“It is my strong belief that if we engage, that that offers the greatest prospect for escaping some of the constraints of the past. I think the Cuban people are extraordinary and have huge potential. And what’s encouraging is, is that the overwhelming majority of Cubans are interested in ending … the last vestige of the Cold War—and moving forward.” –President Barack Obama, speaking on April 9 in Kingston, Jamaica
If there is such a thing as a Barack Obama worldview—a statement of purpose that encapsulates what drives his foreign policy—it is certainly reflected in this declaration given at a “town-hall” meeting in the Jamaican capital on his way to meet with Cuba’s dictator Raul Castro. The historic meeting—and that oft-used, though morally neutral, cliché can indeed be employed here—took place in Panama on April 11 at the Summit of the Americas.
There, President Obama and the dictator he deferentially refers to as “president” sat and talked for about an hour. As Obama repeated a version of the apologies he nearly always offers while meeting with foreign despots abroad—the Panama City version being “I’m certainly mindful that there are dark chapters in our history”—Cuban government henchmen were beating up Cuban dissidents and their American supporters, calling them “worms” and “mercenaries,” thereby exporting to Panama the level of oppression they have practiced with impunity on the island for decades.
Then two days after the President’s return, on Tuesday April 14, the White House announced what everyone expected: President Obama will take Cuba off the list of state sponsors of terrorism. This was one of Castro’s preconditions to setting up diplomatic relations. Castro’s assuming that he can set preconditions on the world’s sole superpower has been proven valid by the fact that we meet them.
This, despite the fact that, speaking at the summit, Castro openly acknowledged that his regime has indeed consorted with terrorists and issued a veiled threat that this would continue until his tyranny is legitimized. “Yes, we have conducted solidarity with other peoples that could be considered terrorism,” our new man in Havana said. “When we were cornered, when we were harassed, we had no other choice but to give up or to fight back.”
As former State Department official Jose Cardenas put it in a tweet, the Panama summit has shaped up to be “the Castro Lobby’s Superbowl, World Cup and World Series all rolled into one.”
The administration’s foreign policies have dramatically destabilized the Middle East. Now Obama is bringing those failed policies to this hemisphere. Suddenly, we are getting in bed with our worst adversaries—both philosophical and actual—while taking to task long-term friends who share our values.
To call it a doctrine would be to take it too far, as it would imply a level of rigorousness that clearly is missing. It is more a frame of mind, or if you want to borrow a foreign word, a weltanschauung. Let’s parse the three components of this creed one by one.
#1: “It is my strong belief that if we engage, that that offers the greatest prospect for escaping some of the constraints of the past.”
This does require belief—as in “a leap of faith”—since previous experience would certainly convince an objective observer of the opposite. If the 19th-century British statesman Lord Palmerston was right that states do not have friends, but only interests, then it follows that no amount of currying friendship would sway governments from the cold pursuit of their interests.
This is doubly the case with absolutists, such as Castro, for whom relaxing his grip on the captive population he and his brother have dictated to for 57 years would pose an existential threat. The Obama gambit requires believing, for example, that “engaging” Philip II at his cloistered study at the Escorial palace would have made him less likely to suppress the Dutch, intervene against the Huguenots, attempt to invade England or inflict the Inquisition on his own people. It is highly unlikely, too, that appeasing Napoleon would have turned him away from his dream of dominating Europe and beyond.
The 20th century was in many ways a tragedy whose central moral lesson was that appeasement is unrequited love played out on an epic scale. The most famous examples, of course, were the concessions made to Hitler, which only fed his lust for more and more lebensraum. But there was also Stalin, whose friendly terms with Franklin Roosevelt didn’t certainly prevent him from drawing an Iron Curtain across the middle of Europe. No amount of engagement with “Uncle Joe” prevented him from having his way with peoples between the curtain all the way to the Pacific, where millions perished and those who survived lived in fear.
Much closer to the present, Obama’s own experience in a short six years is a testament to the inefficacy of conciliating dictators. His infamous “reset” policy with Vladimir Putin has not dissuaded the Russian autocrat from destabilizing his neighbors. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s de-emphasizing of human rights with China has only emboldened the Communist Party leaders in Beijing. In Burma—that other success of engagement with despots—those close to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi tell me she privately complains that recognition of Rangoon’s military junta has been a grave mistake that is preventing, not encouraging, a transition to democracy.
And so it is already with the Castro regime, whose appeasement dates back only to December 17. In the three months since Obama informed the world that he knew better than 10 of his predecessors how to bring freedom to Cuba, the Castros have only tightened their fist further. The Wall Street Journal reports that there were 178 political detentions in January, 492 in February and 610 in March. (At that level of compounded growth, the entire population of the island would be detained in a few years, though of course wags would point out they already are.) The beating of dissidents in the streets of Panama City while President Obama met with their tormentor in air-conditioned rooms at the Summit of the Americas offers further proof that Castro and his affiliates are not in the least bit interested in “escaping the constraints of their past”—other than to be able to consort with naïve or morally challenged American politicians and businessmen.
As for foreign relations, Cuba’s communists have been caught in illicit weapons transfers with Asian communists twice in the past two years—the last one being after the Dec. 17 speech by Obama that announced his desire to normalize relations with Cuba. On Feb. 28, Colombian authorities intercepted the Chinese-flagged Da Dan Xia in the Caribbean port of Cartagena. It was carrying 100 tons of gunpowder, 2.6 million detonators, 3,000 artillery shells and 99 missile heads—all labeled as “grain shipment.” The affair has been kept hushed up both by the Colombian government, which is busily attempting its own appeasement of the FARC terrorist group (the talks are taking place in Havana), and by the Obama administration, which seems determined to let no display of obduracy by Castro sway the United States from the path set by Obama.
