Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Letters to the Editor: Reviewer and Editors of Summer [i]AQ[/i] Book Review Square Off

In the Summer 2009 issue, AQ published a review by Dan Fisk of The Obama Administration and the Americas: Agenda for Change. Following its publication, the book’s editors responded to Dan Fisk’s review, who then submitted a rebuttal in response to their letter. A preview of the original book review is available online and both Letters to the Editors can be found on this page.

Editors of The Obama Administration and the Americas: Agenda for Change respond to Dan Fisk’s review. Published August 10, 2009.

Dan Fisk responds to the August 10 Letter to the Editor submitted by Abraham F. Lowenthal, Theodore J. Piccone and Laurence Whitehead. Published August 17, 2009.


Editors of The Obama Administration and the Americas: Agenda for Change respond to Dan Fisk’s review.

Published August 10, 2009.

We appreciate that Americas Quarterly commissioned one of the first reviews of our co-edited volume on The Obama Administration and the Americas: Agenda for Change, published by the Brookings Institution three weeks before the Fifth Summit of the Americas.

The review written by Daniel Fisk—a long-time senior official of the George W. Bush administration, with previous service as staff assistant to Senator Jesse Helms and as an official of the Heritage Foundation—is disappointing in content and tone, however. Rather than fairly represent and assess the arguments advanced by our fourteen authors from Latin America, Europe and the United States, Dr. Fisk distorts the volume’s message in an attempt to defend the widely-discredited U.S. policies toward Latin America of the early George W. Bush administration, policies he helped to frame and implement.

We readily acknowledge that some of our book’s arguments may “fall short” (as Fisk repeatedly asserts), and agree that a complete treatment, difficult to achieve in a manageably sized volume, might have included more extended discussion of Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala and Nicaragua as well as deeper analysis of the strengths and limits of the Organization of American States.

As longstanding advocates of U.S. and international efforts to effectively promote democratic governance, we cannot accept, however, Dr. Fisk’s assertion that we and other authors in the volume “hold the United States to be primarily responsible for democracy being on the defensive in Latin America,” a statement that directly contradicts the analysis our book presents. Nor can we accept as fair Dr. Fisk’s assertion that our “recommendations… suggest a willingness to minimize, if not discard, support for democracy in exchange for pragmatic interaction on issues like migration, energy and drug-trafficking.”

These and similar arguments by Dr. Fisk reflect a mindset that we do want to change: one that presumes that U.S. unilateral and punitive measures on democracy and human rights, are a useful way to promote democratic governance and the consistent application of the rule of law, and to protect fundamental human rights, in Cuba or anywhere else. The arguments our volume advances in this regard reflect many of the lessons learned from the largely unsuccessful and in some cases counterproductive policies that Dr. Fisk and his associates have counseled for decades.

Far from arguing that the United States should “acquiesce in the demise” of Latin American democracy, as Fisk charges, our volume provides a clear guide to how the new Obama administration could help strengthen democratic currents in the Americas: by rigorously disaggregating the region and understanding its diverse dynamics; favoring respectful inter-American cooperation with key countries and subregions on shared problems and opportunities; concentrating on strengthening cooperation with Mexico and with Central America and the Caribbean and building a strategic alliance with Brazil; employing multilateral approaches wherever practical and supporting regional institutions; taking responsibility for the domestic U.S. sources of some important regional difficulties; eschewing overblown rhetoric and concentrating on concrete programs; building domestic coalitions to support expanded trade and sustainable immigration reform; supporting local efforts to strengthen democratic governance with patient, nuanced and mainly multilateral approaches; and moving carefully to build a mutually respectful relationship with Cuba, looking toward eventual rapprochement without abandoning or diluting U.S. concerns about human rights, including the rights of political expression and representation.

It is regrettable that Dr. Fisk did not understand our points or else chose to ignore them. But we are encouraged that the people we hoped to reach, the new officials making policy in the Obama administration, are moving forward in the directions and modes that we recommended.


Abraham F. Lowenthal
Theodore J. Piccone
Laurence Whitehead


Dan Fisk responds to the August 10 Letter to the Editor submitted by Abraham F. Lowenthal, Theodore J. Piccone and Laurence Whitehead.

Published August 17, 2009.

Events in Honduras reinforce the fact that democratic institutions throughout Latin America remain fragile. But even before this, the signs of this fragility were clearly evident, which is why I noted early in my review of The Obama Administration and the Americas, that the volume was “correct to focus on the state of democratic governance in Latin America.”

Another dynamic that Honduras has put into stark relief is the ineffectiveness of multilateralism in dealing with the assault on democracy. Despite this, I again agree with the editors that multilateral instruments or multilateral coalitions, as well as dialogue and the building of strategic alliances, among other initiatives, should be on the policy menu. Based on 20-plus years as a policymaker, including service with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Departments of State and Defense and the National Security Council, I understand the need to have as many options as possible to address a given situation. Having decided on such a course, however, there still needs to be a strategy as to how to deploy an option as well as a sense of how to measure the achievement of objectives.

My critique went to the fundamental and critical questions of how to deploy and apply policy instruments and, equally valid, what happens when an option is spurned or fails. Regardless of the editors’ intentions or views on the policies of the George W. Bush administration, the various contributors owed the reader more than was offered. Again, the case of Honduras is instructive. The Obama Administration early recognized that its embrace of the Organization of American States’ (OAS) multilateralism would not achieve its desired objective. To its credit, the Administration worked to initiate an alternative mechanism, focused on the good offices of Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, to defuse and seek a resolution to the crisis. The Arias initiative is the consequence of a failure of multilateralism.

The current Honduran crisis also highlights the hollowness, if not the hypocrisy, of the Organization of American States. This is exactly the time when a coherent and effective regional institution is most needed. Unfortunately, the OAS and its Secretary General are incapable of offering a neutral institution to help a member country deal with a constitutional crisis. The silence of the OAS during the dismantling of democratic institutions in Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua, as well as its silence in the wake of Manuel Zelaya’s own unconstitutional actions, surely has not helped the OAS’s credibility.

As I noted in my review, what can be done to address the sorry state of the OAS was one issue that merited more attention than it received. The editors plead the limitations of space, yet the volume devotes two chapters each to Cuba, Colombia and Haiti. While Haiti deserves the extra attention, with the contribution of Juan Gabriel Valdés offering an especially useful perspective, Cuba and Colombia are well-trod ground.

Finally, appreciating that the intention of the volume is to bolster support for democratic governance, it remains surprising to read that pragmatic interaction with authoritarians is at the heart of the recommendations for policies toward Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia. I recognize the limitations of current policies toward those countries, but it is still an intriguing situation when those who are such strong advocates for democracy apparently are willing to compromise those principles by pursuing an agenda that converges with the very governments that are centralizing power and dismantling democratic institutions.


Dan Fisk

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