Friday, September 19, 2008

McCain, Spain, and Latin America Revisited

In my previous posting, I discussed McCain's recent "Spain" gaffe. In the comments section to this posting, one of my regular Huck Upchuck readers, Eric (who, by the way, has a fantastic blog called Keepin' It Rural), whose opinions are always excellent and thoughtful, has posted a couple of comments on the topic that offer a different take on this interview, one which sees the interview as a net positive for McCain. Because I found his comments provocative, but also because I think Eric really misreads the significance of this moment as a negative for McCain, I thought I would address his comments in a separate blog posting. Here's Eric's first comment in full:

Of course, it didn't help much that the interviewer spoke poor, choppy, heavily accented English, and a few times couldn't even come up with the words she was trying to use. It is very possible that McCain didn't understand her.

He also might have been confused by the fact that the interviewer said, "Senator, let's talk about now Latin American" and then went on to ask him numerous questions about Spain.

All in all, I thought that interview showed McCain to have a pretty good handle on the Latin American issues that were discussed. I'd be interested to know if Obama could name as many Latin American leaders as McCain did in that interview. I also found his claim interesting that Obama has never in his life traveled south of the American border. If Obama wants to extoll his foreign policy experience, he might start by actuially visiting our neigbors!

If people actually listen to that entire interview, I think it helps McCain more than it hurts him.

Friday, September 19, 2008 8:52:00 AM
Personally, I think the interviewer did just fine. She only stumbled over words when she got flustered because she and McCain weren't on the same page. If English is not your first language and you're talking to someone who appears like he has no clue about what you are asking, it would be natural for the non-native English speaker to get flustered and to wonder if the problem was in her communication ability and not in McCain's comprehension ability. Clearly, the problem was in the latter, and not in the former, at least from my perspective having heard the interview.

Furthermore, it is possible, as Eric suggests, that McCain got confused because the interview was primarily about Latin America and so he just stayed on autopilot when the interviewer shifted to Spain. But, even still, the interviewer clearly identified this topical shift to Spain before asking McCain the question. And the fact that McCain didn't seem to get this, even after being repeatedly reminded that the question had to do with Spain, does not reflect well on the man. If it is true that he got that confused, and stayed that confused, without ever trying to correct the mistake, then isn't that a bit problematic for someone who wants to be President? I mean, really, I can understand a confused McCain saying after the first time: "Oh, I thought we were still on Latin America and I just missed that you were talking about Spain now. Sorry. Here's what I think about Spain ..." But the fact that he didn't do this is not a good sign no matter how it's rationalized.

Second, why this interview hurts McCain rather than helps him is that the audience for whom this interview was broadcast is an audience that clearly can differentiate between Spain and Latin America, and an audience that has a much more nuanced understanding of Latin America than the "I'll meet with leaders who are with us, and I won't with those who are against us" mantra. Hispanic/Latino audiences know that anti-US rhetoric in Latin American politics does not place a country in the "enemy" column (precisely because every single Latin American country has this nationalist tendency, even stalwart US allies like Colombia). And no contemporary Latin American country, even Venezuela, except perhaps Cuba for obvious historical reasons, would ever be considered the equivalent of the "Axis of Evil" countries that underlie the Obama/McCain debate over meeting with foreign "enemy" leaders. McCain wants to lump Hugo Chavez in with Ahmadinejad, and that just doesn't fly. Hugo Chavez may be a megalomaniacal leftist dictator who rails on the U.S., but the reality is that we still maintain formal diplomatic relations with Venezuela, we maintain close trading relations with Venezuela, and Venezuela is still an important supplier of petroleum products to the U.S. There is a productive working modus-vivendi between the U.S. and Venezuela that goes on below the radar screen of charged rhetoric. Anyone who pays attention to Latin American affairs knows this. For all their blowhard nationalist, leftist, anti-U.S. rhetoric, almost all Latin American countries are much more pragmatic and accommodationist in their actual foreign relations with the United States. One would think McCain should know this, especially if McCain is as tuned in to and knowledgable of the region as Eric suggests and as McCain himself likes to project. For these reasons, McCain's whole interview, not to mention his gaffe about Spain, would just bomb with the audience this interview is likely to reach.

As for Obama's lack of interest in Latin America, I have to admit that I agree with Eric's criticism. It has always been a disappointment of mine that Obama seems to be adopting the standard operating procedure with regard to Latin America: benign neglect. And while I remain disappointed by this, I can't say that I'm surprised by it. But let's be clear: I also certainly understand that benign neglect of the region has always had minimal impact in Presidential electoral contests in the U.S.

Here's the problem for McCain in this regard: whereas Obama has not shown much interest in Latin America, McCain has made it a feature of his foreign policy platform. Therefore, expectations for Obama with regard to his knowledge of Latin America are low. Whether or not this is good is another question, but it is what it is. However, for McCain to have made Latin America a knowledge asset for his campaign, and then to seem to get it all jumbled and to appear to adopt a very un-nuanced, rigid, black and white approach to meeting with foreign leaders from the region, throwing the region into an "Axis of Evil" narrative, just doesn't meet the expectations that McCain has set up for himself with regard to the region, nor does it convey to the audience of this interview that he actually does have a "special" understanding of U.S.-Latin American relations that transcends global narratives.

