One day not long ago—hypothetically—the head honchos of the Bush administration sat down in the Oval Office. Long faces prevailed around the room. The agenda: “Transitioning from Plan A to Plan B.”
Plan A, someone explained to the uninitiated, was the Dynasty Plan. The plan posited a continuation of Bush policies, notably the radical conservative game plan laid out in the 2002 National Security Strategy, under a new Republican administration.
No matter that six years after the unveiling of the National Security Strategy the majority of the U.S public rejected nearly all the basic premises of the doctrine. Although most Americans now weighed in against the war in Iraq, for adherence to international law and institutions, and against the role of the United States as global cop, the dynasty plan assumed that what was needed was a deepening of the same policies that had been applied over the previous eight years. Given the concentration and expansion of executive powers achieved over the Bush administrations, this could be done without explicit agreement from the citizenry.
To put the Dynasty Plan in place simply meant passing the torch to Republican Party candidate John McCain. In the beginning, this plan seemed relatively simple. There were no major differences between the outgoing and incoming executives. The de facto powers of state—defense and oil companies, neoconservative global architects—would hardly be disturbed. There was even talk of putting Jeb Bush on the ticket in the number-two spot, but some worried about the overly obvious dynastic implications of having a Bush on the ballot seven out of the last eight national elections. In any case, McCain could keep the seat warm for Brother Jeb in 2012.
There is no clearer formulation of this plan than the 2008 Republican platform. Not only does it affirm the most controversial aspects of the Bush doctrine, it also insists on unchecked presidential powers to order the pre-emptive strikes and unilateral measures that characterize the security strategy.
The platform doesn’t mince words: “The waging of war—and the achieving of peace—should never be micromanaged in a party platform, or on the floor of the Senate and House of Representatives for that matter. In dealing with present conflicts and future crises, our next president must preserve all options.” Besides the citizenry and the Congress, the other bodies that should never be allowed to interfere with dynastic power are international institutions. The platform states, “The United States participates in various international organizations which can, at times, serve the cause of peace and prosperity, but those organizations must never serve as a substitute for principled American leadership. Nor should our participation in them prevent our joining with other democracies to protect our vital national interests.”
The Fall of the Dynasty Plan
This multi-generational strategy depended on holding executive power. But since the Dynasty Plan was first developed, things had gotten a lot more complicated. Hence the long faces.
First, the relay team dropped the torch. The president, whose job it was to pass the torch, began to lag seriously behind in the race, and then bungled the pass. Then the candidate, whose job it was to receive the torch, fumbled the hand-off, complaining that the torch itself was defective. Confusion ensued.
By the time the Bush team realized just how bad things were, they were worse. The polls—including some of the ones designed to manipulate, rather than reflect, public opinion—were showing alarming signs that the African-American, liberal, upstart would actually win the race. That would blow Plan A out of the water.
Not only was it unclear whether power could be transferred successfully under the original Dynasty Plan, there was now another major monkey wrench in the works. The financial system was crashing. Not flailing, not foundering, but crashing. In a way that could no longer be hidden from the public. The most privileged group of people under the Bush administration had broken even the tenuous tethers that the financial system had to a real economy through devious and ingenious machinations in financial instruments and the speculative bubble had burst. The situation was embarrassing, costly, and potentially fatal to Plan A.
Add that history-making mess to the mess in Iraq, and it was no wonder that the next runner had doubts about grabbing the torch that was being handed him. Under these circumstances, one could get seriously burned.
In short, the Republican’s Dynasty Plan was in crisis on multiple fronts. Although all possible attempts would be considered to save it, including Dick Cheney’s personal favorite, the “attack-a-foreign-country” or “October Surprise” option, there seemed to be no choice but to prepare Plan B—the “Legacy Plan.”
Locking In a Legacy
The Legacy Plan recognizes the possibility that the Republicans could not only lose the White House, but that they could also face a situation of such widespread backlash against their disastrous policies that any form of recuperation would be temporarily shut down. This means that timelines have to be stepped way up on many of the administration’s fondest structural changes. The goal under Plan B is to lock in as many of those policies as possible before turning over the keys of the White House.
This is exactly what the Bush administration has begun to do. In the area of foreign policy, not only have the goals of its own national security strategy not been realized after two administrations, but many of them are actually receding. The invasion of Iraq was exceedingly costly, not only in military and financial terms but also in political terms. And yet that troubled nation can still not be counted as the controlled source of oil and containment in the Middle East that proponents of the bloody occupation envisioned. Pressures for withdrawal have come from all quarters, including the Iraqi government.
In addition to seeing the goal of establishing a strong U.S. foothold in the oil-rich region fade away, the administration is no doubt feeling the heat from the defense industry at the prospect of future contracts drying up.
To fill the potential gap, the legacy plan is expanding defense spending in other areas and preparing the ground for new conflicts. The Bush administration has pushed increased military spending in Afghanistan and Pakistan and begun to deliver defense contracts for the U.S.-Mexico border region. The $162 billion Iraq supplementary passed in June provides significant breathing room to defense contractors in the case of a transition, but concerns are mounting about what will happen to bloated defense companies when the Iraq feed line is cut.
To move from dynasty to legacy in foreign policy requires two things—funding and political will. The Bush administration seems to have no real problems on the funding front. Despite its complaints about the policies, the Democrats have been generous to the Defense Department and forked over billions of dollars worth of funds to support Bush polices throughout the world. Based on Obama’s statements and Washington inertia, it is likely that major cuts are not forthcoming in the near future, although they certainly should be.
