Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Brazil Sends the U.S. Packing

Posted in South America/Central America/Western Hemisphere by Dan on March 14, 2010

You know that Iran is America’s primary foreign-policy concern when it dominates the discourse of a diplomatic trip to the Middle East.  It’s even more significant when Iran is the main talking-point in another region, like Latin America, where nuclear proliferation is a distant fourth compared to the drug trade, government transparency and regional peace.  You would expect something like this to happen in George W. Bush’s White House, an administration that prided itself on the fight against terrorism and the spread of democracy.

Well not so fast, because this same uni-dimensionality just transferred over to the current President.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just wrapped-up her latest visit to Latin America, a region where U.S. power has often been looked upon with skepticism and outright mistrust.  History has been full of instances where U.S. intervention brought bloodbath to Latin Americans, sometimes for the meager purpose of expanding American business interests.  So with this in mind, you would think that demonstrating America’s change of heart to the region would be Mrs. Clinton’s message.  But as Nikolas K. Gvosdev of the National Interest argues, this was anything but the case.

Rather than discussing issues that are unique to Brazilians, Venezuelans, Chileans, or Columbians, the United States chose to spend most of its time lobbying for stronger economic sanctions against the Iranian regime.  This wouldn’t be such a big deal if it weren’t for the fact that Brazil in particular sent Clinton with her tail between her legs.

Brazil has never really been receptive to western arguments against Tehran’s nuclear program.  For years now, Brazilian President Lula da Silva has publicly stressed his support for Iran’s nuclear ambitions, on the grounds that developing countries have the right to enrich uranium for civilian purposes under international protocol.  Brazil, in addition to India, Pakistan, China, and Russia, continues to put forth the claim that the United States has been overblowing Iran’s nuclear capability from the start (and I tend to agree with them).  Lula da Silva’s support for Iran’s nuclear program has reached to such heights that his government invited Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Brazil for an official and cordial diplomatic meeting, posing with the controversial Iranian leader in front of the cameras and undoubtedly causing some U.S. anguish in the process.

To the dismay of Washington, Clinton’s trip didn’t budge Lula all that much.  In fact, Brazil’s reluctance to adopt the U.S. position vis-à-vis Iran is but a confirmation of its desire to represent the developing world in all its glory.  With its economy the strongest in Latin America, with its private sector vastly increasing, and with its exclusive membership in the U.N. Security Council, Brazil is intent on making sure that all rising nations (whether in Southeast Asia, Africa, or the Middle East) have the same opportunities as wealthy conglomerates like the United States and Great Britain.   The nuclear issue is only an extension of this position.  Like the United States, Brazil has its own array of national interests, one of which is to get the world’s attention by pushing its diplomatic weight across the world stage.

Overall, this was a pretty bad week for the U.S. diplomatic core.  Brazil is not tagging along, the region still has its problems with Washington, and the developed-developing world dichotomy is split ever further apart.  Brace for a tough few months at the U.N. Security Council, and expect additional Iranian sanctions to be divided between the rich and poor.  And for those in the middle, like Brazil and Turkey, expect them to jump to the side where their power will be on full display; the side of the poor and underdeveloped.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of the Economist**


Earthquake in Haiti is a Wake-Up Call for the World

Posted in South America/Central America/Western Hemisphere by Dan on January 16, 2010

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For countries that are either poor or underdeveloped, natural disasters and the inability to respond to them are often the most unlucky of circumstances.  And if there is one nation in the underdeveloped world that is the most unfortunate, Haiti takes the cake.

With a horrific earthquake shattering the very essence of Haitian society, now is the time for the international community to come together for a common humanitarian mission.

The task for the United States & Company now should be “to save lives.” Some media reports are claiming that the death toll could be as high as 100,000.  Other sources are saying that 50,000 Haitians are either dead, missing, or trapped in the rubble.  Whichever figure is correct, tens of thousands of innocent people lay victim to Mother Nature.

