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The Andes arms race

The Berlin Wall fell twenty years ago, and the Cold War itself ended soon after, but if you're feeling nostalgic, tune into the Cold War of the Andes: somewhat more farcical and definitely less likely to end in nuclear annihilation, but riveting nonetheless.

With Venezuelan troops lining up on the Colombian border, Peruvian officials' urging fellow South American countries to reduce military spending arms purchasing, in addition to creating a regional security force, is making a lot more sense. Peruvian officials indicated that Brazilian President Lula was receptive to the proposal in a recent meeting, and will be meeting with Colombian and Paraguayan presidents in the next week.

Although the campaign should be seen in light of Peruvian suspicion of neighboring Chile, military spending in many South American countries has increased in recent years. Some estimates place 2008 spending at $60 billion, which would be well over double the amounts spent in 2003. According to American calculations, Brazil, Venezuela, Chile and Colombia account for 80 percent of arms purchases. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also urged caution in purchases, warning against entering a race.

Of course, experts have pointed out in past years that the main concern is probably not war between countries, no matter what Venezuela says, but rather resource related violence. Even Nobel Peace Prize laureate Oscar Arias of Costa Rica warned against buying more arms, while noting that the region has never been so peaceful.

YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images

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Gingrich's overblown Berlin Wall argument

On first glance, New Gingrich's editorial describing Obama's decision not to attend the anniversary of the Berlin Wall a "tragedy" (more here) seems like simple concern-trolling:

The message of human dignity that led to the toppling of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago is a true message of hope rooted in the spiritual nature of man and the freedom to know God.

And so it is a true shame that the president of the United States — this man who cloaks himself in the rhetoric of hope — won’t be pausing to remember.

But this argument actually makes a lot of sense within Gingrich's view of Cold War history, which overwhelmingly emphasizes grand gestures and statements. At a talk I went to at the American Enterprise Institue last year, Gingrich made the case that Ronald Reagan's speeches calling the Soviet Union an "evil empire" and announcing the creation of Strategic Missile Defense, turned the tide in the Cold War. (Christian Caryl does a nice job on the mythology of Reagan's "tear down this wall" speech here.)

In this weekend's editorial, it is Pope John Paul II who gets credit: 

The crack in the wall that would become a torrent that day was made 10 years earlier during Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to his native Poland.[...] As he spoke, one by one, he punctured the lies of communism. During his first Mass in Poland, 1 million people who lived under a regime that said there was no God affirmed in spontaneous song, “We want God!”

Just 14 months after the pope left Poland, widespread strikes forced the official recognition of the trade union Solidarity. And from there, the dominos began to fall.

In Gingrich's worldview, evil empires are destroyed by uncompromising stands of moral fortitude and powerful rhetoric from world leaders. But as Caryl writes, Western leaders deserve a lot less credit than "the crowds on the streets in Berlin, Prague, and Bucharest that fused inchoate anger at the regimes into an immediate and urgent challenge to the apparatchiks' power and legitimacy."

It's certainly fair to critique the adminsitration's commitment to promoting democracy, buthe Wall didn't fall because Reagan or the Pope said it should, and Obama's decision to send Hillary Clinton instead of going himself is quite a bit less important than Gingrich seems to think it is. 

And it's not as if Obama didn't have anything else to do today.