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Airbrushing History

The Victims Among Us

by BRIAN HARPER

Though this marathon of a presidential campaign has produced little substantive discussion about policy or actual plans to solve our nation’s problems, there is no question that there have been many memorable one-liners. You didn’t build that. No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate. We also have fewer horses and bayonets.

One of the most noteworthy moments was of course when Gov. Mitt Romney claimed that 47 percent of Americans see themselves as victims. Looking past the people to whom Mr. Romney was actually referring, his comments do raise an interesting, broader question about who have been victims throughout U.S. history.

The final presidential debate might have been an ideal time to have this conversation. Indeed, Mr. Romney and President Barack Obama mentioned a number of countries and regions around the world that, for better or worse, have been significantly impacted by U.S. foreign policy. Unfortunately, these places were often spoken of in incomplete and nuance-free terms—the threats they pose, the opportunities they present or the benefits they have experienced because of our country’s benevolence.

Two of the areas discussed particularly caught my attention. One came up as an aside during an exchange on how to deter Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Mr. Romney suggested further sanctions, prohibiting ships with Iranian oil from entering U.S. ports, diplomatic isolation and ensuring that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is indicted by the Genocide Convention.

“I would make sure that their diplomats are treated like the pariah they are around the world,” he explained. “The same way we treated the apartheid diplomats of South Africa.”

To borrow Mr. Obama’s expression, Mr. Romney was airbrushing history.

In the 1980s, South Africa arguably experienced its darkest days in more than 40 years of apartheid. Nelson Mandela was in prison, young leaders like Stephen Biko had been killed and street violence suggested that a civil war might be inevitable. Despite appeals from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, President Reagan vetoed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act and openly supported South Africa’s white minority government. Instead of divesting from South African businesses and imposing U.N.-proposed sanctions, the Reagan Administration practiced a policy of “constructive engagement” in the hopes that friendly exchange and a shared anti-Communist stance might compel South Africa to gradually move away from apartheid. While it is true that Congress eventually overrode President Reagan’s veto, it is certainly inaccurate to suggest the U.S. government collectively treated members of the apartheid regime as “pariah” or supported the majority of South Africans’ fight for freedom and political representation.

The other moment came in a conversation about ways to boost the U.S. economy. One of Mr. Romney’s suggestions was to increase trade with Latin America.

“The opportunities for us in Latin America, we have just not taken advantage of fully,” he explained. “As a matter of fact, Latin America’s economy is almost as big as the economy of China. We’re all focused on China. Latin America is a huge opportunity for us.”

Setting aside PolitiFact’s “Half True” rating of Mr. Romney’s claim about the size of Latin America’s economy, it is important to consider what type of opportunity Latin America presents the U.S. in light of what kind of opportunities it has presented in the past.

The U.S. has a long history of intervention and trade with its neighbors to the south. According to historian Greg Grandin in his book Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism, the U.S. was sending almost $7 million worth of goods to Latin America by the early 1800s. Between 1869 and 1897, we sent war ships into Latin American ports 5,980 times. In the first 30 or so years of the 1900s, “U.S. troops invaded Caribbean countries at least thirty-four times, occupied Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala, and Costa Rica for short periods, and remained in Haiti, Cuba, Nicaragua, Panama and the Dominican Republic for longer stays.”

This trend of occupation and economic expansion has continued into more recent times. In an effort to bring about “complete free trade” with Chile, says Grandin, North American economist Milton Friedman visited General Augusto Pinochet in 1975 and suggested a program of “shock treatment,” which included “immediately halting the printing of money to finance the budget deficit, cutting state spending 20 to 25 percent, laying off tens of thousands of government workers, ending wage and price controls, privatizing state industries, and deregulating capital markets.”

In the years following World War II, he writes, “the United States, mostly through the actions of local allies, executed or encouraged coups in, amongst other places, Guatemala, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina and patronized a brutal mercenary war in Nicaragua.

“All told,” says Grandin, “U.S. allies in Central America during Reagan’s two terms killed over 300,000 people, tortured hundreds of thousands, and drove millions into exile.”

Hopefully, these are not the measures Mr. Romney was referring to when he cited Latin America as a place where the U.S. could gain economic ground. Hopefully, they are not what Mr. Obama was referring to when he said Mr. Romney wants to bring back the “foreign policies of the 1980s.”

To be clear, I am not trying to pick on Mr. Romney specifically. One point the third presidential debate made apparent is that he and Mr. Obama agree on many points of U.S. foreign policy. I would not be surprised if the president also sees Latin America as “a huge opportunity for us.”

And as a matter of full disclosure, I am probably more sensitive to Mr. Romney’s claims about South Africa and Latin America than the average voter, because I have lived in both areas. I studied in Cape Town for five months during college and currently live in Peru.

My issues, then, are the following:

Despite being considered far less important to U.S. interests than Israel, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and a host of other countries in the Middle East, two regions of the world that have been and will continue to be influenced by U.S. elections can be mentioned in such an offhand way.

Because of these places’ perceived lack of importance, such comments can be made in a misleading fashion without much challenge or correction.

Finally, the political arena allows for very little, if any, room for thoughtful dialogue when it comes to discussions about the role U.S. foreign policy plays around the world. Presidential candidates will go to great lengths to allege that their opponents are too soft on our enemies but will rarely admit that the United States is ever anything less than a positive global force. To do so incites accusations of being un-patriotic or apologizing for America.

In recent weeks, both Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney have referred to the United States with some variation of the expression “hope of the Earth.” Our nation certainly has done great global good, from President Bush’s work with PEPFAR to curb AIDS in Africa to our rapid responses to environmental disasters in Haiti, Japan and many other countries around the world.

Any sincere and complete review of U.S. foreign relations, however, must also acknowledge that the policies our country pursues in our best interests are not always in the best interests of others around the world. It may be in the U.S. military’s interest to have a $1 billion contract with Russian arms company Rosoboronexport. But reports that Rosoboronexport is also the Syrian government’s primary weapons supplier raises the argument that our country is implicit in Syrian President Bashir al-Assad’s assault against his own people.

A mandate that requires the U.S. to convert significant portions of its corn into ethanol may help keep our gas prices down. But it also dramatically raises corn prices in the developing world.

Perhaps it is inevitable that any foreign policy will produce some winners and some losers. But as long as we continue to see our country’s role in the global community in simplistic, black and white terms, we will fail to understand how the “hope of the Earth” could possibly produce any victims.

Brian Harper lives and works in the southern Andes region of Peru. You can follow his travels at www.brianharperu.wordpress.com.