It is far to early to speculate on the death toll. It usually takes weeks to figure out how many casualties result from a natural disaster (remember the Indonesian Tsunami in 2004?). The primary job now is to pour as much money and medical resources into Haiti as humanly possible. Obviously the United States will take the lead, but other countries need to pull their own weight as well; Brazil, a state that striving so desperately to become a strong force in the Western Hemisphere, must step up. Europe, China, Japan, Russia, and India should contribute as well.

Rescue and recovery is the first mission. The second should be a new U.S. emphasis on Haiti in the long-term. The island-nation has been overlooked for far too long by Washington…something that strikes me as rather shortsighted considering its proximity to the American mainland. If there is anything that can be taken from his horrible tragedy, it is the earthquake’s relentless power in fomenting a world response to Haiti’s already desolate environment.

God bless the victims and their families.

**Comments courtesy of The Economist**

-Daniel R. DePetris


Regime Change in Venezuela

Posted in South America/Central America/Western Hemisphere by Dan on December 12, 2009

Around 8 a.m. on Tuesday, I wandered semi-consciously (from two hours of sleep the following night) into my foreign-policy seminar for the a few student presentations.  Luckily, I had already given my presentation the previous day on U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy in the Middle East; an issue that is quickly gaining traction within the world’s agenda.  Therefore, essentially all I had to do was sit back, relax, and listen to a few of my classmates explain their topics in the best way they can on an early, depressing, and bitter-cold Tuesday morning.

To my surprise, two out of the four presentations given that morning dealt with America’s engagement (or lack thereof) in Latin America.  With Americans- including myself- concentrating most of their time on Afghanistan and Iran as of late, it was quite refreshing to experience accurate and in-depth reporting on political developments in a region historically placed on the back-burner.

The first presentation focused on America’s reliance on the Cuban Trade Embargo, and how flawed the embargo has become for democratization within Cuba as a whole.  The second issue dealt with Hugo Chavez’ s regime in Venezuela, most notably his inherent desire in strengthening Venezuela as a powerful fighting force on the South American continent.  As you might expect, as a young student who has been interested in international security for most of my college career, I was rather taken aback by the in-class discussion on Venezuela’s current situation.

The primary point that this particular classmate was trying to make was that the United States should start inserting more money and resources- both from the State Department and the Pentagon- on Mr. Chavez and his Bolivarian administration.  Chavez’s strong relationship with Iran, Russia, Syria, and Libya were used as examples to buttress the argument that Venezuela is not simply an annoyance that can be ignored or dealt with through diplomatic isolation and economic pressure.  To the contrary, the claim was laid out in front of the entire seminar that the United States Government may find it wise to draw up some preliminary plans for regime change.

In fact, this peer of mine had a pretty sophisticated battle-plan for the U.S-led operation.  Instead of launching a full-fledged invasion of Venezuelan territory, Mr. So-and-So proclaimed that the best possible option for a successful military campaign would an American-funded and American-sponsored guerilla campaign against the Venezuelan armed-forces; similar tactics that were used by Washington during the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980’s.  With arms and money flowing to anti-Chavez insurgent groups, Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution would slowly collapse under its own weight.

Here I am, listening to this speech, and wondering why on earth we are discussing an operation so unrealistic when a quarter of a million American soldiers are already engaged in two wars.  During a time when Sunni insurgents are making a comeback in Iraq (take Tuesday’s bombing in Central Baghdad as an example), and during a time when the Taliban appears unbeatable in Afghanistan, it would hardly seem rational to start drawing up war-plans for a third front.

And then it hit me, right there at the end of the presentation; young Americans are still viewing their country largely through the traditional lens of the Cold War.  Even with President Obama in office, soft-power and an understanding of the national interest are still taking a backseat to a reliance on military force and balance-of-power politics.  You would think that we were still in George W. Bush’s first term, when preemptive warfare was the norm and the “axis of evil” was still alive.

