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Tag: "foreign policy"

Sinking the Ship of State

[ 103 ] March 1, 2017 |

Der Untergang der Titanic

Julia Ioffe’s article on her interviews with career State Department employees manages to be heartbreaking, appalling, and frightening at the same time.

You should read the whole thing, but here are three choice excerpts.

First, the evisceration of the professional bureaucracy in favor of barely competent loyalists and family members:

A lot of this, the employee said, is because there is now a “much smaller decision circle.” And many State staffers are surprised to find themselves on the outside. “They really want to blow this place up,” said the mid-level State Department officer. “I don’t think this administration thinks the State Department needs to exist. They think Jared [Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law] can do everything. It’s reminiscent of the developing countries where I’ve served. The family rules everything, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs knows nothing.”

Second, the complete collapse of the Office of Policy Planning:

The Office of Policy Planning, created by George Kennan after World War II, is now filled not just with Ph.D.s, as it once was, but with fresh college graduates and a malpractice attorney from New Jersey whose sole foreign-policy credential seems to be that she was born in Hungary. Tillerson’s chief of staff is not his own, but is, according to the Washington Post, a Trump transition alum named Margaret Peterlin. “Tillerson is surrounded by a bunch of rather mysterious Trumpistas,” said the senior State official who recently left. “How the hell is he supposed to do his job when even his right hand is not his own person?” One State Department employee told me that Peterlin has instructed staff that all communications with Tillerson have to go through her, and even scolded someone for answering a question Tillerson asked directly, in a meeting.

Third, a quotation that sums up the human-capital side of Trump’s march to geopolitical suicide:

“This is probably what it felt like to be a British foreign service officer after World War II, when you realize, no, the sun actually does set on your empire,” said the mid-level officer. “America is over. And being part of that, when it’s happening for no reason, is traumatic.”

Don’t get sucked into debates about whether Trump’s failure to bite a bat in half at last night’s speech bodes well for the Republic. When you look past the shiny object, it’s all terrible.

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The National Security Council as Canary in the White House

[ 56 ] February 18, 2017 |

NSC

If you’re on Twitter, you should be following Colin Kahl’s feed. Not only was Colin the Deputy National Security Advisor under Obama—and therefore knows stuff—but he was also involved in the transition process, which gives him insights into the workings of this rather opaque and unusual White House.

This morning—as I learned from Cheryl Rofer— he tweeted about Russia, the National Security Council (NSC), and Bannon’s “Strategic Initiatives Group.

As Colin points out, none of this is likely. None of it makes much sense. Russia can’t do much to help counterbalance China. Putin’s unlikely to make concessions of the kind that would make any of this remotely worthwhile. What he doesn’t mention is that it is far from obvious whether Moscow can credibly commit to uphold any grand bargain. It would take enormous skill and planning to proceed in a way that doesn’t set the United States up for massive failure.

Yet here we are, with Trump defaulting back to his campaign rhetoric on Russia and standing by while Putin probes American resolve by buzzing our naval vessels and making a push in Ukraine. .

Colin goes on to lay out two possible reasons for the Trump Administration’s continued folly.

On the one hand, the preferences of the American ethno-nationalist right—particularly its opposition to the European Union and liberal order—align with Russia’s. We might call this the “elective affinity” story. It’s been my default understanding of why elements within the Trump Administration seem determined to undermine US power and influence.

On the other hand, this all amounts to  a “quid pro quo” for Russian assistance in the election. Such a scenario also raises questions of kompromat and other, more complicated, explanations. Regardless of how far down the rabbit hole one prefers to go, it seems increasingly likely that we’re looking at, if nothing else, tacit collusion between members of the Trump campaign and Russian agents.

Of course, neither is exclusive. Some kind of elective affinity—or, at least, shared interests—helps makes sense of why Moscow sought to influence the election in the first place.

Setting aside the “why” for a moment, the possibility of a parallel decision-making structure—let alone one headed by Bannon—making policy should worry everyone. It creates serious concerns about accountability. And it suggests that other national-security principals on the NSC—such as Secretary of Defense Mattis—may prove unable to counterbalance Bannon, Miller, and other ideologues.

