|March 8, 2007|
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“Should I become president,” candidate George Bush promised in 2000, “I will look South [to Latin America], not as an afterthought, but as a fundamental commitment of my presidency.” More than six years later, President Bush is embarking on a five-nation tour of the southern hemisphere at a time when “U.S. prestige and influence in the Americas is at its lowest point in generations.” “There is a sense that things are not going well for the U.S. in the region,” said Peter Hakim, president of Inter-American Dialogue. “There has probably never been so much anti-Americanism and so little confidence in U.S. leadership since the cold war.” After the 9/11 attacks, Bush “quickly relegated Latin America to the ancillary role it played during most of the cold war, creating openings” for demagogues like Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez to exploit. Bush’s trip to Colombia, Uruguay, Brazil, Guatemala and Mexico kicks off a “year of engagement” following “six-plus years of neglect.” Already, the administration is spinning its record in Latin America. “[Bush] has been involved and committed to Latin America throughout his presidency,” National Security adviser Stephen Hadley said. In reality, the region has not gotten the attention it deserves. But since “there’s little that the Latin Americans expect from him anymore,” Bush will need to bring along more than just rhetoric. Now is the time for big action on issues such as increased cooperation on ethanol production, increased foreign aid, and the passage of comprehensive immigration reform. “Perhaps, in time, we will look back on President Bush’s trip as the first step toward the kind of strategic approach to the Americas that is so desperately needed,” said Dan Restrepo, Director of The Americas Project at the Center for American Progress. “The president’s track record in the Americas suggests, however, that it instead will be understood as the final empty symbolic gesture of a journey that began with great promise, but ended with so little accomplished.”
THE ANTI-CHAVEZ TOUR: Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, in an attempt to become the face of anti-Americanism in the region, continually insults Bush, while at the same time providing his neighbors with “billions of dollars…in aid schemes ranging from financial credits to home-building to subsidized oil.” Bush’s tour is largely seen as part of a larger effort to counter Chavez’s influence in the region. The administration denies it has launched an “anti-Chavez tour,” yet as former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castaneda writes, “There is an overall agenda for which this trip may well represent too little, too late: Chavez containment.” In fact, Bush’s stop in Uruguay — a country with whom the United States has a relatively weak strategic relationship — underscores “the not-so-hidden motivation for the President’s trip as whole — making a show of attempting to counter the perceived influence” of Chavez. Bush is unlikely to win many hearts and minds. As Casteneda points out, Bush is the “least appropriate person on Earth for this mission; he is immensely unpopular in Latin America — not since Richard Nixon’s trip to Caracas in 1959 have so many protests been likely — and since Sept. 11, 2001, he has neglected the hemisphere. Many snicker that if he defends democracy in Latin America as well as he has in Iraq, only God can help Latin American democrats.” The administration continues to play into Chavez’s hands by giving him attention, even though he “does not pose a national security threat to the United States at present or in the foreseeable future.” Yesterday, the State Department’s top diplomat for Latin America, Tom Shannon, “rebuked” Chavez, “calling him confrontational and accusing the fiery leader of buying favor.” “For too long, the United States’ relationship with the Americas has been defined by its contentious dealings,” Restrepo writes. “The time has come to break that debilitating pattern and institute a policy of constructively ignoring Chavez.”
BUSH TO SHOW HIS ‘SOFTER, GENTLER’ SIDE: One of Bush’s goals is to “challenge a widespread perception in Latin America of U.S. neglect,” and Bush is telling the region’s chronic poor, “We care about your plight.” “The working poor of Latin America need change,” Bush said, “and the United States of America is committed to that change.” (In his speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Bush used the phrase “social justice” five times.) “It’s an attempt to try to show a softer, gentler Bush,” Armand Peschard-Sverdrup of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said. The Washington Post’s Dan Froomkin points out the difficulty Bush will have with this strategy. “If you think Bush has a credibility problem in his own country, it’s even worse south of the border — especially when it comes to issues of social justice,” Froomkin writes. “Let there be no doubt about this: Bush’s attempt to persuade Latin Americans that he is the champion of the poor — given his pro-business bent and six years of an almost exclusive focus on free trade and terrorism — is utterly doomed. Almost laughably so.” Earlier this week, Bush announced “several relatively small new initiatives” for aid in the region. “The smaller, poorer countries that could use some aid are unlikely to get much relief, since U.S. assistance to the region, currently around $1.6 billion annually, is set to drop next year. And the biggest chunk of that aid is aimed not at poverty relief but at helping Colombia battle drug trafficking and a 40-year-old leftist insurgency.” “In the short term, Chavez has more to offer because our aid is peanuts,” said Johns Hopkins’ Riordan Roett. “We’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars, and he’s tossing around a billion here and a billion there.” As the New York Times writes, “A lot more will be needed if promoting social justice is to be more than a sound bite.”