But I digress.  What is important to learn through this experience is not that regime change is a delegitimized policy.  In fact, I would hope that America’s involvement in Iraq has already given a confirmation to this belief.  What is important is the cumbersome nature of the American perception.  Despite the coming of a new administration with reformed ideas, many Americans still see the world in black-and-white, where good always triumphs over evil and wars are always fought to preserve American interests.  But as we all know, the world is much more complicated than that.  Shades of gray persist in every corner of the globe, whether it involves America’s current quagmire in Afghanistan or the United Nations’ incompatible problem with the Iranians.

In an age where asymmetrical enemies continue to threaten the United States at every turn, redirecting resources in the hopes of taking out one belligerent Latin American leader is simply not in our vital national interest.  Though Chavez may be a criminal and an autocrat- and although Venezuela may engage in bombastic rhetoric towards its neighbors from time to time- the United States can still maintain its primacy despite a few stubborn politicians.

Now do not get me wrong.  Venezuela acquiring modern Russian aircraft, tanks, and anti-aircraft missiles is not something to sneeze about.  But yet again, I would like to think Chavez is rational enough to think twice before launching a war in South America.  He is not exactly the most popular figure in Latin America to begin with.

More times than not, getting priorities straight is as important- if not more so- as effective diplomacy and a resilient military.  It is time for pragmatism to replace radicalism, and it is time for the United States to depose idealism with realism.

-Daniel R. DePetris

Brazil is Cozying Up to Iran, but is this Actually Bad News for the U.S.?

Posted in South America/Central America/Western Hemisphere by Dan on November 30, 2009

Brazilian President Lula da Silva embraces Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

I am assuming that every reader out there is pretty much stuffed from the infamous turkey-fest that occurred a few days ago.  I certainly was, as I so blatantly found out after I found myself sitting on the couch for a good three-hours- stomach gorging out- after about four massive helpings.

I am also going to assume that family time took away from the usual habit of web-searching.  Holidays tend to bond relatives together, pushing aside the normal day-to-day business of news monitoring and blog posting (as it should).  So, with this being the case, you will have to forgive me for a few days of laziness on my part.  Coincidentally, I am also enjoying a nice break from college coursework, so the last thing I wanted to do was sacrifice eating, sleeping, and relaxation with political analysis J J.

But now that the break it over, it is time to once again get back on the grind until Christmas.

So…what has happened over the last few days?  Well, President Obama has finally decided to speak directly to the American people about his way forward in Afghanistan (slated for December 1).  The stalemate over Iran’s nuclear program appears to be going nowhere, as we probably all predicted.  Iraq’s national election is going to be delayed, possibly stalling the President’s withdrawal plans.  And the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan is all but buried, thanks to Israeli settlement-expansion and Palestinian conditions.  Sounds like a typical few days in the world of politics, doesn’t it?

Not exactly.  There is one noteworthy event that occurred during the Thanksgiving holiday, and it actually happened right in our own backyard.

Websites and papers across the United States are reporting that Brazilian President Lula da Silva- typically referred to as a U.S. ally- decided to play host to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the latest Brazilian state visit.  Taking cues from his political advisors- or perhaps from his own merit- Lula welcomed Ahmadinejad with a combination of praise, eagerness for constructive dialogue, and curiosity about future Brazilian-Iranian relations; all worries for Washington in numerous ways.

I am not sure what exactly conspired between Lula and Ahmadinejad during their state meeting.  Undoubtedly, Iran’s nuclear program had to be discussed between the two leaders.  Considering that a new U.N. sanctions push towards the Islamic Republic is all but evident, the hype surrounding Iran’s nuclear capability is hard to avoid.  Economic relations were also probably talked about in an extensive way.  Brazil seems intent on increasing cooperation within the developing world, thereby building a unified voice and a counter weighing force in the global community.  South American affairs may have also been on the agenda, particularly the political tensions between Venezuela and Columbia over U.S. air bases (Lula may have asked Ahmadinejad to press Chavez on the issue, although this is anyone’s guess).

