Daniel Larison

Setting Realistic Goals for Cuba Policy

Gordon Adams warns supporters of normalization against setting unrealistic goals of political change in Cuba:

Maybe it would be better to say that recognition and economic relations with Cuba are good things in their own right. And maybe one day Cuba becomes a liberal democracy with a free economy. But that choice is not ours to make. It belongs to the Cuban people.

Adams is right that both sides of this debate have tended to advance competing arguments about which policy would more effectively promote political change in Cuba. While critics of the embargo are absolutely right that it is a useless and failed policy because it has clearly failed to achieve any of its goals, they risk falling into the trap of letting a different policy be judged by the unreasonable standard of bringing about Cuban regime change. The U.S. isn’t going to achieve regime change through punitive measures or engagement, but that shouldn’t be the goal in the first place.

The proper goal for U.S. Cuba policy is to promote mutually beneficial and peaceful relations between our countries. It is impossible for a policy rooted in outdated hostility to achieve that goal. Normalization is the first step towards establishing these relations in the interests of Cuba and the United States. It is also important to emphasize that pro-embargo hawks are concerned first and foremost with inflicting punishment on Cuba so long as it is under its current government. Bringing about the freedom of Cubans is not the purpose of the embargo, and given what we know about the political effects of such policies there is no way that it could be. Supporters of the embargo insist that they are interested in promoting freedom in Cuba, but this is the fallback excuse of hard-liners that no longer have any justification for their preferred policy. U.S. policy could have remained entirely unchanged for the next half century and it would have done nothing to make Cuba any more free than it is today. As Adams says, these things are not in our power, and we should stop presuming that they are.

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The Nonsensical Case Against Normalization

Rubio appeared on ABC’s This Week yesterday and said this about normalization with Cuba:

We have those policies of normalization toward Vietnam, for example, toward China. They’re not any more politically free today than they were when that normalization happened. They may have a bigger economy, but their political freedoms, certainly I would not hold up China or Saudi Arabia or Vietnam as examples of political freedom, proving my point, that engagement by itself does not guarantee or even lead to political freedoms.

It’s true that diplomatic engagement does not necessarily guarantee or lead to political freedoms in the other country, but we know very well that refusing to engage with authoritarian regimes ensures that there is even less of a chance that political liberalization will occur. While China and Vietnam are not noticeably freer politically now than they were before the U.S. established normal relations with their governments, no one in the U.S. today would seriously argue that normalizing relations with either of them was a mistake or that the policy should be changed back to what it used to be. The central flaw in Rubio’s argument is his assumption that the U.S. must not resume relations with another country until its political system has started liberalizing. That holds normalization with Cuba to a standard that the U.S. has never applied anywhere else, and treats Cuba as if it were unique in having a repressive government when everyone can see that this is not the case at all.

Even if nothing changes in the Cuban political system for the better for the next twenty years, both Cubans and Americans would still be better off from resuming diplomatic ties and substantially increasing trade. No one can credibly argue that the same would be true if the U.S. continued the old policy for that period of time. It may take a long time for renewed relations and increased trade to have any meaningful effect on Cuba’s politics, but that is all the more reason to start the process now. In order for Rubio’s argument to make the least bit of sense, one has to believe that continuing a policy of deprivation and punitive measures can have liberalizing effects after decades of not having had any. That is an obviously absurd thing to believe. Rubio wants to keep cutting off one of our closest neighbors from engaging in commerce and diplomacy with America, and he wants to be applauded for his dedication to freedom. He can have one or the other, but he doesn’t get to have both.

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Rubio’s Losing Bet on Cuba Policy

Jonathan Bernstein responds to my post on Rubio and the politics of normalization with Cuba:

But just because a policy polls well doesn’t mean it will help candidates who support it. For one thing, most people don’t really care much about most policy issues, even though they’ll answer survey questions. For another, it’s likely that the issue will have died down by fall 2016, even in Florida, and most voters won’t even remember what Rubio did.

That’s a fair point, and Bernstein could be right about this, but let me say a little more about this question. I suspect that the issue isn’t going to be allowed to “die down” over the next year. That is in no small part because Rubio and his allies want to draw as much attention to the issue as they can. He isn’t going to let the issue fade from view. The assumption behind the idea that Rubio has been handed a “gift” with this issue is that he is going to be able to exploit it in order to raise his profile and establish himself as an authority on foreign policy. The problem is that it doesn’t do Rubio any good to become the best-known spokesman of pro-embargo dead-enders. It puts him in the position of being seen as an especially strident, vocal opponent of something most people in his state say they prefer. Most voters very well may remember what Rubio has been doing between now and 2016 because he will be reminding them on a regular basis with his campaign against normalization.