IGNORING OUR MOST IMPORTANT PARTNER: “When he first became president, Bush promised that the United States’ relationship with the region, Mexico in particular, was a top priority.” Yet even though “one of the most important bilateral relationships the United States has in the world today is with Mexico,” our southern neighbor “has not been treated as such.” In his visit this week, Bush “will bypass Mexico City, where his presence would surely generate large protests, and instead meet with President Felipe Calderon in the Yucatan city of Merida” for the “first meeting between the two since Calderon was inaugurated.” Their meeting is “bound to be marked by tension over the U.S. political debate on immigration.” Last year, Bush bowed to conservative pressure and signed the “Secure Fence Act”, a bill authorizing, but not paying for, a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. “As long as the last definitive statement of U.S. policy toward Mexico is” this legislation, “there is little reason to believe Mexico will be treated with the strategic importance it so clearly merits.” Instead, Bush should firmly commit to passing comprehensive immigration reform, which 76 percent of Americans support.
RENEWING RELATIONS WITH BRAZIL: “For years, Brazil tried in vain to persuade U.S. officials of the merits of ethanol, which had made the largest country in South America virtually energy self-sufficient.” (Currently, ethanol makes up 40 percent of the total fuel used in Brazilian automobiles.) “The price of oil for a long time didn’t compel,” said former U.S. ambassador to Brazil Donna Hrinak. “Our response was, ‘We are working on the hydrogen car. We are happy with that and we’ll see you later.'” Now, the administration is working on an agreement with Brazil — which officials admit is “largely a framework and provides few details” — to “promote the production and use of ethanol throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.” Yet Bush’s push for cooperation with Brazil on ethanol “will be timid and incomplete” unless he takes concrete steps, such as gradually reducing the current 54-cent-per-gallon U.S. tariff on imported biofuels. This tariff means the “U.S. market remains largely off-limits” to Brazilian ethanol, needlessly complicating the expanded use of ethanol as a gasoline substitute instead of as an additive, and hampering the creation of a much-needed global renewable fuels market.
MILITARY — LAWMAKERS AWARE OF WALTER REED PROBLEMS SINCE 2004: Members of Congress were aware of the abhorrent conditions that soldiers at Walter Reed faced several years before the issue erupted in the Washington Post last month. In a subcommittee hearing yesterday, Rep. Bill Young (R-FL), who was chairman of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee at the time, said he and his wife frequently visited veterans residing in poor conditions at the hospital and even “got in Gen. Kiley’s face on a regular basis,” but Young refused to use his influence as a congressman to bring attention to the problem out of fear of undermining war efforts. “We did not go public with these concerns, because we did not want to undermine the confidence of the patients and their families and give the Army a black eye,” said Young. Young added that he falsely believed the many instances of patient neglect he witnessed were “basically isolated cases, soldier by soldier” and not evidence of a more systemic problem. Young instead continued to blame Kiley, maintaining that “appropriations alone cannot solve all problems.” Rep. Thomas M. Davis, III (R-VA), former chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, said he and his committee staff learned about the problems of wounded soldiers’ health care in 2004 and directed the Government Accountability Office to “conduct several studies” on the matter. But Davis did not pressure committees or House leaders for better funding or new legislation to address the problems he witnessed. Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) did attempt to raise awareness about the issue by seeking appropriations to address the problems he saw during visits to veterans hospitals, lambasting the Bush administration and Pentagon for discouraging patients and government officials from talking to legislators. Today, the House Armed Services Committee and Veterans Affairs Committee will hold hearings on Walter Reed.
