Since John McCain picked her as his running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has been widely criticized by the media for her lack of foreign policy experience. A politician from a remote U.S. state, Palin has shown little interest in travel—she obtained her first passport just last year.
This week the McCain team is trying to dispel the notion that Palin is a foreign policy lightweight. The Alaska Governor is slated to meet with a handful of foreign leaders during the General Assembly meeting of the United Nations. The roster of leaders chosen by the McCain camp bodes badly for U.S. foreign policy should the Republican ticket win in November.
Latin America ought to be a high priority for any new administration in Washington. But the only line in Palin’s Latin America résumé is a vacation to Mexico. And when world leaders arrive for the UN summit, Palin’s only meeting with a Latin American leader will be with Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, whose government has the worst human rights record in the entire region.
In an ongoing scandal, Colombia’s judicial system has arrested 29 members of congress and ordered investigations into 39 more for suspicion of collaborating with paramilitary death squads. Almost all of those implicated in the scandal are members of Uribe’s governing coalition. The president's former intelligence chief is even accused of feeding information to the paramilitaries to help them target and kill labor and human rights activists.
Uribe's own cousin, Senator Mario Uribe, was forced to resign in an effort to avoid a Supreme Court inquiry into whether he had paramilitary ties. The president and his cousin have been close political partners for decades. Álvaro Uribe has not been directly implicated in the scandal, but the president has long been dogged by accusations that paramilitary groups used his family’s farm to attack opponents in the 1990s.
The announcement of the Uribe-Palin meeting came just hours after the Colombian leader met with president George Bush. Uribe has been feverishly promoting his Colombia-U.S. free trade agreement in Washington. The Colombian government has paid more than $1 million to U.S. firms that have negotiated or lobbied in favor of the deal.
McCain has praised the Colombian government for prosecuting the drug war and making “substantial and positive” progress on human rights. Contrasting himself to his presidential opponent Barack Obama, McCain expressed support for the pending trade deal with the South American country.
The Huffington Post notes that McCain’s Colombia policy is informed by “a bevy of advisers who have earned large amounts either lobbying for the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, or representing corporations that do business with that country.”
The trade deal has been facing an uncertain future on the Hill. Many Democrats have opposed the initiative because Colombia’s labor and human rights record remains atrocious. Currently, the agreement is in legislative limbo since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi moved to indefinitely postpone consideration of the agreement.
The McCain campaign has also lined up Palin to receive some schooling in New York from a right-wing U.S. foreign policy stalwart. The Alaska governor will be chatting with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, an infamous Cold Warrior figure that is famous in Latin America for being the architect of U.S. destabilization of democratic Chile in advance of General Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup.
Previously, Palin was simply oblivious and uncurious about other foreign countries. But now, as she leaps on to the international stage, she stands to have a tremendous impact on the world—for the worse.
Currently, South America is exploding and a McCain-Palin administration will only exacerbate regional tensions. Bolivia is on the verge of civil war and president Evo Morales recently expelled the U.S. ambassador for meeting with members of the political opposition. Coming to the aid of an ally, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez followed suit by also expelling the U.S. ambassador in his country.
McCain is an implacable foe of Morales and Chávez and would like to isolate the so-called leftist “Pink Tide” in South America by cultivating links to the right-wing Uribe government in Bogotá and promoting free trade with sympathetic governments.
A McCain-Palin administration would also be turning to Latin America at a time when the region is once again becoming a global flashpoint for tensions between the United States and its global “enemies.” U.S.-Russian tensions, for instance, took on a new dimension when Venezuela and Russia began joint naval exercises in Caribbean waters. McCain’s hawkish foreign policy stance would likely make these tensions worse. (For more on the story, see my recent, "The Next Cuban Missile Crisis?”).
All of this is of apparently little concern to Palin, who also plans to meet with Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili in New York. Recently, Georgia fought a brief border war with Russia and received key political and diplomatic backing from both the Bush White House and McCain over the course of the conflict. Palin's New York meetings with unsavory leaders like Uribe and Saakashvili suggest that the McCain camp is intent on ratcheting up a new global standoff with Russia. By following McCain’s reckless lead on foreign policy, Palin would make the world less safe.
Nikolas Kozloff, a NACLA senior research associate, is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008).