Never has the historical misdirection of America's decades-entrenched foreign policy been seen in such focus as it was this week. President Obama attempted his first Latin American policy excursion over the last few days and was continually distracted by new action in the Middle East.
As is necessary in the region, the White House policy trip was designed to serve multiple goals. The region's rich and diverse topography, which includes Chile's spectacular Atacama Desert, Brazil's alluring Santa Catarina Beaches, and the demanding and soil-enriching volcanoes of El Salvador, serves as a reminder of the differing needs, attitudes, and political cultures mixed together there. In fact, the Latin countries are so diverse that the commonality among the nations seems at times limited to their languages, their youthful entrepreneurial populations, and their dramatic economic growth.
Not only the promise but also the emerging reality of Latin America are dramatically important to the future of US prosperity. The US exports more than three times as much to Latin America as we do to China. According to Hillary Clinton, who commendably has visited the region more than any of her predecessors, the US cannot win the future without "robust engagement" with Latin America. As a region Latin America's economy has grown by 6% over the last year. Yet the weight of the US obsession with the Middle East continues to distract us from our engagement with our own mostly peaceful neighbors. Obama was constantly busy monitoring Libya while on his travels, and in fact cut the visit short by hours to attend to the Mideast action. The curtailment of a stop at Mayan ruins may seem a small matter, but due to the cancellation our President, and perhaps even our country, lost an opportunity to revisit the lesson that empires vanish when they forget to tend to regional needs.
The allure of the consistently dramatic developments in the Middle East has suckered the US media into believing the neocon view that our most important alliances lie across the sea. Our country's economic future comes from footpaths, not flight paths. But we don't even have to be great prognosticators to understand the strategic importance of Latin America: currently over a third of our oil comes from the region. Yet the US media has ignored the emergence of the real democratic reform, robust economic recovery, and growing middle class that now define Latin America.
Geography matters and demography is destiny. The future of the US is tied to Latin America. While far away desert battles may be demanding and strangely alluring to our press rooms and cable TV news sets our future is in the beaches, mountains, and lush rain forests at our southern doorstep. We ignore the ruins of previous empires at our own peril. If America wants to win the future it must work to "ganar" Latin America.