With his popularity ratings now spiraling into unprecedented, second-term depths, the president had hoped that last week’s foray to the Summit of the Americans in Argentina would at least prove diversionary. What it proved, however, is that changing context and continents no longer works. At least not for George W. Bush.
While it got Libby-gate out of the news, the sojourn south was superceded by something much more serious: the realization that the perception of this president – and, much more importantly, this country — is costing us across the foreign-policy board. Big time.
Flying to Mar Del Plata was not a strategy for looking presidential and burnishing an embattled image. Not when your sheer presence provokes well-chronicled, globally-transmitted, anti-American street protests that include burning flags and Hitlerized effigies.
It was a reminder that a large portion of the world – not just “Old” Europe and the Middle East “street” — doesn’t see the Iraqi occupation as a necessary front in the war against terrorism. They perceive an increasingly unilateral, arrogant and pre-emptive hegemon. This is beyond PR nightmare.
As for the Summit, per se, the invasion of Iraq rekindled the bad old days of “gunboat diplomacy” a century ago. It also helped revive memories of U.S. intervention in Latin American sovereign affairs – from Guatemala in the 1950s and Cuba in the ’60s to Chile in the ’70s and Nicaragua in the ’80s. And no one will convince Venezuela’s populist powder keg, Hugo Chavez, that Pat Robertson is the only American who wants him cashiered from this life. It’s not a quantum leap for know-nothing socialists to blame everything on Uncle Scapegoat. Iraq just makes it easier.
Such volatile geopolitics helps Chavez dust off the old anti-imperialist rhetoric. It also reminds other leaders – more of whom have been leaning left of late – that now is not the time to appear to be in the pocket of the U.S.
And that arguably and regrettably works to the detriment of Latin America — historically enamored of big government and wary of capitalism — as well as the U.S.
Even with allowances for our farm subsidies, there were still enough reasons for Latin American economies to sign on to the United States-supported free trade agreement. Substantially lowering – or eliminating – two-way tariffs and streamlining customs is still a net benefit with job-creation implications. It would not have overcome, of course, onerous taxes, stifling over-regulation, obstructionist labor unions, entrenched monopolies and endemic corruption, but it would have helped.
In fact, a majority were willing to move ahead, but if Argentina and Brazil aren’t with you, nothing happens.
And nothing happened. Except the refutation of an old political axiom about presidents hitting the international low road to help ride out domestic turmoil.