The Obama Watch

Obama’s Mexican Recipe: Failed Statism

After a condescending visit the president adds insult to injury with his choice for U.S. ambassador to Mexico.

By 4.22.09

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MEXICO CITY -- On his way to glad-hand Hugo Chávez and Daniel Ortega at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad last weekend, President Barack Obama did a one-day drop-by in this capital. His meetings with President Felipe Calderón were cordial but not very productive, according to Mexican observers.

Telling was the coverage in the influential daily El Universal, whose editorial line is considered nonpartisan and centrist. The newspaper's Alejandro Páez Varela put an edgy English-language headline above the angry Spanish of his editorial column following Obama's visit: "Yes we can…wait. Again."

Making clear that he is no admirer of former President Vicente Fox, Páez Varela said nevertheless that Fox recently had spoken the truth in calling United States policies toward Mexico during his and George W. Bush's tenure palmaditas -- little pats on the back. As translated, the El Universal editorialist wrote: "Mr. Obama, I could have done without your visit. We received palmaditas a few days ago from Hillary. And now we get more of the same."

Policies and ideologies have flipped in the United States and Mexico since the administration of Ronald Reagan. Reagan's opposite number in Mexico was opposite in every imaginable way -- President José López Portillo, one of the most corrupt and left-wing leaders of the last generation of the one-party rule of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional. In an early indication of the shrewd personal statecraft he later would practice with Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan waged an intensive charm offensive with López Portillo.

As the New York Times reported, June 14, 1981: "The relationship between Presidents Carter and José López Portillo of Mexico got off on the wrong foot and stayed there. The one between President Reagan and Mr. López Portillo has been publicly less awkward, despite their greater ideological divergence. 'I confess for the first time now, I have felt totally relaxed,' the Mexican President told Mr. Reagan at a White House luncheon last week. His visit to Washington also included horseback riding at Camp David."

As two-term governor of California, Reagan had extensive experience with Mexican culture and economic relations between Mexico and the United States. From the earliest days of his presidency, Reagan promoted his vision of a "North American Accord" involving Mexico, Canada, and the United States. This led in stages to the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement, then the tripartite North American Free Trade Agreement.

This month American history's most left-wing President on social, economic and security issues visited the competitively elected president from Mexico's pro-business, socially conservative party, the Partido Acción Nacional. Obama expressed continued support for United States assistance in the Mexican government's fight against drug cartels, but he offered awkward silence on the vital but strained trade relations between the two countries. "Even though Mexico is the third largest trading partner with the United States," Major Garrett reported April 17 on Fox News, "the President didn't even discuss it in his opening remarks at the press conference today."

Across the political spectrum there are misgivings about Obama's reported nominee for United States Ambassador to Mexico. Carlos Pascual is one of the United States' leading theorists and practitioners of the ideological doctrine of "failed states." In the main, the project to make the world safe from "failed states" is a one-size-fits-all outlook and action plan of "nation-building" whose most lasting and coherent impact may be as a full-employment program for the Birkenstocked utopian bureaucrats at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) -- a failed agency if ever there was one.

The great realist Jeane Kirkpatrick was sharply critical of the "failed states" ideology. As Edward Luttwak noted in his review (The New Republic, August 9, 2007) of Kirkpatrick's posthumously published Making War to Keep Peace, "After carefully examining the new 'failed states' doctrine that would abrogate sovereignty to justify benevolent interventions where government has broken down and the state no longer functions…she concludes that this new colonialism was worse than the old, because at least some incidental good was done while extracting gold and such, while attempts to synthesize modern democracies for populations with quite other priorities can only turbo-charge their travails."

Inauspiciously, before jumping to the Brookings Institution three years ago, Pascual spent his entire career as a foreign service officer of the USAID hive of failed statists.  

In fairness to Pascual, he has accomplished one almost unimaginable feat: uniting Mexico's Left, Right, and Center on an issue -- his appointment. One factor is a mere accident of birth: he was born in Cuba 50 years ago and came to the United States with his parents as a two-year-old. Mexican leftists fear he is a closet Miami-exile-bomb-thrower intent upon trying to pry the Mexican Left from its embrace with the Castros. Mexicans of the Center and the Right are leery of him not for ideological but for cultural motives. Unfair though it may be, one of Mexico's deepest ethnic prejudices is a dislike of Cubans. (Mexican leftists love the Castros because they are Communists, in spite of the fact they are Cubans.)

Pascual's more significant problem is the "failed states" matter. María del Rosario Green Macías was foreign minister of Mexico under Ernesto Zedillo, the last and most reputable of the PRI presidents. Now the left-of-center chairman of Mexico's Senate Foreign Relations Committee, she said Pascual "has developed a whole theory about states either failed or in crisis, and that's quite close to what they [North Americans] say we are." She added: "We will never acknowledge that we are a failed state, because that is not true." In this last statement, Senator Green Macías echoes almost exactly the views recently expressed in the New York Times by a leading Mexican right-of-center intellectual and best-selling author, Enrique Krauze. Of the "failed states" doctrine and its application to Mexico, Krauze said, "America's distorted views can have costly consequences, especially for us in Latin America."

After palmaditas from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and considering Carlos Pascual's provenance, Mexicans are not expecting anything better from the Obama-Clinton choice for Ambassador. Political columnist Katia D'Artigues yesterday in El Universal said of Pascual's expected nomination: "The message comes with the messenger: an expert in 'failed states' -- just in case we need one."

Mexican politicians and media are trying mightily to tell Obama and Clinton to keep their pet social engineer at home. But what none of the Mexican coverage or commentary has noted is that the appointment is not a fait accompli. One or more determined United States Senators can prevent an ambassador's confirmation. Sen. Christopher Dodd's "hold" stopped a number of George W. Bush's diplomatic nominations, including John Bolton's as Ambassador to the United Nations. In recent memory, the late Sen. Jesse Helms halted Bill Clinton's nomination of Republican-in-Name-Only William Weld as Ambassador to Mexico. All it takes is one or more Senate conservative realists with vertebrae to spare both the United States and Mexico from an awkward diplomatic mission that portends to play out as a utopian failure.

(Mr. Duggan, an advisor to Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, 1981-1985, is a visiting professor at Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico City.)

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About the Author
Joseph P. Duggan served on a U.S. State Department diplomatic mission to Prague in 1988, presenting then-dissident Václav Havel his first briefing on U.S. and NATO defense postures and policies. This article is adapted from Duggan's new electronic book, The Zuckerberg Galaxy: A Primer for Navigating the Media Maelstrom.