Time for Trump to stop whining and start leading on Central America

Time for Trump to stop whining and start leading on Central America
© Greg Nash

Someone needs to tell President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump faces high stakes in meeting with Erdoğan amid impeachment drama Democrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Trump threatening to fire Mulvaney: report MORE that as head of the Executive Branch of the U.S. Government he, not the Congress, is in charge of developing strategies for dealing with challenges facing the country. On June 22, he said he was suspending his threat to round up and deport millions of immigrants to allow Democrats and Republicans in Congress to develop a plan to stop the record flow of asylum-seeking families across the southern border. That may have been a face saving formulation to help Trump step back from a self-created problem, since the threatened deportation effort would have diverted resources badly needed to deal with the problems on the southern border. But it did nothing to address a very real problem.

Trump’s actions to date on the asylum/migration issue on the southern border have made things worse for all concerned — and have made the U.S. look both hard-hearted and incompetent to the world at large.

Trump has made a number of tough sounding statements that may sound good to his base, but do nothing about the problem. He separated children from their parents, a move that was cruel and inconsistent with American values. He halted American assistance programs to the Central American countries from which most of the migrants come, despite these programs’ focus on helping people remain in their countries. He also threatened the Mexican government with tariffs if it did not prevent Central American migrants from reaching the U.S. border, but ultimately settled for actions Mexico had already agreed to take, while calling into question U.S. reliability as a trade-negotiating partner.

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Trump’s performance makes it clear he needs better advice than those on the White House staff have given him. Trump should be tasking the Departments of State, Treasury, Justice, Homeland Security, and the Agency for International Development to develop an integrated, regional strategy to address the key problems driving people from their homes in Central America. Such a strategy would have the following elements:

  • Regional collaboration — the U.S. cannot solve this problem by itself or offshore it to Mexico. Instead, the U.S. needs to develop and lead a broad-based coalition to address the many facets of this complex issue. This coalition would include Central American countries, Mexico, the World Bank, the Organization of American States, regional development institutions, the U.S. and regional private sectors, and non-governmental groups. Without U.S. leadership of a broad-based effort to address the region’s problems, the situation will only deteriorate and the flow of migrants, along with regional instability, will only increase.
  • Increase U.S. assistance to the region — Rather than halting development aid, the U.S. should commit to a multi-year increase in assistance focused on key factors that will help Central Americans build successful lives at home. This will require Congressional support and legislation, but a substantial U.S. commitment will encourage others to share the burden by providing financial support to the region. Letting regional problems fester will be more expensive for the U.S. in the long run.
  • Private sector engagement — A strategy to slow and eventually stop migration from Central America will require strengthening regional economies. This will require engaging the U.S. and regional private sectors, reducing barriers to trade from and within Central America, and spurring regional innovation. Our goal should be a Central America that exports things, not people, to the U.S.
  • Strengthening the rule of law — Many migrants seek to escape gang and other forms of civil violence that stem from institutional failure to support the rule of law. Before Trump stopped U.S. aid, U.S. justice and law enforcement officials were working with regional counterparts on projects to strengthen the rule of law in Central American countries. The new strategy should expand those efforts and make them regional, not just bilateral.
  • Addressing climate change and mitigating its consequences — The Central American region and population were devastated by drought a millennia ago and current climate models suggest the same drought pattern will recur as temperatures increase in the coming decades. Climate change is already very real in Central America, producing droughts and floods that are driving thousands of Central American farmers from their fields to the U.S. border. Trump cannot address the current migration problems or avoid the potentially much larger flows of migrants in the future without acknowledging the changing climate and doing something about it — at the global, regional, and national levels.

The U.S. has successfully addressed complex, long-term challenges in the past, but it did so by offering ideas, bringing relevant actors together, and providing leadership in achieving strategic objectives, not by whining and blaming others.

It is time for Trump to stop whining and start leading. And he can start by organizing a regional summit to launch a broad-based effort to address what the issues that are causing people to flee Central America because they see no future there.

Kenneth C. Brill was a career diplomat who served as an ambassador in the Clinton and Bush Administrations and a senior intelligence official in the Obama Administration.