On a recent trip to the island of his Oxford alma mater, Bill Clinton didn’t say what color the would-be First Laddie would choose for the White House drapes, but he did tell the BBC what job he’d like Senator Hillary Clinton to give him if she wins the White House: “I’d be of most use to her doing something to try to help restore America’s standing in the world and build more allies and get us to work together again.”
The former president began his jockeying to become Ambassador-to-the-World last month when he introduced his partner at a Labor Day weekend campaign event in New Hampshire. “You want to fix America’s position in the world overnight?” he asked, claiming that public opinion polls in Europe and Canada favor Senator Clinton in the US election. “Elect Hillary president.”
European and Canadian borders, however, mark the far limits of the geographical zone where another Clinton White House might be a welcome sight abroad. The greatest challenges for the United States brand, internationally, come from the rest of the planet and its peoples. In most corners of this earth, the name Clinton is as distrusted as that of Bush.
Bill acknowledged to the BBC that “most of the alienation” around the globe stems from the war in Iraq. That his favorite presidential candidate voted to authorize that war in 2002 is only one of the spoonfuls of salt that Clinton, Inc. heaps upon that wound.
How soon we forget that terrible day back on December 16, 1998 when President Clinton addressed the nation in a televised speech: “Earlier today, I ordered America’s armed forces to strike military and security targets in Iraq.”
And that was just five months after US cruise missiles rained down upon an aspirin factory near Khartoum, Sudan: a murderous grandstand move that changed the national subject just three days after the president had the embarrassing duty to testify before a grand jury about his personal problems. Clinton’s claim that the Sudanese factory had to be destroyed because it was developing chemical weapons of mass destruction turned out to be as false as George W. Bush’s WMD hoax. Chemists waded through the rubble, collected soil samples and found not a trace. Later, the Clinton Justice Department settled out of court with the plant’s owners, returning $24 million to them from the US Treasury, to hush up the scandal.
Global distrust and resentment toward the United States did not begin with George W. Bush; Clinton, as president, fueled it, too. The true legacy of the first Clinton White House around the world precludes the former president’s illusory claim that he can somehow be the magician that would “restore America’s standing.” While Bill Clinton remains popular inside the United States, and perhaps among white elites in Europe, he would be an albatross, not a talisman, around the neck of future US policy in the Middle East and Africa. But that’s not all. His Latin America policies are remembered particularly bitterly in this hemisphere.
The Democrats’ Neighborhood Bully
Unlike former Democratic presidents John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter, whose legacies are revered in many parts of Latin America (in peasant shacks throughout the hemisphere it is still common to find a portrait of JFK next to those of saints, saviors and popes on candlelit altars), Clinton’s heavy-handed policies toward America’s southern neighbors still invoke widespread resentment and distrust down here. The Democrat’s success in enacting a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that his Republican predecessor was unable to sell to a Democratic Congress makes Clinton the man singularly most responsible for the destruction of the Mexican family farm, the natural environment and the labor rights of industrial workers in Mexico. The corresponding exodus of tens of millions of its citizens to the United States since NAFTA took effect in 1994 has not been easy on the migrants, their families or on US workers, either.
When it came to Mexico and Latin America, President Clinton was the looter-in-chief. He wielded the US-imposed war on drugs and other pressures to destabilize Latin American governments and economies. Once weakened, it was easier to impose “free market” policies (and open the door for corporate America) upon them.
In 1996 and 1997 the Clinton administration “decertified” Colombia as drug-war ally (cutting off much US and international aid). Then in 2000 the Clinton-authored US military intervention called Plan Colombia launched a terrible environmental and human bloodbath there that continues to this day. As commander in chief, Clinton exempted the Colombian state from most of the human rights conditions that the US Congress had insisted be part of the multi-billion dollar expenditure. Seven years later, the Colombian military and its related paramilitary squads have assassinated thousands of Colombian union organizers, farm worker leaders and other social fighters, the narco-state is more corrupt, much of the Amazon rainforest has been harmed by Plan Colombia’s aerial herbicide assault, and the Colombian Civil War rages on, unabated.
Even as Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, and Democratic Congressional leaders now shun the government of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe due to his relentless attacks on human rights, Bill Clinton made Uribe a plenary guest of honor at his recent Clinton Global Initiative gathering in New York. Last June, Clinton accepted an award from the butcher of Bogota.
It was Washington’s support for Plan Colombia, and the harmful effects it had on neighboring countries, that began the rift between the US and Venezuela, not, contrary to corporate media spin, anything that Hugo Chavez had said or done at the time. The decayed US relations with Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador began not under Bush, but with the Clinton administration.
In Latin America, Clinton hitched himself to a generation of hyper-capitalist heads of state, visiting Brazil’s Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Argentina’s Carlos Menem and Mexico’s Ernesto Zedillo in 1997 as each of them pursued neoliberal economic policies. The consequences on their peoples provoked their respective parties’ electoral defeats in the succeeding presidential campaigns there.