All of this seems pretty benign to me.  So, why is the United States displeased over Brazil’s meeting with Tehran?  Perhaps Brazil’s support for Iran’s nuclear program could be a large piece of the puzzle.  In fact, this is more likely the entire piece of the puzzle.  In the past, Lula da Silva responded to U.S. sanctions with a rather surprising opposition.  Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Lula argued, Iran is allowed to construct nuclear plants and enrich uranium for peaceful energy purposes.  The Brazilian Government’s tone towards a new U.N. sanctions regime has continued down a similar vein, overwhelming lobbying against harsh penalties against the lifeblood of the Iranian economy (petroleum reserves).  In fact, there is ample evidence that indicates more countries from the developing world are starting to endorse the Brazilian position.

Understandably, this is potentially devastating for America’s anti-proliferation policy.  The west is devoted to keeping nuclear enrichment out of Iranian hands, and any outspoken power that disagrees publicly with this stance runs the risk of delegitimizing their efforts.  But we have to put Lula’s Iranian policy in perspective.

For one thing, Brazil- while a country with the largest economy in Latin America- is not a state with veto-wielding power at the U.N. Security Council.  Therefore, any Brazilian opposition to U.N.-based sanctions has nothing but a symbolic effect.  The U.N. Security Council will still have the capability of passing a new set of targeted measures against the Iranian economy (although sanctions will probably continue to fail).

Secondly, although Lula da Silva is one of the most politically popular figures in the international community, the “Six- Powers” are still hesitant to label him as a major power-broker on par with American and European officials.  Similarly, although Brazil possesses enormous diplomatic potential, it still lacks the administrative ability to make their opinions heard throughout the entire world (this may be changing, according to the latest special report from the Economist).

Do not get me wrong; Brazil has made tremendous improvements over the past decade in a large amount of economic, political, and social issues.  Much of this is rightly accredited to Lula da Silva and his knack for domestic reform.  But in reality, Brazilian backing for an Iranian nuclear capability is anything but an attention-grabbing headline.  If Brazil’s global stature was currently on par with China and Russia, Lula’s meeting with Ahmadinejad would certainly take a bigger place under the American radar.  Thankfully, this is anything but true in the current day.

Side Note:  The Iranian Government would see Brazil as a hypocrite if Lula failed to appease Tehran’s nuclear work.  Brazil was once interested in a nuclear weapons deterrent (until it abandoned its nuclear work in the 1970’s) and currently, the South American nation is still constructing civilian nuclear power plants throughout the entire country.  Brazil plans to construct and operate another eight plants by 2030.  With all of this in mind, the political fallout would be enormous if Brazil simply followed the path of the United States on the nuclear issue.  Iran would not only stamp Brazil as a two-faced American lackey, but would most likely act on its disgust by cutting off diplomatic relations.  Remember; Brazil is trying to become the spokesperson for the developing world.  What benefit would Brazil receive by alienating a growing Muslim power- and substantial oil producer- in the Middle East?

**Included under the comments section below is an assessment by Paul Bremer, the President of the Eurasia Group.  In his view, Lula da Silva may be going down the same economic path as Hugo Chavez, the most popular anti-American leader in Latin America.   This is just another example of how scholars are puzzled over Brazil’s recent behavior.

-Daniel R. DePetris

Russia Is Flexing Its Muscles, Through Its Venezuelan Proxy

Posted in South America/Central America/Western Hemisphere by Dan on August 10, 2009
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez are getting too close for comfort

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez are getting too close for comfort

Hot off the press…in a defiant move towards Washington and its power in the Western Hemisphere, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has decided to purchase “several battalions of Russian tanks” by September of this year.  Thanks to the reporting of Joshua Keating, a blogger at the highly-acclaimed ForeignPolicy.com, President Barack Obama and his cabinet may finally realize how challenging it will be to improve American-Venezuelan diplomatic ties.  In more pragmatic language, Mr. Chavez’s continued belligerence towards anything and everything American exposes the Venezuelan leader’s true nature as a two-faced individual:  smiling in front of the cameras and shaking the hand of Mr. Obama while promoting America’s demise behind the scenes.