Because Rubio will be seeking re-election in a presidential year, the electorate is already likely to be less conservative than the one that voted for him in 2010. Despite that, he appears to be going out of his way to identify himself as a partisan hard-liner at a time when you would think that he would be trying to broaden his appeal to voters outside of his party. Meanwhile, his performance over the last few days has not won him any admirers outside of the usual hawkish bubble. On the contrary, outside that bubble he is being mocked for throwing a “tantrum” and for being wedded to an outdated, worthless policy. If that is the kind of coverage Rubio keeps getting over the next year, it is bound to be a drag on his re-election campaign. Maybe it won’t be enough to sink him, but it’s an added burden in a cycle that is already likely to be quite challenging. At the very least, Rubio isn’t helping himself by becoming the lead critic of normalization, and he’s could be making his re-election a bit less likely.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Obama’s Cuba opportunity. Philip Peters made the case for a change in Cuba policy.

Neoconservatism’s theory gap. Leon Hadar reviews Bret Stephens’ America in Retreat and finds it thoroughly lacking.

Ending the stupidest part of U.S. foreign policy. James Fallows celebrates the decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba.

A welcome blow against posturing in foreign policy. Paul Pillar applauds the opening to Cuba.

Did the U.S.-Cuba deal help promote peace in Colombia? Richard McColl speculates on the connection between the resumptions of U.S.-Cuban relations and FARC’s unilateral cease-fire declaration.

Modi’s “zero problems” foreign policy. Frida Ghitis reviews how Modi has changed Indian foreign policy so far.

Lithuania adopts the euro with a feeling of dread. Mark Gilbert looks at what Lithuanians think about the currency switch.

The Washington Post‘s recklessness. James Carden and Jacob Heilbrunn chide the Post for its reflexive hawkishness.

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The Paul-Rubio Fight over Cuba

Rand Paul said recently that he thought normalization with Cuba was “probably a good idea” and that the embargo “hasn’t worked.” That prompted Rubio to declare that Paul “has no idea hat he’s talking about.” Weigel reports on Paul’s response:

That got Paul thinking, and he took to social media today to pummel Rubio. In a two-paragraph post on Facebook, Paul asked why Rubio didn’t want a “new approach” instead of the continuance of an obvious debacle.

“Senator Rubio is acting like an isolationist who wants to retreat to our borders and perhaps build a moat,” he wrote. “I reject this isolationism. Finally, let’s be clear that Senator Rubio does not speak for the majority of Cuban-Americans.”

The jab about “isolationism” is somewhat amusing, and it gets at a lot of what’s wrong with Rubio’s position on Cuba and with his foreign policy views as a whole. Rubio is quick to accuse others of favoring “retreat” and “disengagement” from the world, but there are few other members of Congress that have been as resistant to diplomatic engagement in practice as Rubio. He has wanted to set conditions for any deal with Iran that would make it impossible to reach a deal, he insisted on recalling our ambassador to Syria almost as soon as Ford got there, and he has taken the lead in denouncing normalization with Cuba. Now I think that the isolationist label doesn’t accurately fit anyone in modern America (nor was it an accurate description of many people in the past), but refusing to engage in diplomacy and commerce with other countries is as close to it as one is likely to get nowadays.

On Cuba, Rubio has made himself the leading defender of a bankrupt policy that also happens to be broadly unpopular. Some people have looked at Rubio’s campaign against normalization and asked, “What could be the downside for him politically?” As I see it, Rubio has a lot to lose and almost nothing to gain. He is allowing himself to be pigeonholed as a foreign policy hard-liner and a dead-ender in a genuinely bad cause. In this exchange with Paul, he is playing the part of a wannabe party-line enforcer who can’t even keep fellow Republicans in line. Rubio’s arguments may please other hard-liners, but they will alienate many less ideological voters and they already insult the intelligence of the people that disagree with them. They will also probably increase Rubio’s unfavorability and disapproval numbers. By going to the mat for such a lousy policy, it will also cause more people to question both his policy and his political judgment.

