Obama’s Belated Realism on Cuba

President Obama has been what you might call a “closet realist,” favoring pragmatic approaches to world problems but afraid to buck Official Washington’s dominant “tough-guy-ism.” But he came out of the closet at least briefly in ending the Cuban embargo, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar writes.

By Paul R. Pillar

China wasn’t available to open up to, because Richard Nixon already did that over four decades ago, in a process that was completed when full diplomatic relations were established with the People’s Republic during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Neither was the old enemy Vietnam available, given that full and even cordial relations with Hanoi came about through diplomacy during the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton.

And Cuba pales in importance, of course, compared with China in particular. But President Obama’s move toward a more normal relationship with Cuba is a significant blow in favor of good sense, reality as well as realism, and rational pursuit of U.S. interests.

President Barack Obama talks on the phone at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, Dec. 18, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama talks on the phone at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, Dec. 18, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Having a normal relationship with the Caribbean nation is significant and newsworthy, and this week’s step is a major accomplishment for Mr. Obama, only because of the major tendency in American politics, readily evident in the Congress and responsible for much that has been misguided in U.S. foreign policy, that sees foreign policy not as the calculated pursuit of national interests but instead as a series of postures in which we pronounce on what we like and what we don’t like.

The postures do not have to be consistent in what standards are applied to different countries, and there need not be more than the slightest pretense that our posture will make what we don’t like any better. Much of this tendency is a reflection of domestic politics and the influence of particularly vocal constituencies. But for the politicians who exhibit it, there often seems to be something more emotional and reflexive that takes hold of them, beyond a careful counting of votes.

Cuba has long been one of the prime targets for this kind of reflexive and unproductive animosity among American politicians. Iran has been another major target in recent years. And there are worthwhile comparisons to be made between such cases; just as ostracism and rejection of the normal give-and-take of diplomacy has been utterly unproductive in the case of Cuba, so too has been the case with Iran, with positive results having been obtained only when real diplomacy began under the current U.S. administration.

There has been some similar atavistic animosity, harking back to the Cold War, in attitudes toward Russia since the Ukraine crisis heated up this year, but at least in that case, amid a more dynamic situation and a crisis in the oil-driven Russian economy, there is a genuine basis for talking about possible prospects for sanctions helping to achieve some worthwhile changes.

What most distinguishes the case of Cuba is the sheer length of time during which the futile posture of attempted isolation and embargo has been sustained. We long, long ago passed the point where we can say with finality and high confidence that the policy does not work.

It is hard to come up with a better example of how the longevity of futility has made such a conclusive case that a course of action is an unmitigated failure. Even if there were no basis for expecting that a different course would yield improvement, in fact, there is considerable basis for expecting it would, along lines the president mentioned in his statement, it would make sense to try a different course even just on the off-chance it would get some results.

Against this background, some of the quick criticism of the President’s action is astounding. The lead editorial in the Washington Post closes by saying that the action gives the Cuban regime, a regime that has lasted more than half a century and has demonstrated its ability to endure the end of the Cold War and loss of its Soviet patron, the debility and resignation of its founder, and many other challenges, a “new lease on life.” It is hard to believe that whoever on the Post‘s editorial staff wrote that sentence did so with a straight face.

Or take the statement of former Florida governor and current presidential hopeful Jeb Bush that Mr. Obama’s actions “undermine America’s credibility.” Credibility with respect to what, exactly? The President is making good on his earlier statements and campaign promises on the subject. The most serious lack of credibility involved is what has inhered in the inconsistencies involved in the policy of isolation and punishment.

This has been conspicuously true of keeping Cuba on the official U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, even though the Cuban regime hasn’t come close to sponsoring international terrorism for many years. The people at the State Department who have the job of preparing the annual country reports on terrorism have to say something to try to justify the continued listing of Cuba, and so they mention, and they must also have trouble keeping a straight face as they write, that a few retirees from the Basque group ETA and the Colombian group known as the FARC have lived in Cuba.

Half of the very short write-up on Cuba is about how the Cuban government has worked in cooperation with the government of Colombia to facilitate the latter government’s peace negotiations with the FARC. That’s not sponsoring terrorism; that’s helping to reduce it. Given how much the United States government talks about states sponsoring terrorism, it is a credibility-destroying joke to have Cuba still on the U.S. list on the subject.

Most of the other instant critics have been just stumbling for words, bereft of any real arguments. As Robert Golan-Vilella points out, Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham were reduced to reciting anti-Obama buzzwords with no reference at all to Cuba. Sen. Marco Rubio was reduced to emotional blithering.

Rubio and other habitual critics no doubt were thrown off-balance by the President acting decisively with real effect, carrying through on earlier statements and commitments, and in a direction welcomed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which runs counter to the anti-Obama script that depicts the President as weak, indecisive and reactive. That and the usual reflexive response of opposing anything that would count as an achievement for Mr. Obama underlay Rubio’s threats to try to use any Congressional tools available to kill the move to full diplomatic relations.

