Americans watch in horror as our southern border is overrun by people fleeing violence and upheaval in parts of Central America. Not everyone understands that the crisis in the “Northern Triangle” of Central America – Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – is very real. But the reality of the crisis at the U.S. border is unmistakable.
President Obama has every tool of law and administration that he needs to handle the crisis differently. He does not need new legislation to “fix” the problem. If you come away from this with no other clear thought in your mind, at least come away with that. It is categorically a mistake to suggest that the only fix for our current border problem is new legislation: “comprehensive” immigration reform, amnesty, etc.
Another way of putting that is to point out that it’s a lie to say we need immigration reform legislation. When the president holds the American people hostage, demanding such legislation as the price of dealing with the border influx, it is appropriate, and indeed necessary, to call it a lie.
That said, Obama didn’t “cause” this border crisis, in the sense of having the control over events necessary to pull strings or otherwise manipulate the factors in it, with any certainty about the outcome. Human life doesn’t work that way. Obama is exploiting a crisis, and I believe he could have done much to avert it. But he is by no means in control of it.
Instead, the development of the crisis is an excellent example of consequences from the narrow ideological focus and long-term irresponsibility of the left’s concept of “smart power.” Smart power is actually a good thing; the problem with it under the execution of leftists is that they invariably emphasize or eschew exactly the wrong measures. That’s the basic story of Obama’s policy in Central America.
The fatal policy blow
In the simplest of terms, Obama’s biggest impact on the Northern Triangle occurred five years ago in June and July, when he supported the protégé of Hugo Chavez in Honduras, Manuel (“Mel”) Zelaya Rosales, during a crisis of government precipitated by Zelaya’s extra-legal assault on the Honduran constitution. The congress and supreme court of Honduras were trying in 2009 to save the country from going the way of Venezuela and Bolivia, where radical socialists Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales had already established their futures as “presidents for life” by undoing their constitutions’ term-limits provisions. When Zelaya tried the same thing in Honduras, using unlawful means, the other branches of government came together to remove him from office.
Instead of supporting the constitutionalists in Honduras, Obama condemned their action and insisted that Zelaya, who had been put out of the country, be allowed to return and reenter politics. In April of 2009, Obama had already sent a bad signal in his first meeting with Hugo Chavez, combining an uncalled-for friendliness toward the socialist dictator with an announcement that the U.S. would consider lifting some sanctions on Cuba, where no change had occurred to warrant such a consideration.
Obama thus ranged himself early on with the camp of radicalism, aligning his administration against the constitutionalist principle that has taken hold only precariously in the weaker Central American states – but is the people’s last line of protection against predation by rabble-rousers, cartels, and gangs.
Zelaya in Honduras is a rabble-rouser (he went back in triumph in 2011, with the help of Hugo Chavez, and his wife sought the presidency in the most recent election in 2013). Like Chavez, and Morales in Bolivia, and now Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua (and to a lesser but still disquieting extent, Rafael Correa in Ecuador), Zelaya doesn’t have any interest in making life better for the people. He merely exploits them. His purpose for seeking power is to plunder and subjugate his political opponents.
Obama has never corrected course on his display of anti-constitutionalism in 2009. He made it clear that America would not be a source of moral support for the constitutionalists trying to hold on in Central America. There have always been strong elements agitating against constitutionalism, consensual politics, and order in the region; those influences didn’t by any means start with Obama. The U.S. has often handled them poorly in the past. But in 2009, it is fair to say that Obama made the most visible and unmistakable gesture America has ever made in direct support of those destructive influences. Even Jimmy Carter never went so far.
A reactionary and defensive policy trend
The Obama administration has followed up this watershed political gesture with an uninterrupted trend away from the moral and political engagement needed to encourage constitutionalism and strong civil government in the Northern Triangle nations. The administration spends a lot of money on counternarcotics from offshore, and joint law-enforcement projects with the three nations of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. But it has withdrawn virtually all of the overtly American presence from the entire Central American region – the symbols of national-level cooperation as well as American power.