Paul’s position may not help him with that many voters in the Florida Republican primary electorate, but it’s the obvious position that he would have been expected to take. It’s also the obvious move for anyone who identifies as a conservative realist as Paul does. Had he not come out in favor of normalization, it would have given would-be supporters a new reason to doubt him, and he would have missed an easy opportunity to distinguish himself from the rest of the party’s likely 2016 field on an important new foreign policy issue. And Paul is far from being the only Republican inclined to support normalization. Not only are there other members of Congress that take the same view, including Jeff Flake and Justin Amash, but according to at least one survey taken this year more Republicans nationally support this position than oppose it. Republicans are far from monolithic on this question, and most don’t share Rubio’s hard-line views.

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Why Hard-liners Rely on Stale Cliches

Robert Golan-Vilella points out that the statement John McCain and Lindsey Graham released on Cuba was nothing more than generic hard-liner rhetoric:

But look again at McCain and Graham’s words. Notice how none of them actually have anything to do with Cuba. There is not a single fact or analytical conclusion about Cuba that explains their opposition to having diplomatic relations with that country. Rather, the two senators provide a familiar litany of clichés and buzzwords: “Retreat,” “decline,” “appeasement,” “diminishing America’s influence.” It reads more like a game of Mad Libs for hard-liners than a policy statement.

That’s true, and it reflects just how empty the hawkish argument against normalization is. Opponents of the decision are hard-pressed to identify any actual costs for the U.S. (because there aren’t any), and they also can’t defend the ridiculous status quo. So they are forced to fall back on cliches about weakness and appeasement. Those cliches have the advantage of conveying the hard-liners’ disgust with the policy without requiring them to explain anything. They provide a substitute for argument for those that have no serious argument to make. Likewise, hard-liners make claims about “emboldening” enemies and “demoralizing” allies all the time when there is no evidence that either of these is happening. It doesn’t matter to them that neither is happening. All that matters for hard-liners is to frame any policy they don’t like in these terms so that it gives their knee-jerk rejectionism the appearance of a more careful weighing of costs and benefits. Instead of having to think through whether a diplomatic effort is worth trying, it is much easier to reject it out of hand and call it appeasement, and so this is what they do.

Golan-Vilella is correct when he says that it would be impossible for normalization with Cuba to demoralize America’s allies, since virtually every other government in the world favors an end to the embargo and a restoration of ties between our countries. How could Washington be demoralizing allies by doing what they think the U.S. should do? However, for McCain and Graham, that is almost beside the point. It may be true that our close Canadian neighbor and ally was instrumental in facilitating the talks between the U.S. and Cuba, but they don’t care. It may also be true that all other governments in our hemisphere welcome the change that many of them have sought for years, but McCain and Graham definitely don’t care about that. Hard-liners take it as a given that any policy they dislike must “embolden” enemies and “demoralize” allies, and so they declare it to be so no matter what the policy happens to be or what the reactions to it are. That makes for horrible policy thinking and a dangerous obliviousness to reality, but it allows the hard-liners to keep pretending that the discredited policies they endorse are the right ones. It’s an exercise in reaffirming their ideological assumptions rather than accurately describing or analyzing recent developments.

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Obama Hasn’t Given Rubio a “Gift” on Cuba

One of the odder arguments in the Cuba debate this week is that Obama has provided a “gift” to Marco Rubio. Seth Mandel offers one version of this claim:

Republicans should not underestimate how much this helps Rubio maintain a high profile in opposition to Obama. The president has two years left, and for those two years Rubio will be the most important figure standing between Obama and a yet another of his capitulations to foreign dictators. Even if Rubio doesn’t run for president, he will establish his power base in the Senate and put himself in line to set the GOP’s congressional tone on foreign policy.

Rogin and Lake make a similar case:

With former Florida governor Jeb Bush announcing his plans yesterday to at least consider running in 2016, Rubio may find himself looking to cement his legacy as a senator instead of campaigning for the White House. To be remembered as the man who stopped Obama from lifting the embargo on Cuba might be tempting.

This might make sense if Obama’s change in policy were wildly unpopular, but there is no reason to think that it is. It’s hard to see how Rubio benefits by becoming the leading opponent of a policy change that most Americans, most Floridians, and most Cuban-American Floridians support. He will win more applause from other hard-liners in his party, but that’s not something that a candidate running for re-election in a “swing” state normally wants. If it has an effect, it probably does more to hurt him in Florida, especially because of the positive effects that restored relations will likely have on Florida.