The other illicit transfer took place less than two years ago, and it violated a U.N. resolution. In July, 2013, the North Korean-flagged Chong Chon Gang was captured in Panamanian waters on its way to North Korea from Cuba. It was carrying “six trailers associated with surface-to-air missile systems and 25 shipping containers loaded with two disassembled MiG-21 aircraft, 15 engines for MiG-21 aircraft, components for surface-to-air missile systems, ammunition and miscellaneous arms-related materiel,” according to the website Capitol Hill Cubans, which added that it “constituted the largest amount of arms and related materiel interdicted to or from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea since the adoption of resolution 1718.” This aborted transfer of weapons took place after the Obama administration had initiated secret talks with Castro’s agents.
Last month, the Spanish newspaper El Mundo reported that in February, the Spanish government demanded that Castro extradite José Ángel Urtiaga Martínez and José Ignacio Etxarte Urbieta, two masterminds of the Basque terrorist group ETA, classified by the State Department as a terrorist organization. Castro has given the Mother Country the back of his hand, proving once again that his regime’s “solidarity with other people that could be considered terrorism” really has little to do with a rat being cornered.
#2: “I think the Cuban people are extraordinary and have huge potential.”
This is doubtless the case. People inventive enough to keep 1940s and ‘50s Fords and Chevys running today are indeed extraordinary and resourceful. As for their potential, Obama need look no further than how Americans of Cuban heritage have been able to transform Miami or how they have succeeded across all fifty states. Given the proper economic environment, rule of law and political culture, Cubans in America have demonstrated an uncanny ability to succeed.
But if Obama has any illusion that he is dealing with the Cuban people, he may need to be reminded that in this case, as in Iran, he is facing an illegitimate government ruling without the consent of the people, as expressed through elections. In Raul Castro, as with the Ayatollahs Rohani and Khamenei, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are shaking hands with leaders of harsh police states who are only in power because a slavish, but ruthless, minority around them has a monopoly on guns, which they use to terrorize the population into submission.
President Obama has, in fact, demonstrated little regard for the Cuban or the Iranian people. His first big foreign policy decision, one that presaged his conduct in office for the following five years, was his steadfast refusal to give any comfort, moral or otherwise, to Iranian demonstrators who flooded the streets of Tehran in 2009 demanding democracy. It isn’t hard to divine the reasons for his allergy to intervention: again, he sees “dark chapters in our history” that embarrass him.
In the case of Iran, Obama is the first U.S. president to implicate the United States in the 1953 overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh, the elected prime minister of Iran, which occurred because of fears of growing Soviet influence. At his Cairo speech in June 2009, Obama said, “For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is in fact a tumultuous history between us. In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.”
In the case of Cuba, President Obama and his team have again turned their backs on Cuba’s dissidents. These brave individuals, who routinely face government mobs that come to their homes to insult and aggress them and their families, have said that Obama has “betrayed” them and Cuba by going over their heads and establishing relations with Raul Castro.
Breaking with long-standing U.S. policy on Cuba, Obama said in Panama City on Saturday that “[w]e are not in the business of regime change,” which is clearly his sentiment on Iran as well. He should be reminded, however, that in both countries, he is following the lamentable approach of another liberal predecessor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who said of the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, “[He] may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch,” with nefarious consequences.
#3: “And what’s encouraging is, is that the overwhelming majority of Cubans are interested in ending … the last vestige of the Cold War—and moving forward.”
The first part of this sentence has more to do with the component of his speech we have just reviewed: Obama clearly confuses a ruthless government with the people they actually oppress. He may also be referring to a poll released last week by the Miami-based Bendixen and Associates, which purported to show that an overwhelming majority of people on the island supported his rapprochement with Cuba. Media coverage of this poll has largely omitted two key points: one, there are no free opinions polls in Cuba, where people fear giving their opinion on anything that differs from the official government line; two, Bendixen is closely tied to the administration—it was Obama’s official pollster in the 2012 campaign.
The interesting part, however, is the second part of the sentence: “ending the last vestige of the Cold War—and moving forward.” There are two things to be said about this. The suffering of Cubans is not some historical event that ended with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 or the disappearance of the Soviet Union in 1991. Cubans are repressed by their own government today. If Obama wants to be convinced of this, he need only search “Cuba” and “Ladies in White” in YouTube to see how this dignified dissident group of middle-aged women are harassed, beaten and incarcerated in Cuba on a regular basis. Or better yet, he could have taken a stroll outside his hotel in Panama City to see first hand how those associated with Cuba’s government behave, even when they are overseas.
Worse is his morally neutral treatment of the “Cold War,” a sentiment he repeated in his closing news conference in Panama City. There he said, “Sometimes those controversies date back to before I was born. We’re caught in a time warp, going back to the 1950s and gunboat diplomacy, and ‘Yanquis’ and the Cold War, and this and that and the other.”
Obama is awfully selective about which historical events matter and which do not.
America’s “dark chapters” in Latin America and the overthrowing of Mossadegh do, and they have consequence today. The “Cold War” apparently does not. For the record, the period he refers to was in effect a battle between democracy and totalitarianism, capitalism and communism—or good and evil, if you want to get right down to it. The country he leads won that struggle, after much sacrifice in blood and treasure—a signal achievement for humankind.
President Obama is clearly conflicted by the history of his own country, misreads the balance of power in dictatorships and the historical record of engaging despots who have an existential stake in continuing to be despots. This does not bode well for his “engagement” of regimes that, for decades, previous American presidents have considered beyond the pale of civilized behavior.
Originally published in The National Interest