Washington’s Mixed Signals

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It is not easy to interpret often mixed signals coming from Washington about US foreign policy.  But with its wide-ranging agenda, Colombia seems especially complicated. Colombians are understandably perplexed about two recent messages from the Obama administration, now beginning its second year.  The first concerns the pending free trade agreement, approved in 2006 by the Colombian Congress but not yet ratified by the US Congress.  The second is the status of the long-standing US aid package to Colombia, often referred to as Plan Colombia, initiated almost a decade ago. President Obama’s mention of Colombia, along with Panama and South Korea, in his State of the Union address on January 28th, was a surprise.  Obama was seeking to convey his intention to expand trade relations.  But as one commentator said, the paragraph on the topic seemed like it had been lifted from one of Bill Clinton’s or George Bush’s speeches.  Obama had until then been relatively silent on the question of trade; instead he had instead focused on other foreign policy priorities. What accounts for the surprise?  First, in an attempt to reinvigorate his presidency (after his Democratic Party suffered a big blow in a Massachusetts Senate race), Obama was trying to show that he is prepared to  work with the private sector and he wants to regain the support of Independent voters (more than either Democrats or Republicans), who have been deserting him.  Trade, together with issues like energy and education, can offer common ground with such groups. Second, Obama’s political recuperation depends largely on whether the unemployment level, now just below 10 percent, goes down.  Creating jobs for export is a key part of the administration’s strategy.   More of an emphasis on free trade is entirely consistent with such an approach. Although it is not up to Obama to approve the pending trade agreements – that is the job of Congress – the president could pressure members of his own party to allow a vote.  That, however, is unlikely.  The Democratic-controlled Congress appears in no mood to pursue what they see as a politically risky agenda.  Precisely because of the high employment and the great anxiety throughout much of the country, members of Congress resist such deals, especially as the lower House has to face voters in November.  Obama’s words were encouraging for free trade advocates, but they did not commit the administration to push for approval of the agreements, in light of unresolved concerns. The Obama administration’s proposed cuts in assistance to Colombia, unveiled as part of the 2011 budget, were largely expected.   The amounts, still subject to Congressional discussion and eventual approval, would reduce support by some 55 million dollars, or 11 percent. Still, it was understandable that the decision would upset many Colombians, who had assumed that the Obama administration backed the government’s policy against drugs and illegal armed groups. In fact, the proposed reduction in aid does not reflect disapproval of the Colombian government’s efforts.   Rather, it reflects the continuation of a trend -- already evident during the Bush years -- to wind down US assistance to Colombia, with the aim of “nationalizing” the effort. It can even be viewed as an expression of confidence in the Colombian government -- that in light of the security gains, the same level of US funding is no longer required. When one considers exploding budget pressures, not only in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also in Mexico (surprisingly, the Administration’s budget includes a decrease in funding of such a recent aid program) and now Haiti, the still significant resources proposed suggests the continuing importance the US assigns to Colombia. Each of these policy signals can be explained in its own terms.  There is no single overall, integrated framework towards Colombia, into which everything from trade to assistance can easily fit.   But taken together -- and in light of the political context today in the US -- the latest two messages from Washington should be reassuring for Colombia.

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