Indeed, the evidence suggests that—at least for now—there’s little hope that any “adults” are going to come in and really limit the damage. I still have difficult wrapping my head around the extent of the calamity we now face. The last time someone used American foreign policy as a demonstration of dubious ideological beliefs, the United States invaded Iraq. Hundreds of thousands died. The fallout continues to rock the Middle East. Yet, somehow, the infrastructure of American security survived. Now we have a cabal of white nationalist bloggers intent on correcting that state of affairs.

There is, of course, another possible outcome. Faced with mounting political pressure at home, the Trump Administration swings to a hardline stance on Moscow. Even if it doesn’t overcompensate in dangerous ways—which I think not unlikely—I can imagine of all kinds of reasons why such radically inconsistent signals would prove destabilizing.

McCain can give all the speeches he wants to. The President enjoys enormous discretion on foreign policy and national security, and it requires a very committed legislative branch to put a dent in that discretion. So here we are.

The Dangers of Trump’s Approach to Burden Sharing

[ 59 ] February 16, 2017 |

It seems a bit anti-climatic after today’s Presidential performance, but I have a piece (co-authored with Abe Newman) at Vox’s “The Big Idea” section on burden-sharing. The title is somewhat misleading: the crux of our argument is that the benefits of burden-sharing are overblown, the context in which the Trump Administration is pushing for it are dangerous—especially in Europe, and the US derives important benefits from the asymmetry in capabilities it enjoys with its security partners.

The argument for “burden sharing” — that American allies, who are much richer in both absolute and relative terms than when the United States established the current global security architecture, should pay a larger share for their own defense — is far from new. During the primaries, Bernie Sanders called for American allies to do more, and Hilary Clinton pledged to work with NATO partners to get them to meet the 2 percent of GDP spending targets affirmed at a 2014 NATO summit in Wales. (In fact, there is considerable variation on how much NATO members spend on defense. Some, including Greece, Estonia, and Poland, easily meet the target. Others — such as Hungary, Canada, or Slovenia — spend closer to 1 percent of GDP.)

But the Trump administration’s statements and dispositions seem to go further than previous calls for burden sharing. Many allies — especially those on the front line with Russia, like the Baltic States and Poland — are extremely worried that Trump intends to in effect abandon long-standing commitments.

Go read, if so inclined.

Don’t Bet Decades of Winnings on a Mediocre Hand

[ 37 ] January 31, 2017 |

Figure 1I have new online piece, co-authored with Dani Nedal, at Foreign Affairs:

President Donald Trump believes that America makes terrible deals—from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Why, according to Trump, do other countries take such advantage of the United States? Because our leaders and officials are stupid and incompetent and are terrible negotiators.  “Free trade can be wonderful if you have smart people. But we have people that are stupid,” said Trump when he announced his decision to run for president. On immigration, he was similarly blunt: “the Mexican government is much smarter, much sharper, much more cunning.” And during the negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal, he claimed that “we are making a terrible deal” because “we have the wrong people negotiating for us.” He added that “the Persians are great negotiators” and that “they are laughing at the stupidity of the deal we’re making on nuclear.”

If the Trump Doctrine is to put “America First” by focusing on bilateral bargains—understood in terms of short-term winners and losers—then its corollary is the “Good Negotiator Policy.” In the president’s world, bad people make bad deals.  The best, smartest people—most notably, Trump himself—always get the best bargains. He is right that personal attributes and interpersonal dynamics can make an important difference in international negotiations. But Trump’s focus on individual skill overlooks the most important factor that shapes political agreements in general and international ones in particular: the relative leverage of the parties involved.

The problem is that when the Washington locked in most of its bargains and arrangements, America was much more powerful, in relative terms, than it is now.

It takes a rather naïve negotiator to attempt to overhaul relatively favorable deals from a position of comparative weakness. The United States will not get better bargains than it achieved when it controlled more than twice as much of global power as it currently holds. If Trump abandons long-standing practices of American-led liberal order for bilateral, transactional, and zero-sum relations, other states have little reason to prefer dealing with Washington to China, Russia, or any other country.

When it comes to stiffing contractors, he’s shown a very good understanding of how power asymmetries shape bargaining outcomes. But, overall, Trump’s rhetoric is in keeping with a man who was born on third base and thinks staying there is a testament to his mad business skillz.

Anyway, go read the whole thing, if you’re so inclined. You may need to register to get access.