If Congress in the next session does that, and if it sustains the embargo that gets condemned annually at the United Nations by votes of laughingstock proportions, we ought to think about (although it probably is too much to expect those who sustain such policies to think about it) how the rest of the world is going to interpret that.

A common pattern in much of the world with respect to many different issues is to like and admire America but to dislike U.S. policies. But now we would have a policy from the White House that has received universal praise from abroad for a long-overdue step, but which might get stymied by the U.S. Congress.

Foreigners will be left to wonder what it is about the United States that lets some Little Havana small-mindedness take over U.S. foreign policy to the extent of persisting in a half-century of failure.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

8 comments for “Obama’s Belated Realism on Cuba

  1. Roger Milbrandt
    December 21, 2014 at 21:36

    I find it odd that people keep referring to previous US policy towards the Cuban Revolution as a “failure.” The economic blockade sufficiently inhibited the development of the Cuban economy to ensure that Cuba not become a compelling example of a successful socialist economy. This was not a “failure” but an important success. Constant attacks on Cuba sponsored, financed, encouraged or at least tolerated by the US government obliged the Cuban government to employ such attentive surveillance of its citizens as make Cuba an easy target of anti-communist hysteria. Again, this does not show a “failure” of US policy: it points to its success at confining confining Cuban socialism to Cuba.
    If I sprain my ankle, then undergo therapy, and fail to win the 100 meter dash in the Olympics I suppose someone might say the therapy was a “failure” but if I recover my ability to walk normally I would consider it a success. Similarly, if you assume that the purpose of US policy was to make Cuba’s millions of victims of US cynicism and abuse into delirious enthusiasts for the Washington Consensus then I suppose you could consider US policy a “failure.” I doubt that was ever its intention.

    • Bob
      December 24, 2014 at 18:35

      ” it points to its success at confining confining Cuban socialism to Cuba.”

      It took more than this , to confine Cuban socialism to Cuba.

      Can you count the coups and dirty wars in Latin America? I can’t:

  2. Jack Keegan
    December 20, 2014 at 17:37

    Let me make some observations. They have known for a very long time that the Senate torture report would come out and that it would be very damaging. They knew it would not come out before the Mid-Terms for political reasons, but when the Democrats lost disastrously, it became clear that Feinstein would make the Executive Summary public, despite all the pressure they could muster to stop her, if only to maintain her own credibility. NBC Evening News recently reported that Obama personally made the decision just after the Mid-Term results to make a major and direct pitch – President to President (no State Department involvement) – to Cuba to move low-level discussions forward and change the situation that had been in place for over 50 years. The results, announced just after the torture story had been in the headlines for about a week, was to sweep the torture story off the front and op-ed pages to be replaced by this bold and daring Presidential move.

    Of course, a byproduct of the Cuba story just happens to be that the great defenders of the country during the Cold War whose agent had been languishing in a Cuban prison for almost 20 years are getting wonderful offsetting press – they are no longer inhumane torturers; they are the last bastion of defense against the Communists, terrorism, and all other enemies of the American way. Great press and, besides, it makes the Republicans look bad too. What more could one ask!

    Now we have Obama telling Sony Pictures that they made a mistake in not standing up to the North Koreans in defense of freedom of expression and artistic license as represented in a “dumb and dumber” comedy built around the assassination of the leader of a sovereign nation with which we have very poor relations – the lesson is clear: Obama is brave and willing to stand up to one of the Axis of Evil, but Sony and the theaters are not.

    But what if a bomb goes off in a theater showing this stupid movie; well he knows that is not going to happen. Why, because North Korea is no more behind this cyber attack than Russia was behind the downing of the Malaysian airplanes. North Korea doesn’t even have Internet and past cyber attacks in which they have engaged have been described by experts as “very crude”. So, now they succeed in executing a highly complex and sophisticated attack – conclusion: they had to have had help. Cue the Chinese or the Russians, but when you think about it, isn’t it more likely that there are others who benefit far more from having titillating stories and threats to the public in the American press from our sworn enemy – that’s the one who shows up as a completely black area on night satellite images because they have no electricity – as a great threat to corporate America and our freedom of expression? Bring on the required US retaliation – no damage to the US Government required. It’s brilliant in its audacity.

    It also is reminiscent of the trumped up situation in Ukraine to enable the imposition of sanctions and other punishments on Russia that make Obama look strong in the face of external enemies. What can North Korea do? Deny that they are the hackers? They already did that and it didn’t work for them any more than it worked for the Russians denying that they are intervening in eastern Ukraine. Remember the immediate announcements that we (the US) “have evidence” that the Russians supplied the anti-aircraft missiles and are intervening in the Ukraine. It’s just the same as the statements that we (the FBI) have ‘evidence’ that North Korea is behind the hacking attack. It’s a well-rehearsed and oft repeated script.

    • John
      December 24, 2014 at 09:35

      I agree. The chance that NK would pioneer cyber attacks is low, and there is probably as much or more evidence about any US ally. Such an provocation does not increase NK security and does not function as a deterrent. If China or Russia wanted an intermediary to stage such attacks, they could find better facilities anywhere among our allies, and avoid the consequences for their allies.

