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Why Colombia?

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/mccain-leaning.jpgSen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) (WDCpix)

Put yourself in Sen. John McCain’s shoes. You want to flash your war-on-terror and free-trade bona fides, expose your rival’s vulnerabilities and change the conversation from Iraq. Just three hours from Miami is the place to be: Colombia.

Outside of the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan, Colombia is the biggest recipient of U.S. security assistance — about $600 million a year. It has the largest U.S. embassy outside of Baghdad. President George W. Bush and Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe, as well as the security establishments of both countries, share a visceral simpatico for the war on terror and the war drugs — as well as penchant for curtailing the civil liberties of their citizens to those ends.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

With support from both Democrats and Republicans over the last 10 years, Colombia has beaten back the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a left-wing insurgency; demobilized right-wing paramilitaries, and brought a measure of public security to once-abandoned rural areas and crime-ridden urban centers. By tethering himself to the Bush-Uribe security legacy in Colombia, McCain can fit squarely into the GOP’s hard-core security-first narrative.

It suits Uribe too. Now serving the last two years of his second, and constitutionally final, term, the Colombian president has just announced a referendum he hopes will give him a shot at a third term. This sets up an obvious parallel for those who compare a McCain presidency to a third term for Bush. McCain has fully bought into the narrative that juxtaposes the “bad” left-wing populism of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela with the “good” right-wing populism of Uribe’s Colombia.

But the differences between McCain and Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive candidate, are not primarily about security—on Plan Colombia and the fight against the FARC, the two senators are roughly in sync. Though, to be sure, Obama does stress human-rights issues more than his opponent.

But the second big issue involving Colombia that has major U.S. political resonance is trade. During Bush’s second term, Washington and Bogota negotiated a free-trade agreement. Then, inexplicably, the Bush administration waited until the Democrats held the majority to start pushing for Congressional approval.

At a time of palpable economic insecurity and growing anxiety about globalization, and in the middle of an election year, the House Democratic leadership effectively put the agreement ratification on ice by stopping the fast-track clock that the White House started running earlier this year.

Bush had pushed for the trade agreement as Bogota’s ultimate reward. It was designed to be a blessing, opening the door to the foreign investment and jobs that Colombia needs to finally purge the economy of its drug-induced sins. The White House, similarly, set up the Democrats as turncoats, as partisans more responsive to special interests like the dreaded AFL-CIO, than to the national security imperatives of keeping Colombia strong. Both Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton have already pledged to hold up the Colombia agreement, and even to re-open discussions about the North American Free Trade Agreement.

To Bush, McCain, the GOP and many Democrats, Colombia is the poster child for the success of the trade-drugs-democracy trifecta of U.S. foreign policy since the Cold War. The “naive” Illinois senator, McCain might surely argue, is willing to squander this success.

The facile, but plausible, answer to “why Colombia” might require no more than connecting the dots between the lobbying of McCain’s leading adviser, Charlie Black, for Occidental Petroleum’s interests in Colombia, or for the trade agreement itself.

But as McCain probably sees it, this trip to Colombia is about much more. It demonstrates Washington’s, and his own, friendship for Colombia, the closest U.S. ally in the hemisphere; strengthens his own candidacy; strengthens Uribe; puts Chavez on notice, and paints Obama and the Democratic Party as weak — unreliable as an ally abroad and unable to withstand the heat from special interests at home.

This election marks a turning point in U.S. history in a number of ways. Candidates have long campaigned on how they’d handle foreign relations, to be sure. For the last 50 years, Latin America has turned up in presidential elections, but largely as a domestic political issue — often only as that four-letter word, C-U-B-A. Now, we have candidates campaigning abroad for an electorate’s benefit at home, as Obama says he will also be doing shortly.

Instead of the question of how Washington treats its enemies, front and center on the table is how the United States treats its friends. McCain may well see Colombia as the embodiment of everything wrong about Obama and right about his own candidacy. But given the sour mood of the U.S. electorate, and the extent of Latin America’s frustration with Bush’s foreign- policy agenda, it is hard to see how playing favorites with Colombia will win the senator new friends in the hemisphere — or, most important, more votes at home.

  • Julia Sweig, a senior fellow and director of Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of “Friendly Fire: Losing Friends and Making Enemies in the Anti-American Century.”*

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