The “single biggest simultaneous departure of institutional memory”

[ 74 ] January 26, 2017 |

You may already have seen this, but the State Department just lost a big chunk of its management team.

Ambassador Richard Boucher, who served as State Department spokesman for Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, said that while there’s always a lot of turnover around the time a new administration takes office, traditionally senior officials work with the new team to see who should stay on in their roles and what other jobs might be available. But that’s not what happened this time.

The officials who manage the building and thousands of overseas diplomatic posts are charged with taking care of Americans overseas and protecting U.S. diplomats risking their lives abroad. The career foreign service officers are crucial to those functions as well as to implementing the new president’s agenda, whatever it may be, Boucher said.

By itself, the sudden departure of the State Department’s entire senior management team is disruptive enough. But in the context of a president who railed against the U.S. foreign policy establishment during his campaign and secretary of state with no government experience, the vacancies are much more concerning.

CNN, on the other hand, claims that they were fired.

It’s just so hard to tell whether the chaos is intentional or not. Is the Administration lying to paper over their embarrassment? Or are they merely swinging the wrecking ball around?

Regardless, I guess that Trump was telling the truth when he promised that he’d bring his business experience to the Presidency.

UPDATE: both of these things can be technically true. The officials all submitted letters of resignation as part of the transition, but some of them could’ve then walked off the job. In that sense, the Trump Administration ‘fired them’ by never offering to keep them on. As I indicated above, the specifics are less consequential than you might think.

The “Burn Our Own House Down” Grand Strategy

[ 80 ] January 22, 2017 |

By MSgt Christopher DeWitt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I have a piece in today’s Newsday on the swirling fog around Trump foreign policy. LGM regulars won’t see much new in it, but I do talk briefly about states that might be more optimistic about changes in U.S. foreign relation.

Only moderately less worrisome for U.S. allies is the proposition that Trump and his national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, intend a geopolitical diplomatic revolution — one in which the United States leaves NATO to twist in the wind while it pursues a grand bargain with Moscow. Trump articulates a substantially different understanding of U.S. partnerships — as short-term transactions — than has dominated thinking among both mainstream Republicans and Democrats for decades. He seems to view long-standing democratic allies mostly as trade rivals, while flirting with less stable, less democratic regimes.

You can find similar themes in a recent article by Stan Sloan in the Diplomatic Courier.

Speaking of which, there’s a bill in Congress to withdraw from the United Nations. I doubt that it makes it out of the House, let alone the Senate, and I’m skeptical that even the Trump Administration would sign it. But the chances that something like will succeed are higher than they’ve been in decades.

Paul Musgrave has a good series of tweets running through the issue.

 


Anyway, you can go read the rest yourself. Definitely worth your time.

The Many Faces of Trump Foreign Policy

[ 115 ] January 18, 2017 |
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From NBC. Admit it, you’d rather look at Nick Offerman than Donald Trump. Which is good. Because usage rights.

It won’t be too long before we start to get a better understanding of what foreign policy in a Trump Administration will actually look like. It’s useful to keep in mind that current rhetoric is no guarantee of future grand strategy. Remember when we all worried that the Bush Administration was going to be too isolationist? Good times.

But let’s assume, for a moment, that the past is prologue. Or the prologue is the main part of the book. Or whatever.

This raises an interesting puzzle: what the $@!#* • #!*$$%*(!! is he doing? Seriously. What the !#(&–^&!# stupid #$#(*$!! is going on?

As I noted in another post, on what godforsaken inhospitable bright orange gas giant is it a good idea to attack your most successful alliance at the same exact time that you’re picking fights with your nearest peer-competitor—that is, China? And it isn’t like the incoming administration has been sending unambiguous signals to key Asian allies while it’s been prodding China. Oh yeah, and also North Korea’s in the mix.

As I was thinking about this—duly motivated by a discussion among fellow international-relations specialists on Facebook—I took to the Twitters to work out some alternative theories. Here they are:

The Chess Master.” Trump is a strategic genius. He recognizes that the US cannot afford to defend Europe while threatening war with China. He needs to take Russia out of the picture. So that means a “grand bargain” that will concede to Russia its privileged sphere of influence, as well as forward some of its other strategic priorities in western Eurasia. Not only does this free up the United States to take on Beijing, but it might even entice Russia to remain neutral—or support the US. It’s like the Austrian Diplomatic Revolution. Which turned out terrific for Vienna.

