By Dan Froomkin
12:08 PM ET, 04/16/2009
The Obama world re-engagement tour heads south of the border today. In four days of meetings, first in Mexico City and then in Trinidad and Tobago, President Obama is picking up where he left off in Europe, reaching out to his fellow leaders and offering to work with them -- as equals.
"Times have changed," Obama told CNN en Español. Referring to his planned meeting with the Brazilian leader, for instance, he said: "My relationship with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is one of two leaders who both have big countries, that we are trying to solve problems and create opportunities for our people, and we should be partners. There's no senior partner or junior partner."
As by far the most commanding presence on the international stage, Obama can easily afford a little humility. This is especially the case in Latin America. No one will mistake the U.S. role there as anything less than dominant. Obama will be both star and alpha dog everywhere he goes.
Indeed, what the region's leaders most seem to crave is a little attention.
Plus, the whole "I'm not Bush" thing will work well in Latin America, where Obama's predecessor was widely despised for both his attitude and his policies. Not to mention the fact that Obama isn't exactly who Central Casting would send to play the part of "Yanqui Imperialist."
Peter Nicholas writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Obama is a popular figure in the region and can expect an enthusiastic welcome in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. But he also will confront deep resentments over U.S. policies that he is reluctant to change. Other leaders want the administration to normalize relations with Cuba and resurrect a ban on the kinds of assault weapons being smuggled into Mexico, commitments Obama is unwilling to make.
"Still, Obama is bound to get a better reception than George W. Bush, the least popular American president ever among Latin American countries, polls showed....
"'The new president is going to be the focus,' said Julia Sweig, director of the Latin America program at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank. 'Even for someone like [Venezuelan President] Hugo Chavez, who at the last summit made himself the focus, it will be virtually impossible to upstage Barack Obama. This is his coming out party, his cotillion in the Americas, and there's an excitement just to meet the guy, see him up close and get a feel for him.'"
Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "Obama's priority list for the trip that begins Thursday is stacked with matters of concern across the Western Hemisphere — the crippling recession, the warming of the planet, the trafficking in drugs, the gloom of poverty. Crime, despair and political unrest south of the border can all undermine U.S. interests.
"But when Obama ventures south starting Thursday, improving relations with the rest of the Americas is his main mission, not just a means to achieve other goals. He is out to assuage peers from Central America, South America and the Caribbean who, rightly or not, felt ignored during the Iraq-dominated Bush years."
David Luhnow and Laura Meckler write in the Wall Street Journal: "Most analysts expect the trip to be more successful than the last regional summit four years ago in Argentina, where protests against then-President Bush, challenges by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, and bickering over a U.S. drive to create a hemisphere wide free-trade zone ended in acrimony. Mr. Obama's popularity in Latin America compared to his predecessor has complicated matters for Mr. Chavez, who regularly made the former president his foil, but hasn't figured out what to do yet about Mr. Obama, analysts say."
Here's what Obama wrote in an op-ed today that appeared in several Florida and Latin American newspapers: "Too often, the United States has not pursued and sustained engagement with our neighbors. We have been too easily distracted by other priorities and have failed to see that our own progress is tied directly to progress throughout the Americas. My administration is committed to renewing and sustaining a broader partnership between the United States and the hemisphere on behalf of our common prosperity and our common security."
CNN notes that Obama "refused to criticize the leaders of Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, who have taken measures to change their constitutions to extend their holds on power.
"'I think it's important for the United States not to tell other countries how to structure their democratic practices and what should be contained in their constitutions,' he said. 'It's up to the people of those countries to make a decision about how they want to structure their affairs.'
"Asked how he plans to interact with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a fierce U.S. critic who once described then-President George Bush as the 'devil,' Obama offered no criticism. 'Look, he's the leader of his country and he'll be one of many people that I will have an opportunity to meet,' the U.S. president said.
"Though he said he believes the United States has a leadership role to play in the region, Obama qualified that role this way: 'We also recognize that other countries have important contributions and insights,' he said."
The trip starts today in Mexico. Tracy Wilkinson writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Like much of the rest of Latin America, the Mexico that receives a visit from Obama today yearns for the kind of new partnership that the president espouses. U.S.-Latin American relations are at their lowest point in years and Obama's pledge to 're-order' the agenda is welcome.
"But beyond spoken commitments, Mexico is looking for concrete assistance in several areas. Powerful drug-trafficking organizations have unleashed a wave of violence that has claimed more than 10,000 lives in just over two years and could threaten the very ability of President Felipe Calderon to govern. Calderon has repeatedly called on Washington to do more to stop the flow of weapons and drug money from the U.S. and to curb the demand for the tons of cocaine and marijuana that Mexican traffickers send northward."
Meanwhile, Spencer S. Hsu writes in The Washington Post: "President Obama yesterday ratcheted up efforts to curb the flow of drugs and guns across the southern border, imposing financial sanctions against three of the most violent Mexican drug cartels and threatening to prosecute Americans who do business with them....
"By targeting the cartels -- Sinaloa, Los Zetas and La Familia Michoacana -- the administration expanded its support for Calderón's crackdown on the narco-traffickers, an effort that has provoked a violent backlash and led to thousands of deaths in the past two years."
E.J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column that "the president is moving American foreign policy in a new direction, and conservatives dislike what is becoming the Obama Doctrine.
"Obama's doctrine departs from the previous administration's approach by embracing a longer tradition of American foreign policy. Obama insists that the United States can't achieve great objectives on its own, even though it is 'always harder to forge true partnerships and sturdy alliances than to act alone,'
as he put it this month in Strasbourg, France....
"The Obama Doctrine is a form of realism unafraid to deploy American power but mindful that its use must be tempered by practical limits and a dose of self-awareness. Those are the limits that defenders of the recent past have trouble accepting."