I fail to see how becoming the leading defender of an outdated and failed policy that most of his constituents reject improves Rubio’s chances of re-election. Yes, it raises Rubio’s national profile and it will get him a lot more attention in the coming year, but it’s not clear that Rubio benefits from being identified primarily with his hard-line foreign policy views. It is conceivable that Rubio could end up losing his Senate re-election bid because he becomes so closely identified with trying to block a change in policy that most people in his state say they want.

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The Politics of Normalization with Cuba

Peter Harris argues that Obama’s foreign policy decisions are usually driven by domestic political considerations, but he curiously concludes that the decision to resume relations with Cuba doesn’t fit this pattern:

Far from hewing to domestic opinion on the matter, then, pursuing rapprochement with Cuba might well end up hurting President Obama’s domestic standing.

Harris is right that Obama’s decision isn’t going to make relations with Congress any easier, but it doesn’t follow that this is going to hurt Obama’s political standing at home. It could be that the decision was just a matter of ending what James Fallows dubs the “stupidest part” of our foreign policy, and it’s possible that domestic political considerations didn’t enter into it, but that doesn’t seem likely. Cuba policy hasn’t changed significantly for decades because of domestic politics, so it is strange to think that the president would or could ignore that when making a major change in the policy.

Jonathan Bernstein finds evidence that this was at least partly a political decision, which he thinks is as it should be:

As Greg Sargent notes, Obama’s statement and actions today echo what Hillary Clinton said about Cuba in her recent book, which was written mainly to further her presidential campaign. Indeed, Cuban normalization appears to be, at least on the surface, a pretty obvious electoral ploy for Democrats: interest groups within the party are either indifferent or supportive, and Republican groups have very mixed views.

So the better interpretation of Obama’s decision is that it was driven by the elections that put him in office as well as his interest in seeing a Democrat succeed him.

That makes sense. Normalization is broadly popular in the country and especially in Florida. There is majority support for normalization nationally, and it is even higher in Florida. Cuban-Americans in particular have become much more supportive of normal relations and of ending the embargo, so the political calculations that once made revising Cuba policy unacceptably risky have changed. Instead of being a liability for the next Democratic nominee, Obama’s decision might very well help his party’s candidate in 2016 among those voters that a Democratic candidate will need to turn out.

The advantage that hard-liners used to have on this issue was that they were the only ones that cared about it, and they cared about it intensely, which made it too risky to oppose them. The political landscape has changed enough that this advantage is not great enough to spook state and national Democratic politicians, and there are now Democratic-leaning constituencies that are likely to reward politicians for backing normalization. Insofar as it sends Republican members of Congress into fits and reminds voters how truly inflexible and hard-line their foreign policy views are, the decision to resume relations probably helps many Democratic candidates in the next election by showing that their opponents are wedded to indefensible, failed policies.

Harris assumes that Obama “will incur some short-term domestic-political backlash over his opening to Cuba,” but other than provoking Republican hard-liners to denounce him (as they do on a weekly basis anyway) I don’t see much of a backlash happening. While Harris considers Obama’s decision admirable because it was “a decision made in blissful ignorance of the domestic political milieu above which it hovers,” on closer inspection that seems very wrong. It was a decision that seems to have been made with full awareness of the changing domestic politics of the issue, and that led the administration to recognize that an opening to Cuba wasn’t anything like the political risk that it would have been in the past.

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Rubio Truly Hates Diplomacy

Gage Skidmore / cc

Marco Rubio is talking nonsense:

Mr. Obama’s new Cuba policy is a victory for oppressive governments the world over and will have real, negative consequences for the American people.

None of this is true. Oppressive governments don’t become less oppressive because of Washington’s refusal to engage them. They don’t necessarily become less oppressive after engagement, either, but engagement offers the possibility of exercising influence to the benefit of both countries that isn’t available under a policy of isolation. Rubio wants to deny the U.S. and Cuba the possibility that engagement offers in order to cling to a confrontational policy that has yielded nothing but bitterness and poverty.