ETHICS — SENIOR BUSH OFFICIAL MAY HAVE VIOLATED LAW TRYING TO BLOCK PELOSI FROM APPEARING AT EVENT: House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) has uncovered more potentially illegal activity by the head of the General Services Administration, Lorita Doan. Waxman has discovered that Doan “used a January 2007 teleconference to ask senior GSA officials to help ‘our candidates’ in the next elections through targeted public events, such as the opening of federal facilities around the country.” Doan’s inappropriate behavior included exploring “how to exclude House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from an upcoming courthouse opening in San Francisco and how to include Republican Senator Mel Martinez.” Previously, questions arose surrounding Doan’s attempts to award a $20,000 non-competitive GSA contract to a firm headed by Edie Fraser, an individual with whom Doan has had a “long-standing,” undisclosed business relationship. Rep. Waxman has since discovered that “Fraser used her professional connections to advance Doan’s nomination to GSA and to provide personal favors, and … Ms. Fraser continued to provide services with the expectation of payment to Ms. Doan after she became GSA Administrator.” Further, Waxman discovered that while Fraser’s contract was eventually canceled because GSA regulations required all contracts over $2,500 to be competitively bid, Doan continued to pressure her staff “to find a way to award the contract to Ms. Fraser.” According to Waxman, Doan even went so far as to suggest “that if GSA were to make the contract available through a competitive bid, Ms. Fraser could write the ‘Statement of Work’ describing the award for which her company would be competing.” Doan has dismissed Waxman’s assertions as “scurrilous” personal attacks and said she would be “delighted to have the opportunity to set the record straight” when she appears before the House Oversight Committee on March 20.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to “vote today to authorize subpoenas for Justice officials” involved in the purge of U.S. Attorneys, including Michael Battle, who carried out the firings, and Kyle Sampson, chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto A. Gonzales.
Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the day-to-day commander of American forces in Iraq, has recommended in a private memo that President Bush’s escalation of U.S. troop levels “be maintained through February 2008.”
Internal memorandums circulated by the Bush administration’s Federal Fish and Wildlife Service “appear to require government biologists or other employees traveling in countries around the Arctic not to discuss climate change, polar bears or sea ice if they are not designated to do so.”
“The Federal Emergency Management Agency hurriedly bought 145,000 trailers and mobile homes just before and after Katrina hit, spending $2.7 billion largely through no-bid contracts. Now, it is selling off as many as 41,000 of the homes, netting, so far, about 40 cents on each dollar spent by taxpayers.”
According to the AARP, the “prices for about 200 prescription drugs commonly used by seniors in the United States rose nearly twice the rate of inflation…making a case for letting the government negotiate drug prices.”
69 percent: Americans who feel “less confident” about a “successful conclusion in Iraq.” Only 20 percent express more confidence. A similar number believe the war in Afghanistan is faring poorly. Sixty-nine percent say the war there isn’t going well, versus 28 percent who think it is.
188: Death toll in Iraq from “from three consecutive days of attacks on Shiite Muslim pilgrims” who are “streaming to the holy city of Karbala for weekend rites commemorating the death of…one of Shiite Islam’s holiest figures.”
“New House ethics rules that restrict lobbyist-funded travel exempt trips paid for by colleges and universities,” which spent more than hospitals and nursing homes — at least $75 million — on federal lobbying in 2005.
Internal documents show that the Pentagon “lacks a comprehensive plan to identify and treat tens of thousands of troops who may suffer from traumatic brain injury, the signature wound of the Iraq war.” ABC anchor Bob Woodruff reported recently that the Pentagon is “withholding information about how widespread these debilitating wounds have become.”
And finally: You can now offset your own bodily “emissions.” An Australian company is “selling carbon credits for flatulent pets and people.” For just $16, you can make your body carbon neutral for two years, and the company will install “energy-saving fluorescent light bulbs and water-saving shower heads in houses in New South Wales, Australia.”