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21/05/2007 | 10 Questions for Stephen Johnson, the new Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs

Martin Edwin Andersen

Stephen Johnson, the new deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs, likes to say that he never has had a job that he hasn’t learned from, and those posts included stints in El Salvador, Honduras, and Uruguay.

 

More recently he served as the senior policy analyst for Latin America at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, where he focused on a wide range of topics, including counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism policy, public diplomacy, trade and democratic institution building. His colleagues there credit him for “putting Heritage on the map” in terms of the think tank’s outreach to and analysis of Latin America and the Caribbean. Johnson also served as the director of the Central American Working Group at the State Department and chief of the Bureau of Public Affairs’ editorial division. Earlier, the former Air Force pilot and holder of a master’s degree in international relations from Georgetown University had been the assistant military attaché in Tegucigalpa, a strategic planner at the Office of Public Affairs for the Secretary of the Air Force, and a public affairs officer for the U.S. Southern Command.

Recently Johnson invited CHDS strategic communications chief Martin Edwin Andersen to talk about how he sees his job, the good and bad news from the region, and how the Department of Defense can collaborate more effectively with other U.S. government agencies in promoting better partnerships in the Western Hemisphere, particularly in the area of capacity building. Here is part of what he had to say:

Andersen: How are you finding this transition from someone who had his pulse on a lot of different areas at The Heritage Foundation to what you are doing now at DoD?

Johnson: I like it. But I’d have to say that being at a think tank gave me practical knowledge that I could not have obtained just studying countries out of a book. I already had some background. I’ve been a military attaché, worked at the State Department, and served as a reservist in SOUTHCOM. But at Heritage, I met with national leaders and talked with them about policy decisions. I saw firsthand the effect that civil society and non-governmental groups could have on politics.


Andersen: What specifically did you take away from the experience at Heritage?

Johnson: Two things, an appreciation for what’s doable. Heritage focuses on policy. I learned about various considerations that guide U.S. policy decisions. It’s more than just what one agency wants. You might ask “What should be our defense policy towards the Western Hemisphere?” An approach informed solely by security considerations would be narrow and would certainly conflict with political and economic goals. For instance, policy decisions should be tempered by an awareness of partner nations’ budgetary capacities and tax bases as well as the political environment in which partnering may or may not be feasible. So, I hope that I have an appreciation for what colleagues deal with in the Departments of State, Commerce, Energy, or in the Agency for International Development.

Other benefits were international contacts that continue to be useful, because I see many of the same leaders I once met on research trips or when they visited the Foundation in Washington.

Andersen: Colleagues of yours in the think tank community in Washington say that you were one of the first to focus on the “democracy deficit” in the region, and that was one of the strengths of your contribution to Heritage, this priority concern about the Chavezes, etc., that you were warning about early on. What was it that made you particularly attuned to what was happening, or what was going to happen?

Johnson: I watched the transition in Central America during the 1980s, when those countries moved away from military dictatorship toward civilian elected rule. I felt that elections were just the beginning of an evolution that would take time. After all, our own democracy has roots that go back to the Magna Carta. The Sandinistas made a big deal of calling their regime “democratic,” when it clearly wasn’t. Other countries were using elections as a veneer to hide old authoritarian habits. I began to look at other countries in Latin America through the same lens. And, of course, I thought it was important that they pursue follow-on reforms because democracies tend to make better neighbors as opposed to states where decisions are funneled through powerful presidents with peculiar personalities.

Andersen: Could you tell us what some of the specific phenomena that concerned you were?

Johnson: Despite elections, I observed that party leaders were choosing candidates instead of allowing any qualified citizen to run in a primary for a general election. That’s not democratic. It ties candidate loyalty to party leaders and not to constituents. In many countries legislators don’t represent districts at all. Most don’t have staffs to deal with constituents. The strong role of the president in some nations means that a large number of decisions have to pass through a bottleneck which is further distorted by the president’s biases. Sometimes such leaders are poorly informed of matters outside their palaces Which leads them to pursue their own interests as opposed to those of the majority of voters.

Andersen: In this new albeit imperfect democratic framework around the region, will the U.S. have to lead the way on defense and security issues, like it used to do, and where do you think the Department of Defense is going in its relations around the hemisphere?

Johnson: I think we’re headed in the right direction. It’s been a long slog to get over the Cold War and to deal with the horror of September 11, 2001. We’ve had to learn how to support our civilian authorities in their job of protecting the United States. And then we’ve had to come to grips with allies used to us operating in a tutorial manner, particularly those outside of NATO and not recently involved in coalition operations in the Middle East. That has led us to better understand the need for promoting partnership capacity.