Trying to isolate another government may be intended as punishment, but the regime frequently turns that attempted isolation to its advantage. Time after time, policies that aim at “isolating” a regime inflict suffering on the civilian population while helping the regime to tighten its hold over them. We have seen that in Cuba, of course, but also in Iraq and Iran, and we are starting to see it in Russia as well. Ending that isolation and taking away the regime’s chief distraction and excuse can be far more politically damaging to a regime than economic pressure. More to the point, establishing normal relations with as many states as possible is beneficial for the United States and our interests, and that is what our foreign policy is supposed to be doing. Our policy towards another country shouldn’t be driven by a desire to settle scores from decades ago or by an obsession with overthrowing its government. These passions inevitably distort the policy and make it harder to adapt to contemporary realities.

It’s important to repeat again and again that establishing normal diplomatic relations is the bare minimum of engagement with another country. The U.S. maintains normal relations with all kinds of governments, including some of the very worst in the world. That isn’t because we approve of everything they do, nor is it because we are doing them any favors by having normal relations, but because this is the kind of relationship all governments seek to have with each other except in times of crisis or war. There is no good reason for the U.S. and Cuba not to have normal relations today, and so we should have them. If the U.S. refused to have normal relations with every state because of its authoritarian character or the abuses it has committed, as Rubio claims to want, it would have to shut down its embassies in half the countries around the world

Unless there are extremely good reasons not to, the U.S. should seek to maintain normal relations with as many states as possible. The U.S. gains nothing by depriving itself of the ability to have its interests fully represented in other countries, and obviously stands to lose quite bit. That is especially true in those states that mistreat their people and govern in an authoritarian and abusive fashion. These are the states that most need to be opened to outside influences, and they are the states that are often the most opposed to the U.S. Having diplomatic representation in these countries not only helps to secure U.S. interests there, but it also provides an opening for communication with the people of that country. That can better inform the people of the other country about the U.S. and it can also better inform our government about the real conditions and attitudes inside the country, and that has the potential to reduce tensions between our governments, to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings, and to correct false reports when they appear.

Despite their constant chattering about the importance of American “leadership” and their rejection of “disengagement,” hawks are remarkably hostile to all aspects of diplomacy. We have known that about Rubio for a while, but his position on normalization of relations with Cuba confirms it. Hawks are allergic to reaching deals with unsavory regimes even when these deals help secure U.S. interests, and they are opposed to sending ambassadors to these countries for fear of “rewarding” the host government. It never seems to occur to them that depriving the U.S. of diplomatic relations with other countries reduces and limits U.S. influence. They simply fear and hate diplomacy, and try to come up with excuses to interfere with it or derail it whenever possible. Show me someone who claims to be alarmed by so-called U.S. “retreat” from the world, as Rubio does, and I’ll show you someone who is horrified by the prospect of real diplomatic engagement.

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Jeb Bush Defends Our Bankrupt Cuba Policy to the End

Jeb Bush issued a statement about the proposed normalization of relations with Cuba:

The Obama Administration’s decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba is the latest foreign policy misstep by this President, and another dramatic overreach of his executive authority [bold mine-DL]. It undermines America’s credibility and undermines the quest for a free and democratic Cuba.

This would be comical if it were coming from a pundit, but for someone interested in the presidential nomination of his party it is just embarrassing. First of all, the president can’t possibly be exceeding his authority in this case. The president has the authority to suspend or resume relations with other governments. The conduct of diplomatic relations is one of the main responsibilities that the executive has. Restoring diplomatic relations can’t possibly undermine American credibility, unless one defines having credibility as never being able to abandon or alter bad policies. U.S. “credibility” isn’t going to suffer because of this, but Bush’s reputation as a smart policy wonk should.

I don’t think Bush even has a clear idea what he means by this when he invokes U.S. credibility. He just knows that it’s the sort of thing “tough” hawks are supposed to say when presented with something the administration has done. Bush doesn’t elaborate on how having normal relations with a close neighbor will hurt the U.S., and that’s probably because there is nothing he could say to back up this claim. As for “the quest for a free and democratic Cuba,” refusing to engage with the Cuban government for fifty years has done absolutely nothing to help make Cuba more liberal or democratic. Engagement with Cuba may or may not be helpful in this regard, but it certainly can’t do any worse than the uninterrupted record of failure that Bush is defending.

If anyone was still wondering what kind of foreign policy to expect from Jeb Bush, the answer is clear: he will support failed, hard-line policies to the bitter end.

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