“The Transactionalist.” This is the conventional wisdom on Trump. He thinks in terms of short-term zero-sum bargains, mercantilist economics, and is deeply insecure about being taken advantage of. In his mind, NATO helps trade competitors. It’s basically a trade subsidy for Germany. But he can make big, splashy deals with countries like Russia. Maybe he can squeeze better deals from the NATO allies as well. There is a “T” in NATO, after all. It doesn’t have to stand for “Treaty.”

“Mirror Universe Teddy Roosevelt.” Trump speaks loudly and carries… a small stick… in his freakishly small hands. He’s all bluster. US foreign policy will largely carry on as normal, under the watchful eye of Defense, State, and second-tier national-security staff. In fact, Trump’s barking might just get a few NATO countries to make token increases in their defense spending, or offer more subsidies for American troops.

“The Buffoon.” This is kind of like Mirror Universe Teddy Roosevelt, but he actually means it; cooler heads aren’t going to prevail. It really is that bad. In other words, Trump is an impulsive narcissist and a walking example of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Don’t worry too much about strategic logic. There really isn’t any. But some nice commentators—at Fox News, NewsMax, whatever new #MAGA journals appear, or the National Enquirer—will be happy to tell us that it’s genius. In a hundred years, Chinese revisionist historians will argue that there actually was a calculated grand strategy. They will be wrong.

“The Leninist.” The Trump ‘brain trust’—some combination of Bannon and Flynn—just want to burn it all down. This is something Cheryl Rofer (blog, Twitter) emphasizes. As reported at The Daily Beast:

“Lenin,” he answered, “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” Bannon was employing Lenin’s strategy for Tea Party populist goals. He included in that group the Republican and Democratic Parties, as well as the traditional conservative press.

In this scenario, it’s all about shredding globalism and liberal order. And that means watching NATO and the EU burn. Or, at least, gumming them up. Here, the eerie overlap with Russian interests is all a matter of convenience. They hate the liberal order, because it benefits the US and its allies. The Trumpistas hate the liberal order too, because reasons.

“The Transnational Rightist.” The Leninist is to revolutionary Marxism as The Transnational Rightist is to parliamentary socialism. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with NATO and the EU that a Europe dominated by a mix of right-wing populist and post-fascist parties won’t cure. The enemy is the broad European center—the Social Democrats, the Christian Democrats, and so on. What Trump wants is the rise of political co-confessionals, such as the AfD in Germany, the Front National in France, and the Freedom Party in Austria. Hurting the establishment is good, but burning everything down would be a bit too much. Maybe just the EU. NATO can stay. Is Russia an ally of convenience or a fellow traveller? For now, it doesn’t really matter.

“The Useful Idiot.” Is Trump compromised by Kompromat? Is his overleveraged financial spider web dependent upon, intertwined with, or simply looking for the best deals in Russia? Does Trump just having a thing for strong, buff autocrats? Who knows? It’s all bad.

“Tales of the Incompetent Transition.” Transitions often make for policy instability and amateur-hour mistakes. I arrived at the Pentagon in 2009. The Obama Administration had just rolled out its new plans for European ballistic missile defenses. They were much better than the old plans. They also involved ending the “Third Site” in Poland. That the Bush Administration had so carefully negotiated. Apparently, no one gave  Warsaw a ‘heads up’. Things were bumpy for a bit.

Point is, even well-run transitions full of experienced people can go bad. And this is not one of those transitions. Eventually, there will be national-security principals, assistant secretaries, deputy assistant secretaries, and the rest of the crew. People will be briefed. Many will have a clue. Things will settle down.

…. Of course, it could be any combination of these. And perhaps I’ve missed some possibilities. Thoughts?

[cross-posted at the Duck of Minerva]

 

 

Bernie’s Foreign Policy Failure

[ 86 ] June 16, 2016 |

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The next in my series of discussing the various postmortems of the Democratic primary will focus on Jeffrey St. Clair’s surprisingly harsh condemnation of Bernie Sanders in the pages of Counterpunch, which I’m sure really endeared him to his readers. St. Clair blames Bernie for believing his own rhetoric about his chances, misleading his supporters, his focus on blaming the Democratic Party “machine” for his losses, relying on consultants ready to throw him under the bus (although really what else was he going to do here), and, most interestingly, his many missed opportunities to stand out.

