The Magazine

Trade Goes Both Ways

The Obama administration needs to learn the meaning of ‘partner.’

Jun 4, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 36 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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The day before Panetta spoke in Rio, the Brazilian defense minister, Celso Amorim, who is also the former foreign minister, told reporters in the capital, Brasília, that he was “sad” that the Super Tucanos, “which were certainly the best,” were not purchased by the United States.

Brazilian industry officials are a bit less diplomatic over the issue. “The current U.S. administration evidently uses the word ‘partner’ in a different context than we do in Portuguese,” said one Brazilian industry representative. “We are not some banana republic that you can curry favor with by selling us fighters like they are some shiny toys that are only to be flown on national day parades. Besides, just what is the motivation for ‘buying American’​—​having someone try and force-feed us the F/A‑18E/F after having been given an ‘up yours’ by the Pentagon on the Super Tucano sale? It’s insulting.”

Brazil’s Embraer is the third-largest aerospace firm in the world, he explained, “and they are looking for real technology transfer. U.S. government restrictions on technology transfer are far too restrictive compared with the Europeans, so with an F/A-18E/F purchase, instead of our improving our industrial base, we will receive mostly contracts to build pieces of the [Boeing] 787 Dreamliner​—​like some Happy Meal prize​—​that have no real impact on our industry.”

If the Obama administration has a less than clear comprehension of what a defense partnership with Brazil should entail, it understands even less about the implications of canceling the Super Tucano order for Afghanistan.

President Obama made a surprise May Day visit to Afghanistan​—​the anniversary of the bin Laden raid​—​to give the widest possible publicity to his plan for a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Well, good luck with that. Rebidding the contract previously awarded to the Super Tucano will mean that thousands of U.S. and NATO forces that carry out air support missions will have to stay on longer​—​at least 15 months longer​—​until the competition can be rerun, the winning aircraft can be delivered in theater, and Afghan pilots trained to fly them.

In Brazilian aerospace and defense circles this looks simply like the gringos​—​once again​—​trying to have it both ways. On balance, not the best set of decisions ever made by the people in the five-sided building, and an overall policy towards Brazil that shows an appalling lack of understanding of how much this country has changed in the last decade.

Reuben F. Johnson is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard and a correspondent for Jane’s Defence Weekly.

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