The Obama philosophy in effect is very much in the tradition of the 1960s Democratic administrations: emphasizing tactical-level cooperation, but hedging its bets on moral support – and straightforward influence – at the national political level, where it sees these factors as obnoxious, overbearing, even imperialistic. As in Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Iraq, Obama will fund factions and arm military and other enforcement efforts, but will not use American power and prestige to encourage good government and positive political outcomes. Not unnaturally, this gives hope to radicals who want to gain ownership of the political narrative as well as the apparatus of government.
Radicals never try to build anything good. Destruction is their game. They are always angling for holes to exploit and resentments to fan, and by standing aside from moral suasion in Central America – failing to continue the policy tradition of Reagan, both Bushes, and even Bill Clinton – Obama has encouraged that destructive radical dynamic. Rather than comprehensively bolstering the civic infrastructure against the cartels, gangs, and radical insurgencies, and displaying America’s commitment in a high-profile political sense, Obama has narrowed American support down to the very tip of the spear: tactical intelligence and bullets.
You can’t outfight armed gangs – criminal or political – with mere symmetrical tactics. You have to give the people a reason to have a moral commitment to the central government. That government has to respect and protect their rights – and that’s what has ceased to happen in the Northern Triangle.
Instead of conveying a message of American interest in and commitment to the civil and political conditions in the three nations, Obama has conveyed only a narrow interest in combating the drug trade. The governments in the Northern Triangle have had to fend for themselves, and have largely reverted to their circumstances of 30-40 years ago: reeling back and forth between corrupt, defensive, autocratic rightist political factions and corrupt, predatory, vicious leftist political factions. Both sides are guilty of making deals with the devil: the criminal gangs.
The real consequences
Conditions now are quite possibly even worse for the Northern Triangle than they were 30 years ago. Venezuela today is a hugely negative and destabilizing factor for the entire region, which was not the case in the early 1980s. Another factor has metastasized in recent decades: the presence and influence of syndicate crime based outside the region, especially the Hezbollah-Iran link, which has a massive operational rear in the remote “Tri-Border” area of Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina. Big chunks of Mexico are now under the sway of cartel thugs as well.
(See the list of additional readings at the end of the piece for background on all this.)
Less vulnerable Central American democracies like Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica have been able to hold at bay the predations of largely-unchecked regional-scale crime, partly because of strong civil institutions and economies and partly because of favorable geography. But the Northern Triangle nations lie too conveniently on the path into Mexico, and have fewer resources for combating the attacks of predators – both criminal and political – who have access to bases outside their borders, and can’t be shut down solely with local, tactical defeats.
The impact on the people of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras has been very real. Tegucigalpa has been the murder capital of the world since 2011, and reports abound of horrific conditions for civil life in much of each nation. Whole provinces have been effectively turned over to armed gangs that work for the cartels. The poor are especially hard-hit: unable to protect themselves, they are stolen from on a regular basis – held up at gunpoint for their vehicles, their savings, anything they have of value – so that to work to feed their families is merely to make themselves attractive targets.
Young boys are abducted from their families and forced into gangs; girls abducted and forced into prostitution. Fathers are murdered outright for failing to comply with gang orders. Many of the prisons are simply run by the gangs now; being jailed is too often a death sentence for the petty criminal, or – perhaps worse – a sentence of torture, rape, and enslavement.
Not every area is being actively run by the gangs, but the sheer number of people fleeing from the ones that are has overwhelmed the resources of the more functional areas in the Northern Triangle nations, as well as those of Mexico (and, to a lesser extent, the prosperous Central American nations of Costa Rica and Panama, which have also seen a rise in refugees).
The people of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are, in fact, fleeing because they are desperate. And Americans can’t look at our border and say that Central America has nothing to do with us. Some Americans can convince themselves that Iraq and Syria aren’t our problem, but Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador manifestly are our problem. The question is not whether we will acknowledge it; the question is what we will do about it.
The Obama way
Obama has chosen to stand by while the crisis builds; address in only mechanical, tactical terms the network of Central American problems that has created it; and allow the United States to function as the de facto safety valve for the human impact, partly through passivity and partly through quietly implemented collateral policies (including insinuating to Northern Triangle peoples that some of them will be automatically “amnestied” if they can just get into the U.S.).