      But such accusations do serve the US right wing fearmongers, like MH17, as they exploit risks and annoyances to the public, cannot be shown true or false, and both rationalize and distract attention from US surveillance. So certainly it is US right wing propaganda, an attack upon the US people and the Constitution by its oligarchy of economic concentrations.

  3. December 19, 2014 at 18:20

    Rhetoric…. I suspect that Cuba Cubans enjoy a lot of freedoms which most Americans cannot even imagine. It all depends on how you define freedom.
    Yes, a lot of Cubans fled Cuba following Castro’s emergence… most of them were Miami Mafia connected… mobsters, gangsters crooks, thieves, etc, and they were no longer free to rob, steal and plunder Cuba in the free handed manner which Juan Batista, Santos Trafficanti, Meyer Lansky, the CIA, The Dulles Brothers and United Fruit Co., and their Miami Mafiosi friends had allowed and encouraged, so they fled to Miami where they would be free to follow their old pursuits.
    Miami is one of the most crime and gang ridden cities in the US today.

    US was the first one to whom Fidel Castro turned and appealed for aid and alliance when he came down out of the mountains and ran Batista and the mobs out of the country one night. They turned him down for the same reasons they refused Ho Chi Minh in 1945, he simply refused to drop his drawers and bend over for them. Communism had nothing to do with it… but, like Mao and Ho chi Minh, before him, Russia was the only one left to turn to for support after the US had attacked him.


    Open and read any of the links above you will discover that the US Government, the CIA for as long as it has existed, Jewish and Sicilian Mafia families, The US Fruit Co, and other Agri-Industrial Companies in Central and South America, and the Carribbean, have all been tightly and incestuously connected for nearly eighty years now.

    Reading the names, you will encounter many with whom you are familiar and used to seeing regularly in today’s recent ongoing history as it unrolls in the Middle East as well as the Carribbean, Central and South America.

    They never stop trying.

  4. December 19, 2014 at 14:11

    Spot on! John.
    If Washington ended its economic aggression against Cuba and others then it might just be a signal of real change. Otherwise it’s just more of the same imperialist policy that is the bedrock of American power, writes Finian Cunningham:

    • TheSkepticalCynic
      December 19, 2014 at 19:23

      Not for a nanosecond did I consider the “diplomatic recognition” of Cuba a real change in attitude in Washington. As a Skeptic and a Cynic my view mirrored John’s particularly with regard to the

      ‘The US will establish an embassy (read CIA base) there and proceed to infiltrate and bribe with “regime change” the sole object.”

      I gave up even being “cautiously optimist” at about the age of 4 when I realized what an absolute Pr*ck, that Santa Claus could be. I express my exuberance, attitude and analysis of any situation not even at the level of guarded optimism. Life has taught me that anything more “up” than pragmatically pessimistic, or its corollary pessimistically pragmatic. Case in point, no sooner did the Elite’s Drone of Darkness announce the “diplomacy” (read “duplicity”) ploy did the Dork of Dickdom announce “sanctions” against Venezuela. Venezuela has been a valued benefactor of Cuba for years. A major exporter whose economy is dependent on these exports as is that of Russian whose economy has been badly affected by the “mysterious drop” in oil prices.
      I had forgotten just what it was that the “Spook”, Alan Gross operating out the U.S. Agency for International Development, a decades long CIA front. Then I remembered that he was involved in delivering high tech communication technology a some group in Cuba. Rediscovering that it was, as the MSM so euphemistically put it, a Cuban Jewish community‽ ( A WTF mark) my Heebie Jeebie alarm went to DEFCON 1.
      Add to the mix that the Jesuit Pope is involved… this scenario is even darker and more foreboding. It won’t be long before betting parlours in the UK start posting odds on when and what type of false flag operation with death to some unfortunate Americans will occur in Cuba and which will require a deploying of Uncle Slam’s “boots on the ground” and literally thousands of detainees at a updated Gitmo.

  5. John
    December 19, 2014 at 10:52

    It is unlikely that anything good will come of the alleged diplomacy. The US will establish an embassy (read CIA base) there and proceed to infiltrate and bribe with “regime change” the sole object. The scoundrels of oligarchy do not suddenly have nice intentions with no evidence thereof. They have only intensified their lies about the causes of the Ukraine crisis, and now have hundreds of millions going to West Ukraine to suppress the aspirations of East Ukraine. Sanctions have only increased.

    Cuba is like most small states with socialist governments: they cannot be more open politically because they must fight constant sabotage and subversion by the US, multinationals, and their domestic opportunists and militarists.

    Castro sought diplomatic relations with the US right after their revolution and was rejected by VP Nixon. Yet there had been fewer casualties than in the US 1898 takeover of Cuba, and the need for property redistribution was obvious to anyone but the US oligarchy. So of course the oligarchy had to make the people fear Communism despite its zero attacks on the US, for without an external threat we would have no need for the right wing.

    With friends like our right wing, who needs enemies?

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