Here is a translation of a piece about “what to expect from the new U.S. administration” appearing in the latest issue of Cien DÃas, published by Colombia’s Center for Research and Popular Education (CINEP).
“Change is coming, but not drastic change” [PDF]
By Adam Isacson, director of programs, Center for International Policy
Once he is inaugurated as the next president of the United States in January 2009, Barack Obama’s first major foreign policy challenge will simply be managing the rest of the world’s expectations.
His historic victory in the November 4 presidential elections brought a huge sigh of relief from almost everywhere on the planet. In Latin America and other regions, there is a strong desire to see the United States abandoning the unilateralism and warlike behavior of the past several years, and a strong hope that the face the United States shows to the world will change radically.
Under these circumstances, it is virtually guaranteed that the new president will disappoint many. While there will certainly be less militarism and disregard for human rights, the change will not be as revolutionary as many expect. Colombia will be no exception.
Because Obama has never visited Latin America and – as of late November – he has not officially nominated anyone to a post with responsibility for policy toward the region, we have little information to guide us as we seek to guess how the Obama government would change Colombia policy. But given his first nominations, the positions of his advisors and the few statements he made about Colombia during the campaign, it seems most likely that his administration will not seek to change fundamentally the framework of bilateral relations established with Plan Colombia during the Clinton-Pastrana period, and strengthened during the Bush-Uribe years.
There will certainly be changes to the relationship, and some will be important. But they will not be drastic. With the objective of fighting narcotrafficking, weakening illegal armed groups and strengthening the state, Colombia will probably still be the main recipient of U.S. military and police aid in Latin America. There will still be a desire to maintain a strong and close bilateral relationship with the Colombian government, which will surely include a desire to avoid taking actions that antagonize President Ãlvaro Uribe. Nor is Washington likely to play any leading role in efforts to negotiate an end to Colombia’s armed conflict.
There are several reasons to believe that change will be gradual. First, the mere fact that colombia does not head the list of the United States’ current foreign policy concerns. During a long presidential campaign with many debates, press conferences and town-hall meetings, the issue of Colombia policy was hardly discussed, with the exception of a not very nuanced discussion of the free-trade agreement. As a result, it is quite unlikely that the Obama administration will seek to spend its political capital seeking profound change to Colombia policy.
A second reason not to expect large changes is the cohort of foreign policy advisors who accompany the new president. Candidate Obama surrounded himself with advisors with a more internationalist outlook and a stronger belief in “soft power” than those who came with President Bush. But the majority do not come from the left wing of the Democratic Party, which has more influence in the Congress. Some are former Clinton administration officials, present at the creation of Plan Colombia in 1999-2000 (Arturo Valenzuela, for example, was in charge of Western Hemisphere policy in the National Security Council during that period). Others worked for Democratic members of Congress known more for their foreign policy realism than their idealism (Daniel Restrepo, for example, was in charge of Western Hemisphere policy in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, led at the time by Rep. Lee Hamilton [D-Indiana]). They are pragmatic experts, much less ideological than the Bush administration’s hard-liners. While they do recognize the importance of human rights and social justice, they are also guided by a conception that the U.S. interest must always come first.
A third reason why radical change is unlikely is geopolitics. While this owes significantly to serious errors that U.S. governments committed in the past, the reality today is that the number of Latin American governments seeking friendly relations with the United States is much reduced. Colombia is one of the few “friends” the United States has left in a region where the influence of “Bolivarian” leaders is on the increase. Even if the Obama government takes seriously its rather vague commitment to seek a “new alliance” with the region, it will be less likely pursue policies that jeopardize its friendship with the Colombian government.
Nonetheless, there will be notable changes in the policy toward Colombia. In fact, the center-left Obama administration will be starting from a position of little empathy with the government of Uribe, who is from the right and who left a strong impression of having supported John McCain’s election. And of course, since Colombia is a low-priority issue today in Washington, we can’t dismiss the possibility that this could allow the Obama administration to make significant changes without paying a high political cost. There will, therefore, be some changes during the administration’s first and second years. While these changes will not be of transcendental importance, they will represent a meaningful evolution away from the Bush era.