That's why this interview hurts McCain. It makes him seem out of touch and ignorant to the average U.S. citizen who, himself, knows very little about Spain and Latin America; and to those like me and others who pay closer attention to the region, it makes him seem like he has a very shallow and unsophisticated understanding of the region that he claims to know well.

Eric's second comment goes a bit further and tries to argue that McCain actually knew who Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero was, but craftily sought to tiptoe around engaging this question for other reasons. Here's what Eric wrote:
You know, listening to it again, when Spain was brought up, McCAin seemed to simply be trying to steer the conversation back to Latin America by skimming the question and then talking about Mexico (our most important Latin American neighbor, and one the interviewer didn't ask a single question about in her litany of Latin America questions). It is clear to me that he knew who Zapatero was, and was trying to chose his words carefully. He was probably simply trying to avoid getting in an entangling coversation about Zapatero's relationship with Chavez, because the question was about his vision for US/Latin American ties, not European/Latin American ties. The interviewer is the one who kept asking if he would invite Zapatero to the White House for a discussion on Latin American affairs.

Friday, September 19, 2008 9:17:00 AM
Did McCain really know who Zapatero was? I'm not so sure of this. If McCain knew who Zapatero was, he could have at least acknowledged this directly by saying something like: "Yes, I know you are asking about Spain, but what's important is that we focus on our hemispheric neighbors and the importance of our region's economic and strategic ties." But he didn't do this. Politically speaking, one just doesn't ignore something one is directly asked about. It's fine for McCain to try to punt and redirect the conversation, but I don't think it is wise to do so by ignoring the fact that the question was about Spain. The impression it leaves is precisely the one that just about everyone, including me, came away with: that McCain just didn't have a grasp on the difference between Spain and Latin America.

And the argument that McCain didn't want to get into an entangling conversation about Zapatero's relationship with Chavez just doesn't hold up and, to me, even further emphasizes that McCain really didn't know who Zapatero was. Considering what one is likely to know about Zapatero and Chavez from popular media, one would expect that McCain would jump at the chance to get in just such an entangling conversation because of that now famous moment when Zapatero chided Chavez for his rude behavior at the XVII Ibero-American Summit last fall, a summit in which the King of Spain told Chavez, literally, to shut up. Now that's red meat McCain could easily chomp on and throw out to his base to make the point he seems to want to make about talking to foreign leaders. I can imagine McCain and Zapatero meeting in Washington precisely because of Zapatero's (and King Juan Carlos's) smack down of Chavez.

The fact is that, even thinking most generously about McCain's interview, the reasons why this reflects so poorly on McCain, reasons which I outlined above in my response to Eric's first comment, still hold.


Cynthia said...

"All in all, I thought that interview showed McCain to have a pretty good handle on the Latin American issues that were discussed. I'd be interested to know if Obama could name as many Latin American leaders as McCain did in that interview."

Obama absolutely does know who these leaders are. I heard him answer questions during his campaign about Chavez, Lula, and Morales. And I agree with you Jimmy, that if McCain highlights Latin America in his foreign policy platform, he should at least be able to distinguish Morales from Chavez (because there are important differences) and not just lump them into one "if you are not with us, you are against us" category.

Perhaps this type of shallow foreign policy knowledge will be acceptable to the average lay voter, but it ain't an acceptable response for me. Call me crazy, but I like my world leaders to be able to engage in intelligent, provocative dialogue about...the world.

Eric said...


First, I don't think the interviewer did fine at all. Her English was poor, and that is a big issue when you are dealing with nuance, intent, and clarifiaction. However, I'll concede the point because as I mentioned, upon subsequent listening, I think McCain understood what she was asking. I don't think he was confused at all.

Regarding the way the shift to Spain was handled, what I think happened is that she shifted to Spain before McCAin was able to make all the points he wanted to make about Latin America, so he brushed off the question in order to get in his blurb about Mexico and finishing points on the greater region, that he wants to invite Latin American leaders to the White House. Politicians do this all the time.

Here is where the confustion enters: McCain, in deviating from the question, spoke of wanting to invite Latin American leaders to the White House, and she asked him, as a follow up to that question, whether that invitation would be extended to Zapatero.

So now, she is in effect asking him whether he thinks Spain should be included in regional talks of Latin American policy. It's a strange question, but not completely illegitimate. Spain has been selling warships and airplanes to Venezuela, and those military weopons may soon be used in joint military excercises scheduled this year between Venezuala and Russia right off our coastline, in the Carribean. Venezuela is a bigger can of worms than you are letting on here, Huck. They just ejected our ambassador from their country, and recalled their ambassador from America, so diplomatic relations are quckly shutting down between us and them. There is a lot of defense related rhetoric associated with Russia in this campaign, and Venezuela and Cuba are Russia's only military gateway to the West. There is a real diplomatic issue with the fact that Spain is arming Venezuela, and the entire mess has regional implications. So it's not like her question was completely cut-and-dry.

