Presidential Debate 2012: The War that the Candidates Will Most Likely Ignore

With American elections just over two weeks away, it’s truly disheartening to read that the moderator of tonight’s debate, Bob Schieffer, will not be including Latin America in the list of topics that are to be discussed by President Barack Obama and Republican candidate, Governor Mitt Romney.

Just two weeks ago on October 7, Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, secured a victory over opposition candidate Henrique Capriles. Noting that President Chavez has been undermining democracy in the region since his attempted coup d’état in 1992, one must really place his nearly 14 years in office and their hemispheric implications into perspective.

Had his aggressive agenda been limited to domestic matters, Chavez could have been viewed as just another caudillo - an unintentional by-product of the continent’s “discovery.”  His openly anti-American foreign policy and ability to mobilize ideological allies across the board, however, have opened the hemisphere to actors bent on redefining global polarity in the Western Hemisphere in an unnatural way.

These allies, both state and none-state entities, act with the intention of harming American interests and destabilizing the region by manipulating global perception of the United States and its geopolitical role.

With this in mind, one can quickly identify a few recent and polemic additions to our hemispheric composition. Since the elections of Hugo Chavez in 1998, Vladimir Putin in 2000, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, the hemisphere has witnessed the presence of openly anti-American forces for the first time since the Cold War. This presence has manifested itself in the form of Russian air-force and naval exercises in Venezuela, the arrival of Iranian Qod and Hezbollah forces to several ALBA nations, increased paramilitary activity throughout the region and the coincidental deterioration of democratic institutions across the region.

As former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski points out in his book, “The Choice,” “geography made America a sanctuary… American’s went to war, but war did not come to America.” Today, however, with ALBA challenging the United States at the United Nations, Mercosur ousting Paraguay and welcoming in Venezuela (arguably illegally), the OAS quickly being rendered obsolete and foreign powers playing an ever larger role in regional affairs, it is clear that Latin American leaders are waging a War of Perception against the United States and its global position.

Really, it’s not what they’re doing, it’s that they’re doing it.       

For these reasons, amongst many others, Latin America can no longer be ignored. As a whole, the region is as big of a threat to American interests than the Middle East with its volatile leaders and potentially devastating arsenals. Will Chavez and his allies ride on Washington? Probably not. That is not to say that they cannot prove to be more than just a thorn in America’s side.

By challenging the United States’ historical claim to regional leadership and forging an alternate path away from democracy and free-markets, they are sending a clear message to the international community that the United States’ diplomatically devastating Middle East campaigns really did render America unable to play a global leadership role … even in its historic ‘back yard.’

Chavez and his cronies understand that if the global community were to perceive that the United States was unable to be an effective leader within its own hemisphere, then the common consensus would be that it could no longer lead globally either. It is daunting to think who might scramble to fill the leadership void in world’s most volatile regions, especially in our own Western Hemisphere.

Like the Soviet Union’s defeat in Afghanistan, a perceived defeat by in the Western Hemisphere would prove to be a devastating blow to the United States and its interests. Really, the future of America’s global role will be defined by the next administration’s decision on whether or not to reengage Latin America- to forge a new and stronger relationship with the region. Neither Obama’s regional disregard nor Romney’s overly ambitious free-trade tactics and hard line on Cuba will suffice. 

While there is little hope that the candidates will show much, if any, regard for Latin America during tonight's debate,  the next administration must not continue this trend. Americans should cross their fingers for a serious, platonic reengagement come November 6th.

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LIVE COVERAGE

Governor Romney is completely correct in saying that the United States has to “get the Muslim World to reject extremism on its own." This idea should not be limited to the Muslim World, however. President Chavez in Venezuela and Kirchner in Argentina are a different brand of extremists. While not violent, they are still working to push "21st Century Socialism" throughout the region and inherently undermining democracy in the Americas.

Furthermore, it frightens me that President Obama does not recognize Russia as a major geopolitical threat. Their involvment in the Western Hemisphere coupled with the flexing of their political and diplomatic muscle (think: Russian jets violating British airspace or Russian bombers in Venezuela) should be warning enough of their intentions. Again, geopolitical power depends on international perception. I hope President Obama understands this.

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Wow, President Obama, not mentioning Latin America when noting our global alliances...?

But who would have thought that Governor Romney would come back to talk about re-engaging Latin America- specifically noting that the Latin American economy is almost as large as China's?

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Red Lines: Israel and Iran

"Crippling sanctions do work... I would tighten those sanctions... I would take on diplomatic isolation efforts." I just hope this doesn't reflect Governor Romney's views on Cuba.

At the same time, it surprises me that President Obama can stand there and talk a hard line regarding Iran but still find no solution to an Iranian presence in our hemisphere.

On the other hand, Governor Romney just noted how the President promised to engage Hugo Chavez and the Castro brothers his first year but failed. Its a great sign that he sees Venezuela, Cuba and the ALBA notions, I'm sure, when he looks at Iran and its nuclear aspirations. Could this be an important insight?

When President Obama talks about credibility, really, all we have to do is look South. Governor Romney is right: our influence is receding. Russian and Iranian involvement in regional politics is proof enough for this. 

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What do you believe is the greatest threat to the U.S.?

Mr. President, do you know who else has been criticized for protectionism? Venezuela… Argentina… Russia… after hearing you advocate for economic protectionism, its no surprise to me that the United States fell to the 18th place in the Cato Institute's Economic Freedom of the World Index this last year.

Governor Romney is right. We need free trade. Fair trade. This is exactly how we have to re-engage the Western Hemisphere. 

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Closing Statements

To me, it seemed as if the President was asking for four more years on the same track. When he claimed that Governor Romney was "all over the map," I couldn't help but agree. After this debate, I am convinced that Governor Romney is the only candidate that would look beyond the Middle East and Asia and engage the whole of the globe: he recognized that an American President cannot limit his attention to a single region.

Mr. Romney, sounded a lot like John Winthrop and I liked it. He wasn't a warmonger, but rather a leader that believes in his country's mission.

President Obama was on the defensive.  His closing statements were more of a plea than a call for confidence. Romney came out today looking like a President of the United States- showing confidence and leadership.

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