Clinton visited Zedillo again in 1999, this time for an “anti-drug summit” held on the vast hacienda of a banker accused of narco-trafficking and drug money laundering, Roberto Hernandez Ramirez, president and owner of Banamex. I reported the story from that summit, and after a series of follow-up reports found myself defending a libel suit filed in New York by his bank. We emerged victorious in 2001 with a precedent that established, for the first time, First Amendment protections for Internet journalists. But as that case was grinding through the wheels of justice, something very strange and unexpected occurred that shed more light on the Clinton administration policies toward Mexico.
The Great Bank Robbery
In 1998, Clinton’s treasury secretary Robert Rubin authorized a sting operation on drug money laundering Mexican bankers called Operation Casablanca, which led to the indictment of two Banamex executives and motions to seize more than $3 million dollars from the bank. This came at a time when Clinton’s state department was rattling sabers with threats to decertify Mexico as it had done in previous years to Colombia.
When the Clinton administration came to an end in 2001, Rubin left Treasury to become director of Citigroup in New York, the largest financial services company on earth. After Rubin had, from Washington, lowered the value of Banamex (to much greater impact than any of our litigated news stories could have possibly had), he, from the private sector in New York, engineered Citigroup’s purchase of that same Mexican bank in 2001. The former National Bank of Mexico, for a controversially low price of $14 billion dollars (the sale was tax-free on the Mexican end, causing wide outrage here), became the property of Rubin’s Citigroup in the United States, and the disgraced Hernandez Ramirez along with another Banamex partner received seats on the board of directors of Citigroup.
It’s that kind of shenanigans and revolving door influence that Senator Jim Webb (D-Virginia) invoked when campaigning against “Robert Rubin Democrats” to win his seat in 2006. But it cuts much deeper in the memories of the Mexican citizenry and press, which will never, ever, view the extended hand of Bill Clinton as one to be welcomed, much less one that could “restore America’s standing.”
Outside of the Caribbean island nation of Haiti, to where Clinton sent troops to back the democratically elected government Jean-Bertrand Aristide (and to where the Bush administration later sent troops to back a coup d’etat against it), I can’t think of a single other populace in Latin America that would like to see Bill Clinton representing the United States in the region again.
The oligarch class of Latin American countries would of course be thrilled with a new Clinton administration, this time with Bill in the role he openly seeks as Ambassador-to-the-World, in particular those that took their money and ran to Miami.
Given various opportunities to break from previous Clinton administration failures in Latin America, Senator Hillary Clinton had made it clear that, if president, she’ll continue down the same harmful path. When last July, rival Democratic Senator Barack Obama said he would be willing to meet with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez in his first year in office without preconditions, candidate Clinton labeled such vision as “irresponsible and frankly naïve.” When Obama went to Miami’s Little Havana to call for easing the US embargo on Cuba, the Clinton campaign replied that it would not even “talk about” changes in US Cuba policy.
What’s not clear is whether Bill Clinton’s testing-the-water campaign in London last week in favor of his becoming the next administrations roving international diplomat was a calculated message delivery from the Clinton campaign, or whether the polls have simply gone to Bill’s head and he picks a peculiar way of lobbying his wife for the job he wants. He has previously stated that he’ll do whatever is asked of him by his presidential spouse, should she win the Oval Office, but would otherwise take a hands-off approach. The contrary statement to the BBC was the first suggestion that one or both of the Clintons have that specific foreign policy role in mind for the former president.
Candidate Clinton has also spoken aloud on the campaign trail that if elected, prior to her inauguration, she would send “emissaries” across the world to announce to foreigners that, “America is back” (a phrase lifted from Obama’s stump speech). But a new Clinton White House is not likely to impress the world in the ways that a black American president, son of an African immigrant, with a “post-boomer” way of speaking and an outside-the-box approach to foreign policy clearly would. “It would be, I think in many ways, a far more powerful thing in the world, to have the first black president of the United States,” the South African former archbishop Desmond Tutu told ABC News last month. “You don’t know what it would do to people of color in other parts of the world.” The Ambassador Bill talk from both Clinton camp intends to compete with Obama’s strong point, but it reveals a belief in their own hype that hits the red zone on the hubris scale.
In August, Senator Clinton (again, responding to a refreshing foreign policy statement by Obama in which he ruled out first use of nuclear weapons in Afghanistan or Pakistan in the hunt for bin Laden) refused to take the nuclear option off the table, and lectured Obama at an AFL-CIO debate condescendingly that, “You can think big, but remember, you shouldn’t always say everything you think if you’re running for president, because they could have consequences,” she reflected the very kind of American arrogance that gives most of the world no reason at all to trust or want to work with the United States.
While Americans feud at home as Democrats vs. Republicans, the previous Clinton and Bush administrations have behaved without distinction toward most of the rest of the world. The suggestion that I’m Bill Clinton, I’m here to help you, and I can “restore America’s standing” for you, is laughingstock in other lands, and especially de risa among the United States’ closest neighbors in Latin America. We’re just not sure, as we listen to such fantasy, if we’re laughing or we’re crying.
AL GIORDANO, the founder of Narco News, has lived in and reported from Latin America for the past decade. His opinions expressed in this column do not reflect those of Narco News nor of The Fund for Authentic Journalism, which supports his work. Al encourages commentary, critique, additional analysis and news tips for his continued coverage of the US presidential campaign to be sent to his email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.