Cuban Surprise

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here it is:

Cuban surprise 


Who cares about oppression when you can get a great cigar?

‘Tis the season of giving and President Barack Obama is not one to be left out of the festivities. Before heading off to his annual holiday in Hawaii with his family, he delivered a generous gift to the communists in Cuba — normalization of relations along with a promise to push Congress to lift the sanctions which have been in place for more than 50 years.

In a surprise move, Obama bypassed the State Department to negotiate directly with Cuba. The result culminated in the announcement that Cuba would release two imprisoned Americans, America would release three imprisoned Cubans, America would normalize relations for the first time with Cuba, Obama will lift many of the trade restrictions against Cuba that are within the purview of the executive branch and Obama will pressure Congress to completely lift the sanctions against Cuba.

Obama’s announcement marks a seismic shift in America’s foreign policy that is fraught with hazard.

The prisoner exchange sets a dangerous precedent. The mutual return of prisoners has been done for ages, but it is usually done with some parity of exchange. In this case, the Cubans gave up two prisoners in exchange for three of their own and a massive thaw in relations. This action will lead other totalitarian regimes to believe that they can also soften America’s stance with the capture of a few Americans. This endangers Americans around the world.

But the prisoner exchange appears to have been merely a fig leaf of cover for Obama to do something that his ideology dictates. In a worldview where America is merely one of many nations with different philosophies and not an exceptional nation, the isolation of Cuba has long been a thorn. Couple that with the American far left’s, from which Obama hails, affinity for communists, and it is clear that Obama was just waiting for an excuse and a time when he was free from domestic political responsibilities to make his move.

There have been two dominant, and competing, foreign policy philosophies of the past few decades in regards to how to deal with totalitarian regimes. The realpolitik philosophy is one that espouses engagement with totalitarian regimes as a way to influence world events and for the benefit of America. This is the philosophical foundation behind working with the numerous autocratic countries in the Middle East to keep the peace and keeps the oil flowing.

The second foreign philosophy is that promoted by the Neocons which believes that democratic institutions are a prerequisite for sustained peaceful relations and, thus, foreign policy should be directed toward regime change in totalitarian nations.

Both philosophies may support engagement with dictators. Adherents to realpolitik support engagement, if it is a way to advance our nation’s interests while the neocons support engagement, if it is a way to advance regime change along with our nation’s interests.

Obama does not seem to adhere to either philosophy. Obama is advocating engagement with Cuba for the purpose of engagement itself. The only benefits of engagement that he has espoused have been potential benefits for the Cuban people through American trade.

Usually, whether realpolitik or neocon, the opening of relations of a totalitarian regime after decades of isolation would be done for some purpose — some advancement of America’s national interests. At the very least, Obama should have only given Cuba normal relations and possibly billions of dollars from the benefit of open trade in exchange for reversing some of the multitude of systemic human rights violations by the Castro brothers. But no. Cuba has done nothing in exchange for Obama’s gift.

The result is sadly predictable. At a time when the communist government of Cuba is struggling to stay afloat after its primary benefactors — the Soviet Union and then Venezuela — are no longer able to support them, Obama has offered the communists a lifeline that will pump billions of dollars into their coffers that can be used to continue to persecute the Cuban people.

But presidents Obama and Bill Clinton will be able to share a Cuban cigar, so I suppose it is worth a few oppressed Cubans.

(Owen Robinson’s column runs Tuesdays in the Daily News.)