WASHINGTON -- We know now that these new Islamic terrorists known as ISIS have rampaged across Syria and northern Iraq, threatening Baghdad and years of American work there. We know, too, that probably up to 80,000 Central Americans, many of them young children, have stumbled, strolled and boldly rode buses across the Mexican border into the United States.
Those were the big stories of the last week, eclipsing even Ukraine, which Moscow is playing with like a bear with a honeycomb. And they seemed to come upon us from out of the blue.
But you do not organize an invasion of thousands of radicals across the vast Sunni sands of northern Iraq and Syria overnight. Nor do you carry tens of thousands of children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras through Mexico and into the arms of the Border Patrol in even a week's time.
So why did we not know about these two obviously well-planned assaults (for that is what they are) on the United States? We have the largest embassy in the world in Baghdad, and we didn't have an inkling of this? We have embassies in Guatemala City, San Salvador and Tegucigalpa, and we didn't get word of this?
What happened to all of those spy satellites that were so sensitive they could locate a bread box in Mrs. Rashid's apartment near the Green Zone in Baghdad? They couldn't see thousands of men walking across the desert before they gleefully captured and boarded hundreds of American buses and tanks left behind by Iraqi soldiers who wanted to go home?
As for our border, I was the Latin American correspondent for the Chicago Daily News for several years in the 1960s, living in Peru. Speaking good Spanish and being of a curious bent, I and my fellow foreign correspondents could find out in two hours on the street about almost anything that was happening -- or was about to happen.
What has occurred here is not so much that nobody was home as that too few "anybodies" are overseas, doing the crucially important work of the full-time foreign correspondent. These are the international journalists who cover a foreign country or, better, a foreign region, daily pulling together the data and their trained observations until they have legitimate stories to file.
When I was in Peru, for instance, American foreign correspondents were assigned to Mexico, Panama, Miami, Brazil, Venezuela and elsewhere. Everyone traveled and regularly filed articles on virtually every country, most definitely including Central America. And there were always good local journalists who were, God bless them, happy to share with us stories they often could not use at home.
How often have you read something about Central America since the anti-communist wars of the 1970s and '80s? I have not seen one article in a year, although I have occasionally read some in specialized magazines on the ongoing violence there, a violence born originally when Latin boys from the area connected with American gangs.
Had we had more news -- more coverage, more reportage, more warning -- of both of these stories, the silence would not have fed the fear that seems to infect so many of our fellow citizens. We could have made better judgments, as a nation, on what to do or not do now, as well as on what we had done. But there are fewer and fewer correspondents overseas (too costly for newspapers, mostly) and one does not see that changing.
The second part of this problem of a poorly informed American nation has to do with the question of great nations taking primary responsibility for an adjacent area on the map.
If you can find any real American interest in the sectarian feuds in the deserts of Iraq, or the mountains of Afghanistan or the great Roman ruins of Syria, please let me know. To the contrary, we have binding ties to Central America, not to speak of all of Latin America. Both North and South were "discovered" -- better said, invaded -- by European explorers; both already boasted great native empires. Both have followed or tried to follow the North American system of constitutional democracy, and both believe in free trade.
Yet, particularly in recent years, a new American imperial impulse has driven it to tragic adventures far across the seas, instead of using its power and influence to better the lives of the countries closest to it. The result, not surprisingly, is that life in those countries has become so miserable that their people are now in the process of crossing our borders.
A wise new strategy for the U.S. would be to take this into serious consideration. This strategy would focus first on the countries closest to us -- just as one focuses best on one's family, and then one's community, and then one's country -- and would recognize when international benevolence can be best exercised by NOT intervening in matters that, unlike Latin America, are not our business.
If we could refocus our foreign policy this way, we could live in a better, more just world. But if we continue to lust after the "romantic" deserts of the world, we will constantly be surprised and endangered by trouble we didn't see coming.
(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)
- Central America