Joshua Keating’s description of the Venezuelan-Russian arms deal is the best summary I have read thus far:

“We’re going to buy several battalions of Russian tanks,” Chavez said at a news conference, saying the deal is among accords he hopes to conclude during a visit to Russia in September.

Chavez’s government has already bought more than $4 billion worth of Russian arms since 2005, including helicopters, fighter jets and Kalashnikov assault rifles.

The socialist leader called Colombia’s plan to host more U.S. soldiers a “hostile act” and a “true threat” to Venezuela and its leftist allies. He warned that a possible U.S. buildup could lead to the “start of a war in South America,” but gave no indication that Venezuela’s military is mobilizing in preparation for any conflict.

To begin with, any Venezuelan troop deployment against U.S. soldiers stationed in Columbia would not only be politically and militarily irrational…it would have suicidal consequences for Mr. Chavez’s socialist outlook throughout Central and South America.  Nobody in the world can dispute the pervasive ineptitude that has taken root within Venezuela’s military establishment over the past decade.  Ever since Mr. Chavez’s triumphant rise to power in 1998, the country’s armed-forces have been frequently categorized as ill-equipped and technologically-inferior in relation to its “arch enemies” in Latin America (Columbia, Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay).  Such conclusions do not even take into account the fact that Venezuela’s army…the same portion of the political hierarchy that gives Chavez most of his support…is comprised of poorly-trained and amateur soldiers who have yet to be tested in any external conflict (some of whom simply join the ranks for economic reasons as opposed to an ideological belief in the Socialist Dream).  For this reason, more tanks, jets, and helicopters in Caracas should not be of concern to the White House.  As Keating so amply puts it, “bringing a bigger knife to a gun fight doesn’t really shift the odds in your favor.”  With Venezuelan troops already suffering from a lack of morale, destroying Venezuelan resistance will continue to be a relatively easy task for both the U.S. Military and the U.S-trained Columbian Security Forces.

What should worry Mr. Obama and his foreign-policy team is the Venezuelan-Russian relationship…an alliance that has exponentially increased over the past few years.  Unlike Venezuela’s status in the international community, the Kremlin under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev possesses an inherent ability to frustrate the United States in a variety of foreign-policy arenas.  Russia is a primary supporter and builder of Iran’s nuclear program: the same “civilian project” that poses an existential threat to Washington, Jerusalem, and Western Europe in the Middle East.  In addition, Moscow continues to block any attempt by the United Nation’s Security Council to impose harsher sanctions on Iranian noncompliance…consistently vetoing a string of economic punishments that could drastically diminish the Islamic Republic’s unity and fortitude.

Diplomatically, Russia is still skeptical in advancing a partnership with its European neighbors: either due to Putin’s paranoia towards Western European values or for the fear of a possible European resurgence at the expense of a Russian decline.  Poland, one of America’s most trusted friends on the European continent, continues to view the Russians with hostility.  And of course, the military campaign in Georgia last summer by the Kremlin’s war-machine certainly did not help appease the sentiments of western nations of a Moscow undergoing a peaceful transition from authoritarian politics.

For all of these reasons, particularly in the security realm of foreign-policy, the United States should be questioning the expansion of the Venezuelan-Russian connection.  While the Cold War has been over for close to two decades, and while the U.S. and Russia have made tremendous improvements in diplomatic relations over the past eighteen years, the U.S.-Russian rivalry continues to linger on the backburner both practically and symbolically.  Casting aside Chavez’s unwavering desire to oppose and demean Washington’s policies in all its forms, his relationship with Moscow does indeed pose a gathering threat for the United States in the politically-sensitive Latin American region.  With Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev already intent on renovating the former Soviet empire, an authoritarian Russia spreading its wings in America’s backyard may not be the best situation for the young Commander-in-Chief.

-Daniel R. DePetris

-Information from Joshua Keating of Foreign Policy contributed to this blog.  His full article can be accessed at: http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/08/06/what_does_hugo_chavez_really_want_all_those_tanks_for.