The Obama campaign’s statements made clear that the new president will follow the general framework of Plan Colombia. “When I am President, we will continue the Andean Counter-Drug Program, and update it to meet evolving challenges,” he said in May. “We will fully support Colombia’s fight against the FARC.” Colombia will thus probably continue to be the main destination of U.S. aid to Latin America, though Mexico – under the so-called “MÃ©rida Initiative” – could come to occupy this position within a few years. And the truth is that even if McCain had won, reductions in aid to Colombia would have been inevitable.
There are several reasons why aid will decline. First, the U.S. financial crisis is likely to reduce U.S. aid to the entire world. Second, after having spent US$6.1 billion in Colombia since 2000, there is a greater bipartisan desire to “normalize” the amount of aid that goes to Colombia. Third, there is a perception – perhaps incorrect, but fed by the Colombian government’s own rhetoric – that the Colombian armed conflict is now less intense and that the country is out of danger. And fourth the fact that, between the spiraling increase in Colombia’s defense budget and the dizzying fall in the U.S. dollar, Washington’s military aid now represents a much smaller contribution than it did in 2000.
Although reduced – perhaps to US$400 million per year from the current level of US$600 million – the full U.S. aid package [military plus non-military] will continue to be large. But the Obama administration will probably seek deeper cuts to military and police aid than to economic and social aid, in order to achieve a better balance between military and social priorities. As late as 2007, 80 percent of U.S. aid went to Colombia’s security forces. For 2008 the Congress, newly led by a Democratic Party majority, improved this proportion to 65 percent military aid. The new administration, working with a Congress led by an even larger Democratic majority, will probably continue this trend toward equilibrium.
The aid program likely to undergo the largest cuts is the aerial fumigation of illicit crops. In Washington, this program’s failure is now widely recognized, and was ratified in a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Obama campaign officials’ statements about anti-drug policy were vague, limited to saying things like “we are going to stop doing what isn’t working, and more of what is working.” Since fumigation is plainly not working, it is thus possible that the United States will pay for less of it.
Instead of fumigation, there will likely be more investment in civil-military programs seeking to strengthen an entire-state presence in territories that currently are barely governed. It is possible that there will be more support for the Center for Coordination of Integrated Action (CCAI), an effort of Colombia’s Defense Ministry and Presidential Office for Social Action, which seeks to increase state presence in territories dominated by illegal armed groups. This program deserves more study: some see it as a new model of state-building while others see it as a militarization of economic and social development.
The military aid that goes to Colombia will be much more conditioned on human rights than it was during the years of the Bush administration. It is possible that the Democratic Congress may seek to strengthen the human-rights conditions in foreign aid law, or that aid to the Colombian Armed Forces will be frozen if progress against impunity cannot be demonstrated. It is also possible that the Obama administration’s State Department will be more willing to confront the Uribe government and the Colombian armed forces when there is an evident lack of political will to punish serious human rights abuses.
While Plan Colombia will only undergo changes of amount and emphasis, the Obama administration will probably distance itself from its predecessor’s position on the Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement. Obama, and also his secretary of state-designate, Hillary Clinton, opposed the treaty during the campaign, and neither has changed his or her position. According to Obama, his opposition to the treaty owes completely to his concerns about labor rights. “I opposed CAFTA (the Central America treaty) because the needs of workers were not adequately addressed. I supported the Peru Free Trade Agreement because there were binding labor and environmental provisions,” he said. But in Colombia’s case, he explained, “[T]he history in Colombia right now is that labor leaders have been targeted for assassination on a fairly consistent basis, and there have not been prosecutions.”
This would indicate that Obama does not oppose the Colombia agreement’s model, but that he is concerned about impunity for cases of murdered unionists. It is clear enough what the Colombian state would need to do to give the new president the pretext he would need to change his mind publicly and support the treaty. The Colombian government would need to demonstrate a dramatic increase in the number and importance of verdicts and punishments against the murderers of trade union members. However, as long as these cases of murdered union members continue to go unresolved, in total impunity – a quite likely outcome during the Obama administration’s first or second year – the Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement can be expected to remain in limbo.
For those who expect the United States to show a dramatically different face to Colombia and Latin America during the Obama years, there will be many opportunities to feel disappointed. On the other hand, for those who appreciate steady, gradual change and those who want to see the United States supporting more sensible initiatives and leaving behind those that are not working, the next few years will be an encouraging period.