Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Normalize Relations with Cuba

The Obama administration hasn’t had much foreign policy luck with the big issues.  But President Barack Obama is making progress with Cuba.

The spy/prisoner exchange offered obvious humanitarian benefits.  The more significant step announced by the president was to drop what he called today’s “outdated approach” to U.S.-Cuba relations.  His objective is to expand travel and trade with Cuba and reopen the U.S. embassy in Havana.

Of course, the administration’s plan has generated complaints from hard-line Cuban-Americans and Republican uber-hawks.  Representing both camps, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio denounced the policy as “absurd” and another example of “coddling dictators and tyrants.”

Rubio substituted rhetoric for argument.  He apparently realized he couldn’t make a practical case for maintaining sanctions, especially that they would ever achieve their purported end. 

A half century ago the Castros created a nasty dictatorship and allied with the Soviet Union.  But the Soviet Union, Cold War, Soviet-Cuban alliance, and Moscow subsidies for Cuba are all gone.  Only the Castro dictatorship lives on, despite the embargo.

Over the years the rest of the world ignored Washington’s ban.  Even after the cut-off of Soviet transfers the sanctions did not bring Havana to heel.

The administration’s plan is to begin discussions over reestablishing an embassy. Regulations would be changed to encourage more travel and remittances, particularly by Cuban-Americans.  The administration also intends to expand allowable exports to Cuba, including agriculture and construction.  The administration will review the designation of Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism. 

Normalization is long overdue.  There’s no longer a security argument for isolating Cuba.  At home the Castros are thugs, but that’s old news and hasn’t been affected by a half century of sanctions.  What we know as a result of essentially a controlled experiment with the embargo is that sanctions do not release political prisoners, generate competitive elections, unseat dictators, create a free press, or foster a market economy. 

Thirty years into the embargo supporters thought their moment finally had arrived with the collapse of the U.S.S.R.  In 1994 the Heritage Foundation’s John Sweeney declared that the Castro regime’s collapse is “more likely in the near term than ever before.”

Another two decades have gone by and all Washington’s policy of isolation has done is given the Castros an excuse for their failure. When I visited Cuba (legally) a decade ago I met Elizardo Sanchez Santa Cruz, who spent years in Castro’s prisons.  He criticized U.S. sanctions for giving “the government a good alibi to justify the failure of the totalitarian model in Cuba.”

Nor does isolation make a symbolic statement.  There have been and remain plenty of worse regimes in the world. 

Moreover, U.S. policy essentially made Fidel Castro.  Had Washington dismissed his regime, he would have receded in global importance, just another windbag dictator in charge of a poor, small state.  Instead, for decades he was seen as the premier global opponent of Yanqui Imperialism.

Of course, it’s important not to overstate the benefits of normalization.  Cubans are limited in what they can buy and also in what they can produce to sell. 

Moreover, while greater economic and political contact will be naturally seditious and undermine Communist Party rule, the regime has carefully controlled past foreign investment.  Much more will still need to be done to encourage a freer society.

President Obama will face strong opposition, but even most Republicans today recognize that the embargo has failed.

As I wrote in National Interest:  “The Cuban people deserve far better than what the Castros have delivered.  Ultimately, their Communist dictatorship will end up in history’s legendary dustbin.  But not yet, unfortunately.”

Normalizing both economic and diplomatic relations with Havana should be seen not as a victory for the Castro government, but for the people of Cuba.  Liberty will come to that land.  The only question is when.  Expanding relations should help speed the process.

Is North Korea Preparing for Change or Planning More of the Same?

North Koreans have formally ended their three-year mourning period for Kim Jong-il. By custom his son, Kim Jong-un, and the country now are free to move forward without hindrance from the past.

A small, poor nation, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea should be an international nullity, irrelevant to global affairs. Yet it again dominated headlines in the U.S. with the hacking of Sony.

Although the FBI is pointing its finger at Pyongyang, a number of online experts strongly doubt the charge. Whatever the case, this otherwise two-bit international player is at the top of the news.

For the last seven decades Washington has made North Korea America’s problem. The U.S. initially had little choice since its joint division of the Korean peninsula with the Soviet Union led to creation of two antagonistic states.

But eventually the Republic of Korea took off economically and adopted democratic rule.  Today the ROK surpasses the North on every measure of national power save military, and the latter is a matter of choice.

As I point out on Forbes online: “By taking on responsibility for South Korea’s defense, Washington has thrust itself into the middle of the Korean conflict. The risk and cost made sense during the Cold War when the ROK was vulnerable and the region a hegemonic battleground. But no longer.”

How Hawkish Are Republican Voters?

William Kristol tells the Washington Post that Sen. Rand Paul is a “lonely gadfly” on foreign policy:

“Rand Paul speaks for a genuine sentiment that’s always been in the Republican Party, but maybe it’s 10 percent? 15 percent? 20 percent? I don’t think he’s going to be a serious competitor for guiding Republican foreign policy.”

At the Huffington Post I suggest that Kristol read the polls. They show rising non-interventionist sentiment among Republicans and especially among independents. I argue:

Americans, including Republicans, are getting tired of policing the world with endless wars. Support for the Iraq war is almost as low as approval of Congress.

Bandying “Terrorism”

George Clooney has now joined North Korea’s United Nations ambassador Ja Song Nam in bandying charges of “terrorism” against a foe. North Korea’s emissary in New York complained in July that the production of Sony’s film, The Interview, was “the most undisguised sponsoring of terrorism as well as an act of war.”

So, too, according to Clooney, was the threat leveled by unknown persons against theaters that might show the film: “Then, to turn around and threaten to blow people up and kill people, and just by that threat alone we change what we do for a living, that’s the actual definition of terrorism,” he said.

