SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — As President Barack Obama adjusted his microphone before my interview with him last week, I told him what we journalists accompanying him on his first tour through Latin America were thinking: how difficult it must be to launch a military operation a world away. The difficulties greatly increase when the commander-in-chief must make decisions about bombing Moammar Gadhafi’s military installations while traveling in Brazil, Chile and El Salvador.
I started my interview by asking the president about the U.S.-led attacks on Libya — essentially, his first war.
He immediately corrected me.
“Unfortunately, this is not my first war,” Obama said. “I inherited two.”
I asked about the military objective in Libya. In addition to protecting civilians and promoting democracy, was getting rid of Gadhafi also a goal of the allied military intervention?
“This is a very specific military action that’s time-limited, that is in support of an international effort to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Libya,” he said, “and to establish a no-fly zone so Gadhafi cannot use his armed forces against his own people.”
What happens, I asked, if despite attacks from the allied coalition, Gadhafi remains in power?
“A land invasion is out of the question, absolutely,” Obama said. “Now, as I’ve said before, we believe it’s in the world’s interest and, even more importantly, the Libyan people’s interest, that Gadhafi steps down — and there are a range of tools to accomplish that.”
I asked him about past U.S. challenges to dictators– namely Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Panama’s Manuel Noriega — and pointed out that the U.S. maintains excellent diplomatic relations with other authoritarian regimes, like those in China and Saudi Arabia. Why this double standard in foreign policy?
“I don’t think there is a double standard,” the president told me. “This (Libya) is a unique situation … We deal with countries all the time who don’t have the same kind of government that we would like, and we will use diplomatic tools — and we will express the universal values that we believe in.”
We jumped to the topic of U.S. relations with Latin America. I asked about the controversy that has broken out in Mexico over “Operation Fast and Furious,” in which agents of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives reportedly allowed hundreds of illegal firearms to pass into Mexico in order to later track the weapons to Mexican drug lords.
Did Obama authorize the operation? Was Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon notified?
“First of all, I did not authorize it. Eric Holder, the attorney general, did not authorize it,” he replied. “So what (Holder has) done is he’s assigned an I.G. — inspector general — to investigate what exactly happened.”
Was Obama not even informed about the operation?
“Absolutely not. This is a pretty big government; it’s got a lot of moving parts.”
“Calderon was not informed, then?” I asked.
“Well, if I wasn’t informed, I assure you that Mexico wasn’t, either.”
We also spoke about his five-day visit to Latin America. Throughout his travels, he spoke of improving cooperation in the fight against the drug trade, fostering better trade relations and reforming immigration.
Obama met with three presidents — Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, Chile’s Sebastian Pinera and El Salvador’s Mauricio Funes — who, regardless of their political leanings, are pragmatic leaders who have helped consolidate democracy in their respective countries.
“Ideology is no longer important,” Obama told me. “People just want to find out what works. They’re less interested in ideology — `Is this right or left?’ They want to know: `Are our kids getting educated? Are businesses developing? Are standards of living improving? Are people more secure and more safe?’ I think it is an enormous opportunity for both the United States and Latin America to think in those practical terms to help the people.”
Given Japan’s nuclear crisis and the outbreak of yet another military conflict, some people had assumed that Obama would cancel or postpone his trip to Latin America. But he persevered. And after following the president throughout his tour, it became apparent to me that Obama is indeed bettering the U.S. image in the region.
This is, no doubt, a brand new day — for both the U.S. and the world.
By Jorge Ramos Avalos
© 2010 Jorge Ramos
(February 28, 2011)