In terms of domestic politics, Obama is exploiting the crisis to push for a wholesale amnesty for millions of prior illegal immigrants, holding the American people hostage and demanding accession to his policy as a ransom. Yet the people have every reason to assume that paying the ransom won’t release us from the hostage situation. We have paid the ransom of amnesty before, and three decades later we are still being held hostage – this time in a crisis that is much worse.
The better way
It was always possible to handle this whole problem differently. Americans are not uncaring racists; in fact, there are plenty of Americans who are open-handedly committed to relief and charitable work designed to help exactly the people who now flood our borders. But the same Americans oppose simply letting our borders be overrun. This is not a contradiction. Organizing to assist the Northern Triangle while protecting our borders, and the principle of law and order, is a feasible, realistic, and far preferable policy alternative.
In fact, if the situation could have been laid out for Americans – the plight of the Central American refugees explained straightforwardly, an appeal made to Congress to accept more of them into the country legally, while at the same time recalibrating our policies in the Northern Triangle and stemming the flow – I trust that the American people would have reacted compassionately. We have done so over and over again throughout our history.
Yes, there have always been some who opposed allowing refugees in, even when the reason for their flight was clearly sympathetic, as with the Vietnamese boat people, or Cubans fleeing Castro, or Iranians fleeing the Islamic revolution or Kurds fleeing Saddam. But America has still stepped up to the plate time and again, under Republican and Democratic presidents, to embrace refugees through legal immigration. In doing so, we have gained wonderful additions to our national life and future.
Obama hasn’t laid out an honest case or given Americans the chance to make compassionate decisions. Instead, he has operated as if the most prejudicial assumptions about the American character must be true. He has remained silent on the very things he should have been telling the American people, and passive or even counterproductive on the important things he should have been doing in Central America and Mexico.
We need not despise Central American refugees to recognize that it would be better for them and everyone else if they could live in peace and seek prosperity and a good life in their own countries. There is much America could have been doing to encourage better conditions in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
Sadly, however, there was nothing Obama could do, because he doesn’t have the right perspective or beliefs for it. It is literally impossible for his radical-left, community-organizer perspective to produce a positive outcome for people. His perspective is itself a people-despising perspective. It sees people in cynical, manipulative terms: sometimes statistical, sometimes ideological, sometimes merely in terms of politics and power – but never in merciful, hopeful, or respectful terms. From the perspective in which he has been steeped from birth, there is nothing beyond political outcomes. Politics doesn’t serve humanity; humans serve politics.
We are well past the point at which it could be considered “too much” to say such things. It’s clear what Obama is. He didn’t create all the conditions that have combined to produce the crisis in the Northern Triangle. Some of those conditions have been ever-present for as long as the three nations have been constituted. Others are regional conditions over which America has limited influence. But American presidents with a conventional American perspective have had more successful policies: policies that encouraged constitutionalism, opportunity, and the rule of law as a background for development and improving conditions in the Northern Triangle nations.
Given the evil influences that always threaten to overwhelm the Northern Triangle, it takes overt commitment from the United States, and a steady strain on the lines, to keep conditions in balance there. Obama has been letting go the lines since 2009. It has taken until 2014 for the full impact to reach the American people; Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans have been feeling it longer.
The painful results of Obama’s policies in Central America are part of an integrated whole. In making American policy weak, passive, and cynical across the board, he has guaranteed that his policies in Central America would be ineffective and even annoying. Where America is not respected, our bullets are no better than anyone else’s, and the excellence of our military and law enforcement personnel can have only so much impact.
Malformed policy can in any case not have an impact it isn’t designed for. Trying to outgun cartel thugs from day to day is not the same thing as trying to bolster strong civil government and peaceful conditions for the people of the Northern Triangle. It’s the latter, political posture that Obama abandoned, in favor of a dilettantish, irresponsible – and destructive – solidarity with radical socialists in the region. Much of the Western hemisphere is now reaping the bitter harvest.
Selected additional readings
Note: Above article was published here:
News and other reporting (e.g., think tanks)