Friday, December 02, 2005

Foreign policy amnesia

Why does the U.S. never learn from its foreign policy mistakes? I can't find a good answer. But to my horror they just keep coming. As if the Irak debacle weren't enough, the idea of treating Mexicans as the Israelis treat the Palestinians is gaining ground.

Let's start with President Bush's big speech this week, in which he laid out (again) his plan to deal with the large flow of illegal immigrants to the U.S.

The President's proposal --a hybrid guest-worker programme that includes the possibility of obtaining citizenship, but also contemplates measures to crack down on illegal immigration---sounds fairly sensible. Nonetheless, it is, as expected, very flawed and it faces substantial opposition from his own party. As a result, it's fairly likely that something far worse than the President's proposal will be enacted.

Why is it flawed? Simple. It assumes that the U.S. can --by itself--fully regulate the flow of immigrants.

Bush's plan aims to admit "enough" workers to satisfy the needs of its farmers and firms while keeping out all others who wish to come by cracking down on the employment of illegals and stepping up security on the Mexico-U.S. border.

Let's start with Economics 101. There is a huge, huge number of people willing to come and work in the U.S. There is no way the U.S. will allow all of them to come, even if there are enough jobs available. In other workds, supply will always exceed (artificially regulated) demand. Hence, the proposal's mechanisms to limit supply.

Will they work? Not likely. As the President himself admits, the greatly increased spending on border security has not made a dent on the flow of immigrants. There is no reason to believe that further spending, short of building a 2,000 mile Israeli-style wall on the border and massive deportations.

Such a wall would, undoubtedly, reduce the flow (but not stop it, by far). But just think for a second about the symbolism (let alone the expense). It would mean that the U.S. is turning its back --literally--on Mexico and the rest of Latin America. (Am I exaggerating? Just read what the people who want to build such a wall say).

Let that sink in. In a world where the U.S. has few friends, it will work to alienate (even more) a region to which it already has significant cultural, economic and ethnic ties.

Is there a better way? Yes. Actually, a very simple way: be more generous. The U.S. provides its "friends" in the Middle East (Egypt, Israel, Jordan) more foreign aid in one day than it has ever given to Mexico. Why not propose a bold development partnership to Mexico and Central America? Sure, it would cost money, but probably no more than the cost of fences and the like. It would engender goodwill and reduce immmigration in the long-run. And it would give the U.S. a lever to push for reforms in Mexico.

A guest-worker programme should be established, but it will only be a net positive if it is realistic (for example, it actually deals with issues such as the workers' families). And, yes, the U.S. whould have more control in areas such as employment.

Sadly, there is little or no chance of something like this happening. Bush never even mentioned talking to Mexico in his speech and the fence-builders don't give a damn about anything south of the border. The only hope I have is that the American people at least seem to recoil at some of the nastier policy options in this area.