Andersen: Which is?

Johnson: Well, it doesn’t mean engaging in teaching relationships like we had in the past—and I don’t meant to downplay those, they were very important when many countries in the hemisphere had provincial militaries or militias that were loyal to political figures. But since the 1970s, transformations have occurred in political structure, governments and armed forces have become more professional, societies are more modern and outwardly focused. We are now at the point that we really do have neighbors that we can partner with.

These are governments beginning to show initiative and display a willingness to establish sub-regional partnerships. They are looking to cooperate in areas such as combating drug trafficking, improving air space and maritime domain awareness and in protecting borders. And for our part, we are more aware of the need to bring development and institution building into the creation of a more secure environment for citizens to be able to live their daily lives. Colombia is a prime example.


Andersen: Nevertheless, one gets the impression from the debate in Washington on the U.S. policy toward Colombia does not really capture the progress that has been made there; a lot of stereotypes more relevant to the 1980s and 1990s are still bandied about.

Johnson: I’m afraid that most folks still see Colombia in shades of what the country used to be in the heyday of drug kingpins and rural bandits. That was Colombia in the early 1990s when the first Bush Administration pressed Colombian leaders to take on drug kingpins. The Clinton Administration abandoned that policy in the mid 1990s, but then came roaring back when it realized that traffickers had married up with terror groups such as the FARC, the ELN and the paramilitaries that all came to control 70 percent of the countryside. That was when Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey called Colombia “a flipping nightmare.”

Worry gave birth to Plan Colombia, a multilateral, comprehensive program to combat trafficking, terrorism, criminality, weak institutions, and a crippled economy. The Bush Administration inherited it, improved upon it; and strengthened mechanisms to fight terrorism. With an able president like Alvaro Uribe, Colombia has managed to push back against narcobandits, demobilizing, encouraging desertions, and moving them into isolated pockets away from most of the populated areas. The economy is rebounding. Colombians can move securely about their country again. Yet, all of a sudden, our Congress has gotten a case of Colombia-fatigue.


A few appear not to want it to succeed because they oppose the Administration. Others misinterpret Colombian prosecutions against politicians for having ties to paramilitaries as a bad thing when it’s, in fact, a logical outgrowth of Colombian justice reforms. Sure, there are still problems. But the good news is that Colombia is dealing with them. Now is not the time to quit on Colombia.

Andersen: What are the things that are personally important to you that you want to accomplish in your time here?

Johnson: We must continue to develop partnership capacity. Even though there are countries that are hostile to us—namely Venezuela and Cuba—the rest of the hemisphere is friendly. Not only do we have allies, we now have more capable allies, and ones that are showing some initiative, such as Central American states that cooperate on disaster relief, or Chile and Argentina that are establishing a bi-national standby peacekeeping force.

Who would have figured that Colombia would be training counter-narcotics police in Afghanistan? Who would have predicted that El Salvador would be contributing to the coalition forces in Iraq? Who would have pictured Mexico sending troops across the Rio Grande for Hurricane Katrina relief? Who would have guessed that Chile and Peru would cooperate on sub-regional defense matters?

I would say things are looking pretty good for us in the hemisphere. But to take advantage of these developments, we must be better prepared to engage our partners. Right now funds for security assistance are slim and what programs we can offer are limited by complicated sanctions. That leaves a vacuum for powers like China and Russia to fill. And since 9-11 when we’ve tried to remove barriers between agencies that prevented us from supporting each other, the pendulum has swung the other way. Now there is lots of overlapping authority. That creates confusion. We have to do a better job of coordinating to keep our folks from working at cross-purposes with each other. And we’ve got to do a better job of communicating with partner nations; listening carefully to they have to say, in order to plug our interests into theirs.

Andersen: Where were you September 11, 2001?

Johnson: I was in my office at The Heritage Foundation and someone ran into the foreign policy area and said, “an airplane just flew into a building in New York.” Shortly thereafter somebody yelled, “There’s smoke coming from the Pentagon,” and we rushed to the window to see a black pall rising from the Pentagon. It was an image I’ll never forget.

Andersen: Did you have inkling just how radically politics and American notions of security would change as a result of those events?

Johnson: I was worried. I was concerned what would happen to my family, where my kids were going to go from school, and how my wife, who was in town, would get home.

And of course I felt awful about lives lost in New York and Washington and wondered whether more attacks were coming. Yet, having flown over this country as a pilot in the Air Force, having lived in many states, and having experienced life overseas, I knew this was a great nation, a resilient people, a country blessed with enormous intellectual capacity, creativity, one guided by laws, and one that would never be defeated by minds acting on hate.

Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies (Estados Unidos)

 



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