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Is Bush Playing the Ethnic Card in His Foreign Policy?

February 18, 2001|David R. Ayon | David R. Ayon, a research associate at the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, is working on a book on ethnicity and foreign policy

As a presidential candidate, George W. Bush made a big show of his efforts to attract Latino support. As president, he made a show of the importance he places on U.S. relations with Mexico by taking his first foreign trip to Mexico last week to meet President Vicente Fox. Is Bush trying to graft Mexican Americans onto the Republican coalition and unwittingly fostering the rise of another ethnic foreign-policy lobby at the same time?

Maybe so, if, as anticipated, Bush names a Mexican American from Texas as ambassador to Mexico. In any case, some observers believe the Bush administration heralds a new era of Latino participation in national government and in U.S. relations with Latin America. But, historically, there may be less going on here than meets the eye.

There is no question that Bush sees cultivating Latino political support and emphasizing Latin American policy as two sides of the same coin. As governor of Texas, he attracted Mexican American voters in large part by being friendly with Mexico. But this is hardly a novel strategy for presidents. At least since Harry S. Truman, who rushed to recognize the new state of Israel in 1948 to boost his electoral prospects, Democrats have accepted ethnic lobbying on foreign policy as legitimate and have often used foreign policy to attract ethnic votes.

Former President Bill Clinton was especially open to this strategy. As a candidate in 1992, he went farther than President George Bush to appeal for Cuban American votes and campaign contributions when he favored tightening the Cuba trade embargo. In office, Clinton scuttled the appointment of a prominent lawyer to the State Department because he wasn't liked by the Cuba lobby, reluctantly agreed to yet another tightening of the embargo and, as a favor to presidential candidate Al Gore, killed a bipartisan review of Cuba policy that was opposed by Cuban Americans.

There are many other Clinton examples: his pro-Irish tilt, which initially irked U.S. ally Great Britain, in his pursuit of a Northern Ireland peace agreement; his retention of more Jewish Americans in policy positions relating to the Middle East than any previous administration; and his intervention in Haiti partly in response to pressure from the Congressional Black Caucus and the African American lobby TransAfrica. Some foreign-policy analysts even attributed Clinton's support for the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as primarily a bid for Polish American votes.

After his reelection, Clinton was more willing to defy ethnic foreign-policy preferences. For example, he supported the return of Elian Gonzalez to Cuba, warned against a House resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide, traveled to Vietnam and moved toward Palestinian positions in his failed, last-ditch effort to broker a Mideast peace.

Republicans, too, have helped legitimize ethnic influence in U.S. foreign policy. During the Cold War, they regularly paid lip service to the multiethnic "captive nations" lobby of Eastern and Central Europe. In the early 1980s, the Reagan administration encouraged the founding of the Cuban American lobbying organization. Also, in 1985, then-Rep. Newt Gingrich surprised President Ronald Reagan when he led a group of GOP congressmen in support of economic sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa. This was part of a strategy, however far-fetched, to attract blacks to the Republican Party.

George W. Bush made history when he appointed two African Americans, Colin L. Powell and Condoleezza Rice, to high foreign-policy posts, and both have made clear their interest in Africa. But it would be a mistake to think that Bush has similarly incorporated Latinos into his administration, or that Latinos are poised to exert unprecedented influence on foreign policymaking.

Although Latinos--with the exception of Cuban Americans--are not formally organized to pressure foreign-policy makers, they have helped shape policy toward Latin America for decades. Puerto Rican leaders played a major role in designing and implementing the Kennedy administration's Alliance for Progress launched in 1961. John F. Kennedy was also the first president to appoint a Latino ambassador: El Paso Mayor Raymond Telles. (Interestingly, the current mayor of El Paso, Carlos Ramirez, is one of two Texas Latinos Bush is considering for the Mexico ambassadorship.)

Since then, Latino ambassadors have become rather commonplace in U.S. embassies in Latin America. Jimmy Carter was the first to name a Mexican American, Julian Nava, to represent the United States in Mexico City. But it was the Clinton administration, in spite of some initial doubts, that turned out to be the most Mexico-friendly U.S. government ever--and one that, all in all, Bush will have a hard time outdoing "down Mexico way."

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