We don’t know more about the definition, but the ambassador and Mr. Clooney do teach us about usage. “Terrorism” is a debased, all-purpose charge anyone can use against anyone. There is a special variant of the word in which the results of an action provide conclusive evidence of the motive behind it. Because U.S. theaters yanked The Interview from their Christmas Day schedules, Clooney can plausibly call the threat “terrorism.” Had most people, like me, assumed the threat to be an idle prank, it would not have been terrorism.

I remain unpersuaded of a North Korean connection or anyone’s meaningful capacity or willingness to attack theaters. The most proximate cause of The Interview’s cancellation, it seems to me, is risk aversion on the part of theater owners’ lawyers. They apparently concluded that an attack could be a foreseeable cause of death and injury, for which owners could be liable. (Go ahead, reformers. Call trial lawyers “terrorists.”)

Subject matter expert Paddy Hillyard, a professor of sociology at Queen’s University, Belfast, eschews the term “terrorism” for reasons he articulated in a 2010 Cato Unbound. He participated in Cato’s study of terrorism and counterterrorism (conference, forum, book). I’m one of many who don’t believe that “cyberterrorism” even exists.

The greatest risk in all this is that loose talk of terrorism and “cyberwar” lead nations closer to actual war. Having failed to secure its systems, Sony has certainly lost a lot of money and reputation, but for actual damage to life and limb, you ain’t seen nothing like real war. It is not within well-drawn boundaries of U.S. national security interests to avenge wrongs to U.S. subsidiaries of Japanese corporations. Governments in the United States should respond to the Sony hack with nothing more than ordinary policing and diplomacy.

Time to Trade with Cuba: Regime Change through Sanctions Is a Mirage

President Barack Obama used negotiations over a couple of imprisoned Americans to refashion the entire U.S.-Cuba relationship. He aims to reopen the embassy, relax trade and travel restrictions, and improve communication systems.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida charged the administration with appeasement because the president proposed to treat Cuba like the U.S. treats other repressive states. But President Obama only suggested that government officials talk to one another. And that peoples visit and trade with one another.

More than a half century ago Fidel Castro took power in Havana. In the midst of the Cold War the Kennedy administration feared that Cuba would serve as an advanced base for the Soviet Union. Having tried and failed to overthrow the regime militarily, Washington saw an economic embargo as the next best option.

But that didn’t work either. Even after the Soviet Union collapsed and Moscow ended subsidies for Cuba, sanctions achieved nothing.

Today Cuba’s Communist system continues to stagger along. The only certainty is that economic sanctions have failed.

Failed to bring down the regime. Failed to liberalize the system. Failed to free political prisoners. Failed to achieve much of anything useful.

After more than 50 years.

But that should surprise no one. Sanctions are most likely to work if they are universal and narrowly focused. For instance, the Institute for International Economics found that economic sanctions did best with limited objectives, such as “modest” policy change.

Obama’s Historic Move toward Cuba

President Obama’s announcement to overhaul U.S. policy toward Cuba is historic. Given the ossified status of the relationship between both nations—frozen in time for decades despite the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War—Washington’s engagement is significant and welcome.

Obama’s announced measures—a spy swap, loosening of travel and economic restrictions, and launching of discussions to re-establish full diplomatic relations—go as far as the president can go without congressional authorization. Since the passing of the Helms-Burton Act in 1996, the lifting of the most important economic sanctions, particularly the trade embargo and travel ban, requires the approval of Congress. Unlike previous ad hoc measures toward Cuba, the economic measures announced by the president represent meaningful policy change, and they seem to closely follow the recommendations put forward by the Cuba Study Group in a white paper last year.

As part of the deal, Cuba released U.S. contractor Alan Gross after five years of imprisonment. Gross was arrested while working to expand Internet access for Havana’s Jewish community, an act that the Cuban authorities deemed to be “undermining the state.”

The president’s move should be uncontroversial. U.S. policy toward Cuba has been a blatant failure. It has not brought about democracy to the island and instead provided Havana with an excuse to portray itself as the victim of U.S. aggression. It has also served as the scapegoat for the dilapidated state of Cuba’s economy. Moreover, according to government reports, the embargo has also become somewhat of a U.S. security liability itself.

As for the economic measures, they are significant in symbolism, yet limited in their likely impact as long as Cuba retains its failed communist economic system. The 114th Congress should pick up where the president left off and move to fully end the trade embargo and lift the travel ban on Cuba.

 

Congress Sacrifices U.S. Security with New Sanctions Against Russia

In the midst of negotiations to avoid another government shutdown, Congress rammed through new sanctions against Russia as part of the misnamed “Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014.”

Congress appears determined to turn an adversary into an enemy and encourage retaliation against more significant American interests. Observed my colleague Emma Ashford: “the provisions in this bill will make it all the more difficult to find a negotiated settlement to the Ukraine crisis, or to find a way to salvage any form of productive U.S.-Russia relationship.”

Last year, the corrupt but elected Viktor Yanukovich was ousted by protests backed by rabid and sometimes violent nationalists. The United States and Europe flaunted their support for the opposition. Indeed, American officials openly discussed who should take power after his ouster.

Russian President Vladimir Putin still was not justified in dismembering Ukraine, but America would have reacted badly had Moscow helped overthrow a Washington-friendly government in Mexico.

Ukraine’s fate is not a serious security interest for the United States. The conflict raises humanitarian concerns, but no different than those elsewhere around the globe.

Kiev’s status matters more to Europe, largely for economic reasons. If the European Union and its members want to confront Russia over Ukraine, they should do so—without Washington’s involvement.