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Obama loses. Does Dilma win?

Por Vincent Bevins
17/09/13 18:31

It’s easy to see why the Brazilian government likely sees this as a “Obama 0 – 1 Dilma” situation

It’s clear that Obama had nothing to gain from being stood up by Brazil’s President Dilma. He has been given another little kick for being caught spying. At best, he continues to be embarrassed that one of the many security professionals in the US has absconded with secrets and is airing Uncle Sam’s dirty laundry around the world. At worst, he has just been a little humiliated by a more assertive Brazil, during what is already arguably the foreign policy low point of his presidency, due to Syria and Snowden.

But does Dilma come out ahead here? The benefits of cancelling seem to have outweighed the risks of showing up. 

Sure, she would have been on TV in the US on October 23 had she not cancelled (oops, I mean, “postponed”) the visit. But other than the symbolism of the dinner, what was likely to be accomplished there? In both countries, spying allegations were likely to dominate the coverage of the events. And what if the two presidents came to an agreement now, only to wake up to a new spying story leaked on October 22?

On the other hand, there are real some political points to be scored for Dilma.  In diplomacy, just like in personal relationships, there are usually advantages to be had when you catch the other party doing something wrong. This is especially true for Latin Americans taking on Washington. As Fabio Zanini put it on Folha.com: “No one has ever heard of a Latin American leader that loses political points by snubbing the Yankees.” This is especially true when the Yankees quite demonstrably made a mistake, at least by public standards.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that Dilma already knew, or supposed, that the US had been spying in all three ways reported by Glenn Greenwald for Globo – on citizens, on her, and on Petrobras. But the calculus changes when things become public. The calculus changes when Snowden is on Globo on Sunday night. Electoral politics enter into the mix.

As it turns out, few of us civilians know much about how the sexy world of government intrigue and international spying really work, but one assumes that everyone knows everyone else is trying to get as much information as possible. And everyone knows that the US is probably the best at this kind of thing. But, if you get caught, you still have to pay a price.

So Brazil had two very decent options – either try to extract a pound of flesh from the White House, or get to righteously stand up to stand up to Obama. We don’t know what happened during the Obama-Dilma phone call late last night, but Brazil ended up taking the latter route. More than a few on Brazilian Twitter exploded with glee at their president taking on the world’s most powerful man. I can’t imagine this wasn’t expected. This may shore up the base in a tough moment for Dilma. And there’s still the chance that – if there is any truth to talk the meeting was only delayed – Brazil can save face and still get something out of all of this in the future.

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