Friday, May 21, 2010

Ackerman on Calderón's Visit

For at least the past few years, whenever Mexico has been in the news, UNAM professor John Ackerman has ordinarily taken to American opinion pages to argue that any embrace of Calderón is misguided, and the US would do well to distance itself from the Mexican leader. The state visit gave rise to two such pieces, one in the Huffington Post and another in the Daily Beast.

Here are some highlights from the Huffington Post piece:
Wednesday's White House dinner with Mexico's president Felipe Calderón may serve as the culmination of President Obama's failed strategy of appeasement.


And Obama today is supporting Calderon as supposedly the best of bad options: better an ineffective but pro-American Mexican president than the return of the PRI, or the rise of the "populist" left.
Appeasement is a tortured way to look at the situation to begin with (Are the US and Mexico on the verge of war? Is Calderón an imperialist? An aggressive expansionist? No, No, and No.), but far more startling is the implication that Obama is Chamberlain and Calderón is a latter-day Hitler. Good Christ! An explanation of why this is a ridiculous analogy is unnecessary, suffice it to say that a little perspective is in order.

As to the second sentence, this seems to assume that Obama is responsible for Calderón, rather than either of the other two options, being in power. But, of course, he's not. Obama inherited Calderón, and he's working with him, as presidents do with their counterparts in friendly nations. Obama is indeed showing a certain degree of support, but when the PRI likely returns to power in two years, I seriously doubt that Obama is going to turn his back on Peña Nieto/Beltrones/Herrera.

And here's the conclusion of the Daily Beast piece (which is otherwise effective in arguing that Obama's done little to change the relationship with Mexico in any measurable way):

Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske's was right to say last week that the "war on drugs" begun 40 years ago by Richard Nixon "has not been successful.” But Obama never misses an opportunity to express his unconditional support for Mexico's own homegrown version of Nixon, Felipe Calderón, whose "war" has not been any more successful.

It is high time for the U.S. to build alliances beyond Calderón. The Mexican judiciary, congress, academics and organized civil society have developed numerous alternatives to the present predicament. Millions of ordinary Mexicans also struggle daily to construct a better future from the ground up. They also deserve a White House toast and a 21 gun salute.

If he's going to compare him to Hitler in one piece, we shouldn't be surprised by a connection to Nixon in another. However, the analogy is likewise strained (though of course not as ridiculous). In the context of US history, Nixon was an extraordinarily (if not uniquely) soulless leader, extraordinarily motivated by pettiness, surrounded by an extraordinarily scummy coterie of dirt bags, and endowed with an extraordinary lack of interest in human life. Just because you don't like a leader or just because he is objectively a failure doesn't make him Nixon.

Moving on, Ackerman's last paragraph reads well (only more so, I presume, if you do see Calderón as Nixonian), but I don't understand what the practical alternative to Obama working with Calderón is. Heads of state deal with heads of state. That's just the way it is. Obama can't conduct foreign policy via other countries' judges or academics. (As far as opposition politicians, I guess you could argue that Obama should sideline Calderón by dealing with the PRI and the PRD, but that doesn't seem like a recipe for a better relationship, and for the record, there were a handful of opposition pols on the trip to Washington.) The US and Mexico have millions of points of contact among these groups that Ackerman mentions (Ackerman himself a good example of that), but governments deal with their counterparts. I don't see what's to be gained in either nation by Obama marginalizing Calderón.


jd said...


(Picture Jerry Seinfeld, shaking fist, muttering "Newman!")

Speaking of failed strategies, how about letting the 2006 election completely warp your thinking? I mean, I don't think Calderon is a particularly good (or Nixon-level awful) president either, but Ackerman's rancor has led him down the rabbit hole in terms of how he sees Calderon's place in the world. The analytical quality of the HuffPo piece is just godawful, though the appeasement line is the only part that's actively funny. Does he even realize the company in which the misuse of the "appeasement" trope puts him? Let's put it this way: it ain't the Jornada stable of columnists.

I haven't read much Ackerman in Spanish in quite a while, but I remember it as generally far more reasonable, often because he's discussing more technical issues like the IFAI. Obviously, an American audience requires more simplistic explanations of Mexican issues, but the terms he uses when he writes in English almost make it seem like he aims to exploit gringo ignorance. For a politician, par for the course. But pretty weak for an academic.

pc said...

haha nice image, very fitting to the occasion.

I definitely agree that Ackerman's much better on the technical issues of Mexican law rather than he is here, though I've not read him a whole lot either in recent months. He comes across as reasonable in interviews too, a critic of Calderón sure but not one who thinks that mediocre leadership is worth comparing to Naziism. That is simply hard to get your brain around. Since it's obviously not supported by the facts, it just comes across as so personal that makes you question every other point he makes in the column. And there's no doubt that the tendency gets a lot worse when he is writing for Americans. He said in the DB piece that 60 percent of Mexicans are below the poverty line, which is, even after the crisis, significantly worse than any poverty measure I've seen (and no link, of course).

David said...

As jd says, "How about letting the 2006 election completely warp your thinking."

Ackerman has been attacking Calderon frequently. (Any thoughts on the legality of some of AMLO's actions?) Sometimes there are excellent reasons to do so, but his attempts at times seem like a stretch. Recall the whole swine flu outbreak when Ackerman was advancing the idea the president was using the illness to usher in some sort of authoritarian agenda. (Marcelo Ebrard took some drastic steps, too.) Other analysts with a good knowledge of the constitution disagreed with his assessment - as they probably would now.

pc said...

Yeah that's right he had that piece in Slate predicting doom, as though Calderón were turning into a dictator from a Garcia Marquez novel, and then, swine flu went away and most people praised Calderon and Ebrard for their effective response. And naturally there never was a follow-up piece in Slate.