Zakaria: Right Ideas, Wrong Time

President Bush has done the right thing in going to Latin America. He's visiting the right countries, and he has sounded the right themes, emphasizing that the United States supports democratic government, open markets and "social justice" (a phrase I have never heard Bush use before, and which must be causing ulcers in some of his right-wing fans). But Bush's new look at the region will not do much good. It's too little, too late.

Until Bush's election in 2000, American foreign policy toward Latin America had been on the right track for two decades. Ronald Reagan orchestrated an extraordinary turnaround, supporting human rights, democracy and free trade in several countries. His administration played an important role in ending the dictatorships in Chile and Paraguay, among other places. He proposed new trade policies that would spur growth in the region. And perhaps most important, he began a tradition of support and cooperation for Mexican reform that became standard for later American administrations. His successors, the elder George Bush and Bill Clinton, extended these basic policies. They forged the North American Free Trade Agreement, supported Mexico's reforms and democratization, and pushed for a free-trade agreement for the entire Western Hemisphere.

"Through four presidential terms the United States had developed a remarkably successful policy towards Latin America," says Harvard University Latin American scholar Jorge Domínguez. "That forward movement was stopped and then reversed by Bush." Bush came into office with few ideas about what he wanted to do in the region (except with Mexico, where he proposed an ambitious and intelligent immigration plan). Latin America was largely ignored, especially after September 11, though here as elsewhere the familiar story of incompetence and ideology characterized regional policy.

The two senior officials Bush appointed for the region were Roger Noriega, a former staffer for Sen. Jesse Helms, and Otto Reich, who was sufficiently extreme and weird that even the Republican Senate eventually rejected his nomination. The two proceeded to fritter away most of the good will the United States had accumulated over the previous two decades. They began intervening directly in the domestic affairs of countries, supporting and opposing various candidates for elections in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Bolivia and, of course, Venezuela. With Caracas, Reich appeared to have supported a hapless coup attempt against Hugo Chávez. (Reich has asserted incompetence as his defense, claiming that he was unable to communicate properly that the United States did not support the coup.)

On trade, the administration slowed the momentum coming out of NAFTA, slapped tariffs on steel, which punished producers in countries like Brazil, and then forced Central American countries to sign a highly lopsided trade deal. "CAFTA [the Central American Free Trade Agreement] was a return to the old-style trade deals," says Domínguez. "It forced small and weak countries to liberalize but made few reciprocal openings in the U.S. market to their products. Central Americans knew it was highly unfair but had to sign it. It helped convince the region that American posturings on free trade were largely hypocritical."

Over the past year, Bush's people and policies—now steered by Condoleezza Rice—have changed significantly. The senior official in charge of Latin America policy, Thomas Shannon, is a grown-up. The administration has avoided anything that might look like heavy-handed interference in countries. It has talked up American partnership and aid. Bush has made some effort to address the issues most important to governments in the region—biofuels in Brazil, immigration in Mexico and trade everywhere.

The only problem is that now Bush is operating with almost no room to maneuver. He is deeply unpopular in Latin America. Chávez's campaign against his trip might seem absurd, but it plays to widespread public sentiments across the region. And in the United States, Bush faces a country and a Congress deeply suspicious of him and his policies—even when they are the right ones. On trade, he has little political clout. And yet, without reducing American tariffs on ethanol, any notion of a partnership with Brazil on biofuels is simply rhetoric. Similarly, without comprehensive immigration reform, the relationship with Mexico remains uneasy.

The tragedy here is a familiar one. When Bush had enormous room to maneuver in 2001, when loaded with political capital in 2002 and 2003, he embarked on a series of ideological exercises that severely diminished American influence and prestige. Now, battered by failure, he has moved toward more-sensible policies—not just in Latin America, but in North Korea and even the Middle East. But the president is now walking alone, with few supporters at home or abroad, and little capital that he can draw on to execute any of his new approaches. In region after region, on issue after issue, that might well be the recurring theme of George W. Bush's foreign policy in his final 22 months.