Sanders chided Clinton for her vote on the Iraq War, saying it disqualified her from being president. Yet, he never satisfactorily explained his own vote for the Clinton Crime Bill, which launched a 20-year long war on America’s blacks and Hispanics. If blacks voting for Clinton seemed irrational, blacks could easily justify a vote against Sanders for his role in backing the racially-motivated incarceration of millions of black Americans and putting 100,000 new cops onto the streets of urban America, with the predicable results ruined lives and dead youths. Payback is a bitch.

Of course, Sanders could have turned his anemic appeal to black Democratic voters to his advantage. It might have liberated him to frontally attack Obama’s dismal record (instead of huddling with him at the White House) as well as Hillary’s, without fear of losing support he never had.

His curious timidity against confronting Obama’s policies, from drone warfare to the president’s bailout of the insurance industry (AKA ObamaCare), hobbled Sanders from the starting gate. Obama and Hillary Clinton are both neoliberals, who have betrayed organized labor and pushed job-killing trade pacts across the world. Both are beholden to the energy cartels, backing widespread oil drilling, fracking and nuclear power. Both are military interventionists, pursuing wars on at least 12 different fronts, from Afghanistan to Yemen. Of course, Hillary and Obama are simply manifestations of the power structure of the Democratic Party itself, which is unapologetically hawkish. The same party Sanders belatedly joined.

But Sanders proved singularly incapable of targeting the imperialist ideology of the Obama/Clinton era. In fact, the senator is visibly uncomfortable when forced to talk about foreign policy. Even after the assassination of Goldman Prize winner Berta Cáceres by thugs associated with the Honduran regime, Sanders inexplicably refused to press Clinton on her backing of the Honduran coup that put Cácere’s killers into power. Similarly, Sanders awkwardly failed to land any punches against Hillary for her catastrophic Libyan debacle.

This is interesting, even if I don’t agree with all the points, nor about Hillary’s supposed responsibility for Honduras, which is far more complicated than her haters say. And saying Obama has “betrayed organized labor” really doesn’t hold water, even if you include the TPP, which is indeed terrible. But Tom Perez, arguably the best Secretary of Labor since Frances Perkins, does complicate this narrative at least a little, no?

But let’s just take this from a strategic perspective. What if Bernie Sanders had even the slightest interest in foreign policy and went after Clinton from the left? No, he wouldn’t have won the primary this way either. But he would have opened up a whole new line of critique at her greatest vulnerability. Yet Bernie was either unwilling or (likely) unable to do so. His ridiculous response when asked about Latin America showed just how utterly incapable he is on foreign issues, which in a globalized world, are deeply connected to his beloved issue of inequality in the United States. Of course, Sanders’ most vocal supporters loathe Clinton for her foreign policy, but they were doing the heavy lifting for him on these issues.

Again, would it have mattered in the end? Probably not, but it would have at least meant that the Democratic nominee was going to feel real pressure from the left on foreign policy as she has on domestic and labor policy. But really, what did Bernie do to make her moderate her foreign policy stances? Not much and that’s a missed opportunity.

The Washington Playbook

[ 323 ] March 10, 2016 |

obama-american-u

Jeffrey Goldberg’s profile of Barack Obama’s foreign policy is enlightening, showing the president’s great personal confidence in bucking “the Washington playbook” that had dominated administrations from both parties since the Reagan years. Rejecting those who would draw lines in sand and start wars to defend American prestige–including Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Joe Biden, among many, many others–Obama instead has operated at a higher level than most of his advisors, seeking to defuse conflicts and, in his words, “not do stupid shit.” This is the post-Bush presidency we needed. Of course, Hillary Clinton is all about doing some stupid shit.

Obama’s reticence frustrated Power and others on his national-security team who had a preference for action. Hillary Clinton, when she was Obama’s secretary of state, argued for an early and assertive response to Assad’s violence. In 2014, after she left office, Clinton told me that “the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad … left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.” When The Atlantic published this statement, and also published Clinton’s assessment that “great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” Obama became “rip-shit angry,” according to one of his senior advisers. The president did not understand how “Don’t do stupid shit” could be considered a controversial slogan. Ben Rhodes recalls that “the questions we were asking in the White House were ‘Who exactly is in the stupid-shit caucus? Who is pro–stupid shit?’ ” The Iraq invasion, Obama believed, should have taught Democratic interventionists like Clinton, who had voted for its authorization, the dangers of doing stupid shit. (Clinton quickly apologized to Obama for her comments, and a Clinton spokesman announced that the two would “hug it out” on Martha’s Vineyard when they crossed paths there later.)

