Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs Frank Mora has been in his current position for just eight months, but has nonetheless embarked on a series of initiatives that clearly show the Obama Administration’s desire to “reengage, reestablish, and recalibrate” relations in the region. Friends say DASD Mora’s approach also reflects his own previous career as an academic, most recently as professor of national security strategy at the National War College, where he taught courses on strategy, global security, and Latin American and Caribbean defense and security issues. On January 5th, Mora sat down with Martin Edwin Andersen, the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies (CHDS) chief of strategic communications and assistant professor of national security affairs, for an azimuth check on progress so far. Here is part of what Dr. Mora had to say:
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MEA: How do you think US-Latin American relations are going one year into President Obama’s Administration?
Frank Mora: I think the media tends to focus on what is going wrong and that is perhaps because a lot of the positive interactions and initiatives that are being accomplished are flying below-the-radar, sometimes with individual countries on a bilateral level. For example, the Defense Department has met in bilateral working groups with countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Peru in the last year, and we will do the same with El Salvador and Colombia in the near future. The Caribbean Basin Security Initiative that President Obama announced in Trinidad and Tobago is another example. Though you may not see much about it in the press, probably because it will only be formally rolled out later this year, there has been extensive planning and engagement among all the relevant actors to get this joint, truly multi-lateral initiative right. And that is a very encouraging development. Furthermore, the President clearly set out a different approach and a new tone, the right tone, to our relationships in the region at the Summit of the Americas. He underscored the importance of extending the hand, the importance of multilateralism, of using institutions as collective vehicles to address very complex transnational problems. This is of utmost importance because it provides the framework, sets the context, for everything we will try to accomplish vis-à-vis US relations in the Hemisphere. So notwithstanding the rhetoric of some in the region, I think that there has been a deepening of relationships based on the President’s approach and the guidelines that he’s provided since then. We have to remember relationship building takes time, it doesn’t happen overnight. I am optimistic for 2010, I expect that there will be a series of visits, initiatives, and engagement in the region that will clarify and deepen what we have already accomplished during the first year of the Obama Administration.
MEA: What are your office’s priorities, what are the things that are most important to you?
Frank Mora: One of the things that I did when I first arrived was to provide the office with my own 10 strategic priorities. I can’t go into each of them, but I can name a few. One priority is to continue expanding the quality and robustness of existing bilateral working groups, many of which I already mentioned. These working groups are crucial because they provide a great forum for furthering cooperation and are very much in line with the type of outreach we are pursuing in the Administration. Another priority is the degree to which the US and Mexican ministries of defense and militaries are working together on a whole range of issues and I feel very confident and pleased that in the eight months that we have been here we continue to make progress on that. Finally, I have been very pleased with the progress we’ve made on expanding our relations with Canada to work more closely on mutually beneficial hemispheric issues.
MEA: Any other specific examples?
Frank Mora: Sure. We just had a defense bilateral with Brazil, which, of course, is so important in the region. This is particularly significant because we have only recently established continuity to our bilateral talks. After a six-year gap, the working group reconvened in 2008 in Brasilia, this year it was held in Washington, and we have agreed to meeting again in 2010. In the 2009 talks, the US was especially committed to making clear its desire to establish direct lines of communication on technology transfers, export controls, and science and technology-related exchanges and I believe we made headway. Finally, we are in the final stages of revising and updating a new US-Western Hemisphere defense strategy, which we hope will be helpful not only for defense policy, but for the inter-agency process as well.
MEA: Where does the issue of human rights fit into your strategy?
Frank Mora: There is an important human rights element in our strategy. The Secretary of Defense’s speech in Halifax, Canada, his first speech on the Western Hemisphere under the Obama Administration, underscored human rights, and not just because it is moral and social—which it unquestionably is—but also because it is a source of legitimacy for institutions and for democracies. You can’t separate human rights from security. Colombia demonstrates that very well. It was in the Secretary’s speech, it is going to be part of the strategy, and you are going to see those links—it is something that this Administration is emphasizing in its approach to the Hemisphere and something that Assistant Secretary Paul Stockton and I are particularly passionate about.
MEA: Reports in the media in recent months have focused on tensions between Ecuador and Venezuela on one side, and Colombia on the other. How do you see those problems playing out, and is there a role for the United States and its allies in the region to play to help reduce tensions?
Frank Mora: I think the Ecuadorians and the Colombians are well on their way to building confidence, both at the government level as well as the military level. They’ve already reinstated ambassadors, there’s more cooperation on the border, and they’ve reestablished the structure in which the Colombian and Ecuadorian military share information about what is going on along the border. All of that is very positive and encouraging.
MEA: What about the other potential conflict, with Venezuela?
Frank Mora: Our suggestion to Colombia is that the same be done with Venezuela as with Ecuador, that a series of conversations, negotiations, confidence-building measures, sharing of information to deal with the issue of drug trafficking on the border, and with guerrillas that are near the border be pursued. A key question is how we avoid these issues from becoming bilateral problems? And I don’t mean only what the United States can do, but also what important multilateral institutions such as the OAS, the Inter-American Defense Board, and others can do. These bodies increase understanding and thus can play pivotal roles in trying to mitigate and attenuate the tensions between these two countries. Colombia has clearly shown it understands this, it has shown a willingness to engage bilaterally and multilaterally to resolve this problem, including requesting international mediation. I would encourage Venezuela to do the same.
Confrontational rhetoric just doesn’t help.
MEA: There also seem to be renewed calls in the region for a new US policy concerning narcotics trafficking in the Hemisphere. A book recently published in Mexico by two top aides to former President Vicente Fox suggests that the threat of narcotrafficking is overblown. What is your view?