So I think McCain was trying to determine whether he wanted to open this can of worms within the confines of this interview, and he decided to punt instead. And he punted poorly, I'll grant you that.
But a big part of the problem is that the question became very muddled.

Of course, the other option is that McCain really didn't know where Spain is located on a map, or who it's Prime Minister is.

Huck said...

"Venezuela is a bigger can of worms than you are letting on here, Huck. They just ejected our ambassador from their country, and recalled their ambassador from America, so diplomatic relations are quckly shutting down between us and them."

Eric - I think I understand quite well the can of worms Venezuela presents to the US; but this can of worms only goes so far. And I'll stick with my contention, though, that this can of worms is not all that abnormal for U.S.-Latin American relations. In fact, whether it's Venezuela or Bolivia now, the Zapatistas or Lula in Brazil in the 1990s, the Apristas in Peru of the 1980s, the FARC in Colombia, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua or the Unidad Popular in Chile of the 1970s, or the Cubans in the 1960s, the practice of strong anti-US rhetoric by leftist/nationalist leaders and movements in the region is not new. In fact, it goes as far back as Pancho Villa in the early years of the 20th Century or even as far back as Simon Bolivar and his Pan-American ideals of the early 19th Century. And it has never, with the singular exception of Cuba, prevented pragmatic and practical relations from existing between the U.S. and the countries of the region.

But more to the point relative to the facts of your own citation above, unless I have missed something over the past week or so, I think the current diplomatic kerfuffle of recalling ambassadors affects the US and Bolivia, and not the US and Venezuela. Let's remember that the U.S. implicitly supported an anti-democratic coup attempt against Chavez not long ago; but, even still, the formal relations between the U.S. and Venezuela are operational, if not somewhat tense. Yes, Venezuela does represent a nuisance to the U.S., but I think it is fairly clear that Venezuela represents nothing like the can of worms that one thinks of when considering the "Axis of Evil" enemy countries like Iran and North Korea. And for McCain to adopt this kind of hardline posture towards leftist nationalist governments in Latin America is to completely, in my view, misunderstand the fundamental nature of U.S.-Latin American relations.

Huck said...

Eric - I'll re-listen to that interview again; but it seems that you and I took away a very different interpretation of that exchange -- from the performance of the interviewer, to the shrewdness of McCain. But, I'll be fair and have another listen with as open a mind to your perspective as I can.

Eric said...


I agree that McCain's sweeping approach to foreign policy is much different than Obama's more nuanced and open-ended vision. I think there is something to be said for both views, and frankly would like to find a leader who represents the average between McCain and Obama on foreign policy(someone who wouldn't sit down with Ahmadinejad, but also wouldnt' go around singing "Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran").

Unfortunately, that politician, if they exist, isn't running for President in '08.

Eric said...

"I think the current diplomatic kerfuffle of recalling ambassadors affects the US and Bolivia, and not the US and Venezuela."

Actually, it's both of them:

"...but I think it is fairly clear that Venezuela represents nothing like the can of worms that one thinks of when considering the "Axis of Evil" enemy countries like Iran and North Korea."

It is a differnt type of beast than Iran or North Korea, but I think it is something akin to the same type of situation we had with Cuba in the 60's, with similar military and foreign policy implications, especially if Chavez keeps inviting the Russian military into the region and calls it "a warning". It is certianly a bigger concern than FARC or the Sandinistas ever were.

"And for McCain to adopt this kind of hardline posture towards leftist nationalist governments in Latin America is to completely, in my view, misunderstand the fundamental nature of U.S.-Latin American relations."

If courting Latin America means we have to play nice with people like Chavez, then I'm OK with our politicians neglecting the region!

Huck said...

Eric - Thanks for that link to Venezuela. I wasn't aware of this recent Chavez reaction. But it doesn't surprise me. I think it's all hot air from Chavez, put on for show. In a few weeks time, the embassies will be back to their normal operations, I predict.

I still think McCain's fundamental lumping of Venezuela and Bolivia in with the "Axis of Evil" narrative is reminiscent of a Cold War approach to universalizing threats or challenges to U.S. interest under a catch-all framework of good-vs.-evil. It misses the reality of contemporary U.S.-Latin American relations completely. Chavez and Morales are nationalist leaders who do not have the great power rivalry of the Cold War within which to locate their anti-U.S. rhetoric. And their actual policies are much more pragmatic for the absence of this possible Cold War type of alliance. And it is equally ludicrous to think of Venezuela and Bolivia as somehow identified with the threat of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism or nuclear power, too. McCain, if he is as knowledgable of Latin America as he claims to be, should know this.

Eric said...

Speaking of countries who are engaging in Cold War era diplomatic shenanigans:

"Russia may launch nuclear energy cooperation with Venezuela, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Thursday during talks with the country's fiercely anti-US leader Hugo Chavez."