Given the fairly high likelihood (or at least reasonable possibility) that Power would be Clinton’s Secretary of State, we can likely expect a return to the older version of American interventionism, which will probably do harm in the world and to the U.S. Ah, if only Bernie Sanders had any articulated foreign policy at all to which we could reasonably compare this.

The transformational issue for Obama was bombing Syria, where he declared a “red line” and then didn’t bomb when Assad crossed it. But does anyone think Syria would be better off today if the U.S. bombed it to smithereens? When has that worked? When has the supposed hit to American prestige if we didn’t bomb actually manifested itself? Seems to me the hit to American prestige was starting a stupid war in Iraq that we weren’t even prepared enough for to understand the difference between Shi’a and Sunni Islam. Obama went down this road in Libya. It didn’t work. And unlike Hillary, he learned from it.

And, my God, he even has a clue about the history of America’s terrible foreign policy of the past and it influences his actions.

The president also seems to believe that sharing leadership with other countries is a way to check America’s more unruly impulses. “One of the reasons I am so focused on taking action multilaterally where our direct interests are not at stake is that multilateralism regulates hubris,” he explained. He consistently invokes what he understands to be America’s past failures overseas as a means of checking American self-righteousness. “We have history,” he said. “We have history in Iran, we have history in Indonesia and Central America. So we have to be mindful of our history when we start talking about intervening, and understand the source of other people’s suspicions.”

Now, I certainly have my criticism of Obama’s foreign policy, especially around trade. But when was the last president with a better foreign policy? Grover Cleveland, who for all his faults was at least anti-imperialist? FDR I suppose is the better answer. But it’s been a long, long time. It may be a low bar but Obama has easily cleared it. The deals with Cuba and Iran are tremendously important and change the trajectory of the nation.

Diplomatic Ties

[ 49 ] May 21, 2015 |

Fidel resignation

One of the most underrated parts of Obama’s legacy is going to be moving as far as he can to end the United States’ idiotic and utterly failed policy toward Cuba and restoring diplomatic ties with the nation.

It would be all too logical for Congress to end the embargo officially. But given that logic and the Republican Party are not friends, good luck with that.

Book Review: Thomas C. Field, Jr., From Development to Dictatorship: Bolivia and the Alliance for Progress in the Kennedy Era

[ 15 ] March 21, 2015 |

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Victor Paz

Thomas Field’s new book on the Alliance for Progress in Bolivia demonstrates just how comfortable America’s Cold War foreign policy establishment was with dictatorship as its preferred method of rule in Latin America. Assuming that Latin America needed American-driven development more than anything else and that communists were both anathema to American foreign policy and the biggest obstacle in the way of developmentalism, dictatorship and development became the twin pillars of the Alliance for Progress, as Field’s important book demonstrates.

The 1952 revolution in Bolivia was a landmark moment in that nation’s history, when a broad revolution brought Victor Paz to power and the reign of the military seemed to end in favor of a government that would reflect the people’s needs. That movement included a lot of support from the left and in his early years, Paz repaid that support, or at least tolerated its existence. The new government nationalized the tin mines and radical leftist union members worked in them. Agrarian reform was undertaken and forced labor abolished. Despite its tin industry, the nation was not particularly important to U.S. policymakers in 1952. That would change with the Cuban Revolution in 1959.

Much of the American foreign policy establishment originally saw Paz as suspicious and a potential communist. But the Kennedy administration viewed him as a key bulwark in holding the line against communism in South America. The Alliance for Progress wasn’t founded to support dictatorship per se. Rather, it intended to bring middle-class modernity to the unaligned states of the region. But as Field usefully points out, that middle-class modernity meant, from the perspective of U.S. economic advisers, the firing of thousands of miners in the nationalized tin mines that were leftist strongholds of communist unions. The stated reason was economic efficiency, but the Kennedy administration also hoped to undermine the communists who not only threatened American hegemony in the region but through their desire to stay employed were keeping nations like Bolivian economically-backwards. Union-busting and labor rationalizations therefore were central to the Alliance for Progress from its beginning. Or as Field states, Kennedy’s foreign policy toward Bolivia was “a program of politicized, authoritarian development that took dead aim at the country’s leftist miners (24).”

