our guys, but we kicked your hindparts good, didn’t we?” The unspoken subtext to any Mexican being, “And we can do it again.”

Let me explain something. To Mexicans, the US is not a friendly nation. The reasons are countless, some valid and some not, but Mexicans do not see America as benign. They fear the US military, which they regard as out of control, invading country after country in pursuit of oil.

Mexico has oil. America lost control of it in 1938 when Lazaro Cardenas nationalized it. Mexicans believe, in dead seriousness, that the US would love a pretext for invading to get it back. A pretext such as coming in to help Mexico fight drugs, and just not leaving. Iraq comes instantly to their minds.

And so the good admiral and the SecDef come to pay homage to the American soldiers who conquered Mexico. What diplomatic genius.
While they are at it, why not lay a wreath in Hiroshima to the brave American airmen who died over Japan? Or maybe erect a statue to Sherman in Atlanta? What if the Mexican army chief went to New York to commemorate the courageous freedom fighters who took down the towers?

No. No, no, no. Keep the gringo soldiers out of Mexico. To Mexicans, the US military means only one thing: unshirted aggression. The dates 1846-1848 might convey something to one American in a hundred. Mexicans know that in those years they lost half their country to what U.S. Grant called an utterly unjustified invasion. They remember.

You don’t have to agree with Grant’s assessment (though I don’t see how it can be intelligently disputed). Mexican behavior is determined by what Mexicans think, not what we think they ought to think.

Peoples remember invasions for a very long time. It is not smart to step on a country’s national corns. Even today a lot of Southerners would march on Washington under arms if they thought they had a chance of winning.

It is not just that Mullen and Gates did what they did, but that they had no idea what they were doing. I mean…look, Mexico is not the Dry Tortugas. It is a country of 110 million people sharing a very long border with the US. What happens here has consequences for the United States. It might make sense to treat the place with a modicum of thought, to have some grasp of how Latins think. I don’t mean a firm grasp, or real understanding. I am not an extremist. But…maybe just a clue.

From Guadalajara, our policy towards the continent below seems determined by bumbling children, by domestic politics, by truculent and heavily armed Boy Scouts. Is Hillary Clinton the Secretary of State for her long experience abroad, her command of languages? Or because her appointment healed a schism in the Democratic Party and soothed the Israeli lobby? No one in power seems even to know that there is anything to know about South America. I suspect I could count on the fingers of an amputee’s hand the number of high US officials who speak Spanish. It is ridiculous.

In the past it perhaps didn’t matter much whether Washington knew anything about Caracas, La Paz, or Brasilia. Latin Americans were all the same—serape, tequila, exaggerated sombrero, sleeping under a cactus, burro waiting. I am still asked by Americans, “In Mexico, do they, you know, have paved roads?” Unbright. Very unbright.

Today wiser policy is in order, but seems unlikely to be forthcoming. In particular, a ratpack of colonels in arrested development are the worst possible people to handle relations with Latin countries. Colonels live in a clean-edged, simple mental universe in which orders are followed, everyone is a good guy or a bad guy, and you can trust those thought to be on your side. They believe in American values, in military values, and believe that everyone really wants to be like them, like us. Nothing to it: You bomb the bad guys into submission, teach the people to be honest and democratic as America isn’t and never was and, bingo, a docile Reader’s Digest version of Switzerland pops into existence. Good luck.

Latin America doesn’t work that way. It is complex, often profoundly corrupt, at times chaotic, and inclined to view the rule of law as an interesting idea perhaps worthy of examination at a later date. Power flows through channels written nowhere. Latins intensely resent American intrusiveness. Most would prefer their own narcos to US soldiery. The world below the Rio Bravo is not suitable for military fiddling.

In today’s complicated world, with the Asian giants rising and seeking raw materials, maybe we should pay more attention. Maybe sending the Marines isn’t the answer to every problem. Since World War II, the Pentagon has displayed a nearly solid record of failure in fighting either drugs or peasants with AKs. We do not need to blunder into new and better Afghanistans. We seem to want to, though, and it will bring more leftists to power. In the last election here, a truly nutball leftist (AMLO—Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador) came within a few chads of being president of Mexico. Hugo Chavez thrives on American hostility. We treat Cuba as an enemy and, sure enough, it acts like one. None of this is in the American national interest, boys and girls. It’s just brainless.