Frank Mora: I haven’t read the book so I don’t know what the argument is, but on the surface I disagree with the argument that drug trafficking is overblown, that it is not really a threat. It is a threat. Now, you can have disagreements on how to deal with this threat, but to argue that it is overblown is overtaken, I think, by the facts on the ground in Mexico and the history we have seen in Colombia. Put simply, drug trafficking is a powerfully destabilizing force in a number of countries in the region.
MEA: In that regard, what lessons do you think might be learned from Colombia that could be particularly applicable in Mexico?
Frank Mora: That institutions matter, that commitment and political will—not just on the part of political leaders, but also of nations and societies as a whole—matters. I am always reluctant to say what we can duplicate from Colombia in Mexico because the nature of the challenges these two countries face is different in many ways. Nevertheless, a broad lesson that can be learned is that by strengthening institutions, by enhancing the legitimacy of democratic institutions—police forces, for example—by demonstrating strong political leadership like that which President Uribe and now President Calderon have shown, progress can be made. And that is the most important lesson to be drawn from Colombia, not only for Mexico, but other countries as well.
MEA: Given the non-traditional nature of the new security threats, to what extent do you think that the armed forces in the region and particularly in Central America, are prepared to deal with them, and what can or will the United States do to enhance those capabilities?
Frank Mora: I think that the militaries of the region would agree that it would be more appropriate for the police forces to take the lead in dealing with these organized transnational crime threats. The reality is that the police forces, to varying degrees, are not yet up to the task and as a result the militaries, particularly in Central America and Mexico, have been asked to fill the void. It is the institution of last resort to deal with what is essentially a law enforcement problem, but that has steadily evolved into a national security threat. So the militaries have been called upon to deal with the insecurity in the region. The hope is that while the military is involved in this effort, we—and by “we” I mean the US government, not the Department of Defense—can help in building capacities, in professionalizing the police forces in these countries. It is equally important that this capacity building be undertaken with other partners from both inside and outside the region, like the training that Colombia and Canada are separately providing in Mexico. The military’s role is not to act as a law enforcement force, but the unfortunate reality is that it has been called upon to deal with this problem on an interim basis in several countries. When asked to do a job that many of them do not want to do—which is to do law enforcement, like in El Salvador and Guatemala—they have tried to do it the best that they can. In the meantime, it is incumbent upon the international community to support Central American and Mexican police forces to ensure their future success when the military inevitably steps back from law enforcement responsibilities.
MEA: Could the militaries in the region improve in terms of their capabilities and their professionalism?
Frank Mora: Sure, one of the priorities that I laid out when I first came here is to encourage regional bilateral partnerships to address gaps—air domain gaps, maritime domain gaps—that exist in Central America. From a Defense Department perspective, our objective is to do what we can to help others address these domain gaps, where the militaries don’t have the capabilities or resources to respond to them.
MEA: As the Administration moves forward, there are indications of a greater US appreciation for the role being played by Canada …
Frank Mora: In November, the Minister of Defence and Secretary Gates met in Halifax for a one-on-one. It was, I believe, the first time that there was a meeting in which the two met for the sole, specific purpose of talking about continental and Western Hemisphere issues. So, one of the relationships that I think we have intensified is that with Canada because we are now working together not just on issues related to Afghanistan, but also steadily exploring cooperation in the Western Hemisphere. It is all rather unprecedented and very encouraging.
MEA: Some have criticized the Obama Administration for being too much a continuation of the previous administration, while others say that their fears have been realized and that the current Chief Executive is making too many changes in US policy in the region. What is your view about what is happening in terms of Defense Department efforts in the hemisphere?
Frank Mora: I reject the premise of the criticism. During his campaign and Administration, President Obama was forthcoming about his approach to policy; he wants the best, most appropriate policy prescriptions no matter where those prescriptions originate. Put simply, this President values pragmatism over partisanship. There are areas of continuity and areas of change in Latin American policy because that is what is best for our regional policy. For example, the previous Administration prioritized and invested in building partnership capacity in the region. Partnership capacity is of utmost importance and something we are going to continue to work very hard on because it’s the right thing to do. The wrong thing to do would be to move away from this policy simply because it was advocated by a different Administration.
With that said, it is simply inaccurate to state that there has not been significant change in US policy in the region. I already mentioned the President’s approach and tone at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad & Tobago, and the emphasis we are placing on human rights as we further develop our strategy. We can also talk about policy shifts in certain countries. On Cuba, he made promises during the campaign and he’s fulfilled those promises by easing restrictions on travel and remittances. Another clear change is insisting on maintaining or expanding our military-to-military relations with Ecuador and Bolivia. The President said that, we may have disagreements with countries, but as long as there are issues that we can work together to address we will extend the hand. So the State Department has taken the lead in trying to do that with Bolivia, establishing a new strategic framework for resetting our relationships with that country. Of course, the Department of Defense has a piece of that. So we want to maintain and perhaps strengthen military-to-military contacts even with countries where political disagreements may exist. As the President says, the nature of the complex, transnational threats we face require not just a multilateral effort from an institutional standpoint, but also a multinational response irrespective of our disagreements.
We are actually expanding the number of countries that are participating in bilateral working groups with us, which is consistent with the President’s focus on engagement, reaching out the hand, and doing so in a context where there are no senior and junior partners. We have also been committed to working within, and supporting, the numerous multilateral institutions like the OAS, RSS, CFAC, and UNASUR that exist in the Hemisphere because we believe these institutions are vital to the region’s security and prosperity. We are engaged, we are committed, and we are moving forward in bilateral and multilateral forums to best confront the common challenges we face as a Hemisphere.