Paz was a committed nationalist but he also began to see the nation and himself as one, moving to eliminate rivals and consolidate power. He became increasingly brutal, using ex-Nazis to run his secret security services. None of this bothered Kennedy, Arthur Schlesinger, or any of the other major figures creating Latin American foreign policy. USAID trained indigenous militias (who remained Paz supporters until the end) to attack the miners, eliminate their threat to Paz, and bring modernization to Bolivia. Although Paz long held out against alienating the Communist Party and Cuba, he finally did move against the tin miners and arrested their communist leaders, leading to the miners taking several American government officials hostage in early 1964, Lyndon Johnson’s first foreign policy crisis. His hard moves against the left just endeared him to Washington, who rewarded him with more cash and more military assistance. This just alienated the left even more, continuing the polarization and militarization of Bolivia with U.S. assistance. Vice-President Juan Lechín, the leftists’ man in the government, was increasingly isolated and replaced as VP. For good measure, Paz’s thugs beat Lechín to a pulp so he could not engage in his last official function in office during the new inauguration and thus could not make a speech denouncing the president.

By 1964, the U.S. still held onto Paz as their man in La Paz, but the blind faith in him meant they could not see the cards falling around him. By that year, Paz had not only alienated the left, but the grassroots right and the military. Messing with the nation’s constitution to allow himself to run for a third term helped consolidate opposition to him, with fighters and activists on both sides looking to the military as a solution. General René Barrientos became the center of the military opposition. Originally, a Paz acolyte, the president’s disdain for him finally took its toll. Barrientos created alliances with the communists and was a military solution acceptable to the falangists. With both right and left wing rebellion and a military also alienated from Paz, finally Barrientos led the coup that solved the nation’s Paz problem.

And yet even after Barrientos took power, it wasn’t as if the CIA or Johnson administration lost influence in La Paz. Rather, Barrientos became just as much a tool of Washington as Paz, relying on the U.S. government for the entirety of his five years in power, a period that included the killing of Che Guevara by Barrientos’ troops and the continued repression of the left despite their hopes in him. U.S. influence with Bolivian presidents remained generally pretty strong up until Evo Morales, including once again with Paz, who won a fourth term as president in 1985 where he committed to the country to neoliberalism and helped set the groundwork for Morales’ Bolivarian Revolution.

And while most general readers are unlikely to come to this book with much interest in Bolivia per se, to relate this to another key foreign policy question of the era, this story just reinforces the reality that there is just no reason to believe that Vietnam under Kennedy’s presidency would have come appreciably different than it did under Johnson. For Kennedy, authoritarianism, development, and anticommunism went hand in hand and that meant large infusions of U.S. military aid to ensure that friendly leaders stayed in power. That Johnson would continue Kennedy’s policies in both Bolivia and Vietnam does not exonerate those terrible decisions, but it does suggest that those decisions were not LBJ’s alone and rather the entire U.S. establishment was willing to get the U.S. involved in any number of foreign excursions to defend the world against communism.

Field has definitely written a monograph here and the intricate detail of the Paz administration and his interactions with American officials may not be for all readers. But then that’s the power of such a book, leaving no question in the reader’s mind just how easy it was for Kennedy administration officials–who genuinely thought they were doing the right thing–to slip into supporting a leader using ever more cruelty by the year. These sorts of historical narratives are also necessary for modern readers to understand the roots of American foreign policy problems today. I stress to my students the need to understand the CIA led coup in Iran in 1953 in order to understand the problems between the U.S. and Iran today, noting that while the average American’s attention to a foreign crisis ends at the next episode of American Idol, in other nations who feel the brunt of American power, hostile memories linger for decades. America’s relations with Bolivia are not as geopolitically important as with Iran but hostility lingers much the same. Evo Morales kicking Peace Corps and USAID out of Bolivia comes back to the long-term repressive policies the U.S. has supported in that nation going back to the Paz years.

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the Fulbright Program is a bad idea.

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