Keeping an Eye on the Americas

Someone has to make sure the president doesn't forget about this side of the world. That someone is Russell Crandall

Before moving to Alexandria, Virginia, in June, Russell Crandall taught political science at Davidson. He also served as block captain for his Elizabeth neighborhood association. He also happens to be an expert, maybe the expert, on Colombia and Latin America in general. The latter will come in handy in his new gig as principal director for western hemisphere affairs for the Department of Defense. His job is to help make sure Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has the best possible advice on current security situations and long-term strategy in this part of the world.

"One morning I'm thinking about the northern border with Canada, then it's something down with Brazil or Chile, and then Central America or the Caribbean," he says, describing a typical frenetic day.

He says his job is in some ways similar to his Davidson job -- the collegiality, the tossing around of ideas -- but in other ways "completely antithetical" -- the pace. His days start at 6 a.m. and end around 8 p.m.

Crandall, thirty-seven, had a similar job for a year during the Bush administration, only it was a fellowship (meaning he was not a political appointee) and he worked in the White House for the National Security Council. Before that he was a counterterrorism adviser for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He's been involved with President Obama since the early days of the campaign as a key foreign policy adviser. When the campaign came through North and South Carolina, he even helped out canvassing neighborhoods.

"[Obama] was a candidate who was inherently pragmatic and one who encouraged debate," Crandall says, citing traits that appealed to him. He says that spirit has carried over to the administration. "We work through issues, look at both sides, try to make them become three-dimensional until you really feel that you've got an understanding of them. And then we've got to decide and move on."

Among the most pressing issues Crandall has to deal with are the drug wars in Mexico. But he also has to work to make sure the top brass don't forget about the Americas. "Compared to the dark days in the 1960s and '70s of military dictatorships and revolutions in Central America, it's easier to take Latin America for granted," he says. "Yet this is our hemisphere. And we have to maintain economic relationships and military relationships. There's a lot of need to not take your eye off the Americas just because we've got these other flashpoints."

Crandall, who is married and has twin three-year-olds and a newborn, all sons, says his is an indefinite appointment. "But not forever," he says. "At some point we'll go back to the staid life of a college professor at Davidson." In eight years at Davidson, the gregarious Crandall won two major teaching awards. And you can bet his class will be pretty popular again upon his return.

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