The Latin American Legacy Plan
One region where the Bush administration has been working hard on its Legacy Plan over the past few months is Latin America. According to the binary “with us or against us” view of the administration, Latin America had wandered so far from the fold that a full half its territory must now be transferred from the conversion to the containment category. Venezuela’s leadership on issues of South-South integration and solidarity aid have combined with major incursions by Chinese and European investors to decrease U.S. influence in the region. Grassroots movements are rejecting the free trade model and consequent inequality and in many cases electing progressive governments. Instead of viewing this as an opportunity to cooperate in new ways to resolve age-old problems of poverty and democracy, the Bush administration has cast it as a major threat.
Without control of the White House to reward friends and punish enemies, the goal of restoring U.S. hegemony and guaranteeing access to precious natural resources in the hemisphere for transnational corporations could fall out of reach.
The administration has already taken several major steps in Latin America to lock in its legacy. The most important is the Merida Initiative, a multi-year military and police aid package that includes equipment and training to Mexico and, to a lesser degree, Central America, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. Congress already passed the first $465 million installment in June of this year and the 2009 spending request will be coming up soon.
This plan, described as a regional security cooperation initiative, locks in three Bush policies that have resulted in demonstrable failure, major human rights violations, and death: the war on drugs, the counterterrorism paradigm, and border security. The Merida Initiative replicates the Plan Colombia model of the war on drugs by focusing exclusively on interdiction and confrontation—a model that did not work in Colombia and will not work in Mexico.
The inclusion of counterterrorism imposes the failings of the model applied in the United States on its southern neighbors, where international terrorism has not been a threat and the political costs could be much higher. A 2004 report on the counterterrorism model noted six failings of this Bush policy, that also apply to the Merida Initiative: an o veremphasis on military responses, an under-estimation of role of and problems with intelligence sharing, a clear tendency to undermining democracy and civil liberties, a lack of focus on Homeland Security measures at home, a w eakening of international institutions, and a failure to attack root causes .
Finally, the linking of immigration enforcement with national security in the initiative mimics the language found in the Republican platform and throughout the Bush years. Migrants are equivalent to terrorists and drug-traffickers. The militarization of borders—not just the U.S.-Mexico border, but the Mexico-Guatemala border, as Mexico must assume the task of intercepting migrants before they get close to the United States—provides juicy contracts to the defense industry and has led to hundreds of migrant deaths and abuses.
The militarization of international relations and ever-increasing defense spending embodied in this plan has been shored up by other developments. Experts warn that the Commands (Central, North, and South) have developed their own dynamic, outside the control of the State Department.
The Democratic Congress failed to recognize that the Merida Initiative was designed to tie the hands of a Democratic administration by imposing a classic Bushian script on relations with our southern neighbors. Following the feint that Mexico simply needed help with its drug war, Democrats approved the funding.
Free trade is another front where the administration seeks to lock in its legacy. Described as the second pillar of the Bush national security strategy, in Latin America the divide between nations that have Free Trade Agreements with the United States and those that don’t has been deepened by the Bush administration to the point of dividing the continent itself in half.
Legacy-locking action on this front has been frantic over the past few weeks. The Bush administration has lobbied heavily for passage of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, both to cement the Pacific rim chain of nations tied to the United States through these agreements, and to reinforce its geopolitical presence in the region through tighter ties to Colombia—one its few real allies.
President Bush has already suffered innumerable setbacks to its free market agenda in Latin America. The announcement of the Andean countries (except Colombia) that they had no interest in an FTA with the United States, the failure of the Free Trade Area of the Americas effort, and advances in South-South integration have eroded the U.S. free trade agenda.
So on Sept. 24 the White House hastily gathered its allies into a new “coalition of the willing” on trade, under the auspices of the pro-business Council of the Americas in Washington, DC. The resulting Pathways to Prosperity in the Americas Initiative joins Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Peru, and the United States, “to take stock of the significant progress we have made in our hemisphere through shared commitments to trade and investment liberalization, social inclusion, development, rule of law, and democracy.”
The new proposal is to form a Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP). This is a recognition of the failure of the FTAA, and yet another example of the contortions geography has been submitted to in the name of U.S. geopolitics. When the proposed hemispheric regional integration hit a major snag (most of the largest economies in Latin America rejected the U.S. government’s intransigent terms for the NAFTA-style FTAA), the map was redrawn to include only the Western nations signed on and Southeast Asia. This remapping of the region seeks specifically to head off the “Bolivarian” Latin America integration promoted by Chavez.
By locking in free trade agreements that destabilize developing countries and go against the call of the U.S. public to re-evaluate these agreements, the administration hopes to prevent backtracking on free market orthodoxy, even as the model demonstrates its colossal failure in the United States.
Escaping the Legacy Trap
Every outgoing administration seeks to lock in its policies and control over the system before handing the reins to the opposing camp. Whether it’s stacking the courts, pardoning powerful buddies, or issuing executive decrees, the practice is as old as the hills and pretty much inevitable.
But the radical policy dictums of Bush foreign policy must not be allowed to continue. In these last weeks of the current administration, the Democrats and the public must identify and reject all administration measures that could leave a Democratic president hamstrung to make significant changes in foreign policy.
At present, the financial crisis bail-out has understandably obscured all other issues. But watch carefully what happens in the next few weeks. The Bush legacy laws could undermine the change that so many millions of Americans will stake their vote on in November.
LAURA CARLSEN (lcarlsen(at)ciponline.org) is director of the Americas Policy Program (www.americaspolicy.org) in Mexico City, where she has been a writer and analyst for more than two decades.