Home » Archive by category "Cuba"


Isn’t it Time?

Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn recently made their second trip to Cuba. Carter also went in 2002. Both trips, undertaken as a private citizen (but no former president is really a private citizen), were designed to try and move U.S – Cuba relations in a more positive direction.

Predictably, Carter was immediately denounced as a “shill for Castro” and an apologist for the Cuba government. Such criticism seems to roll of the former president’s back like water off a duck and Carter’s report on the visit, posted at the Carter Center website, paints a much different picture of what he did and said in Havana. Here’s the concluding paragraph of his trip summary:

“Both privately and publicly I continued to call for the end of our economic blockade against the Cuban people, the lifting of all travel, trade, and financial restraints, the release of Alan Gross [a jailed U.S. contractor] and the Cuban Five [Cuban dissidents], an end to U.S. policy that Cuba promotes terrorism, for freedom of speech, assembly, and travel in Cuba, and the establishment of full relations between our two countries. At the airport, Raul [Castro, the Cuba president] told the press, ‘I agree with everything that President Carter said.'”

For 50 years the United States has had an embargo against Cuba. During the Bush Administration and for most of that 50 years, it has been extremely difficult, even illegal, to travel to Cuba. Trade has been strictly banned. The Obama Administration has relaxed the travel rules some, but the chance that the two countries might actually get on a path to more normal relations remains wrapped around the axle of south Florida politics. The Cuba-American community there, largely Republican voters, remains a potent political force and last I checked Florida still played an outsized role in presidential politics. For years the political facts of life in one state have largely dictated the nation’s policy toward Cuba.

Nevertheless, by almost any measure our Cuban policy has run its course, and not just because I’d like to buy an extremely expensive Cuba cigar in the United States. At one time, post-Bay of Pigs and post-Cuban missile crisis it was easy to make the argument that Fidel Castro’s island regime was settling in to become a genuine threat to U.S. and Latin American security. Cuba did meddle in revolutions in far away places, like Angola, but today there is much reason to acknowledge that the Cuba-Soviet relationship was never as seamless as we feared nor was Castro, the socialist revolutionary, as effective as we might have thought. Cuba’s economy struggles today and the embargo, rather than bringing down Castro, has hurt the Cuban people and given the regime its anti-American reason d’etre.

Here’s the analogy that works for me. We’ve had 50 years of deadlock and non-engagement with Cuba, a country 90 miles from our shores, while halfway around the world, thanks originally to Nixon and Kissinger, we have engaged the Chinese and, I would argue, slowly, but steadily, helped bring a measure of the free market and openness in that communist country. We may have gone too far. The Chinese now threaten our economic leadership in the world. At the same time, we engage Vietnam, a country in which we fought a long and bloody war, with trade and diplomacy. We have an unsteady, but absolutely necessary relationship with Putin, the old KGB chief, in Russia. But nothing of any substance with Cuba.

Idaho and other Pacific Northwest conservatives, guys like Sen. Mike Crapo and Gov. Butch Otter, have long pushed for more trade opportunities with Cuba, the Castro brothers notwithstanding. In February 2008, Crapo signed a bipartisan letter to the Bush Administration, asking for a rethinking of U.S. policy in light of the resignation of Fidel Castro.

“Our current policy deprives the United States of influence in Cuba,” Crapo wrote, “including the opportunity to promote principles that advance democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.  By restricting the ability of Americans to travel freely to Cuba, we limit contact and communication on the part of families, civil society, and government.  Likewise, by restricting the ability of our farmers, ranchers, and businesses to trade with Cuba, the United States has made itself irrelevant in Cuba’s growing economy, allowing Cuba to build economic partnerships elsewhere.”

Cuba presents a “Nixon goes to China” moment. Relaxing trade restrictions and putting the countries on a path to more normal relations, requires conservative, trade-oriented Republicans, like Crapo, to keep pushing.

In a 2005 report, the libertarian-leaning CATO Institute, labeled our country’s Cuba policy “four decades of failure.” CATO’s trade policy director Daniel Griswold wrote: “The most powerful force for change in Cuba will not be more sanctions, but more daily interaction with free people bearing dollars and new ideas.” Indeed.

World-class cigars aside, Cuba can’t have much to sell to us. They import most of their food and manufactured goods. By contrast, we have everything the Cubans need from automobiles to high rise resort hotels, from Idaho potatoes to Washington apples. Continuing sanctions is simply a huge missed opportunity.

Jimmy Carter left office in 1981 with a 34% approval rating. His tenure remains controversial, but his standing in the history books aside, Carter has quietly and effectively been a model “ex-president.” His selfless work in Africa to end disease, his election monitoring around the world and his advocacy for women continue to be impressive. As one of the few Americans to engage at the highest levels with Cuba’s political elite, with dissidents, artists and religious leaders, he deserves a fair hearing on Cuba.

Pure south Florida politics aside, when Jimmy Carter and Mike Crapo are on the same page about Cuba, everyone should be listening.


Obama’s War

afghanistanWar is the unfolding of miscalculations – Barbara Tuchman

I have a clear memory of an old basketball coach from high school who preached a simple strategy. Coach would say when someone was trying to make a particularly difficult play, for example, a flashy, behind the back pass when simple and straightforward would do, “Don’t try to do too much.”

I have been thinking about that old coach this week as I’ve watched President Obama ensure that America’s longest war – our eight years and counting in the graveyard of empires, Afghanistan – will last a good deal longer. Afghanistan is Obama’s war now and I cannot escape the feeling that the president has made the decision – for good or bad – that will define all the rest of his historic presidency. We all hope he got it right. There is a good chance he has made the mistake of trying to do too much.

A nagging sense of deja vu hangs over his decision. We have seen this movie before and, as one of the president’s critics from the right – George Will – suggests, we won’t like the way it ends. As an Idaho and Northwest history buff, I am also struck by a realization of something missing from the political debate aimed at defining the correct policy approach in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The missing element, it seems to me, is hard headed consideration of the limits of American power and influence. Deja vu all over again. We have seen this movie before, as well, and the end is not very satisfying.

An Idaho Perspective on Limits

Idaho has had two remarkable United States Senators who played major national and international roles in formulating our country’s foreign policy in the 20th Century. William Borah, a progressive Republican, served 33 years in the Senate and chaired the once-powerful Foreign Relations Committee in the 1920’s. Frank Church, a liberal Democrat, served 24 years in the Senate and chaired the same committee in the 1970’s.

The Idahoans wielded political power in vastly different times and a half century apart. In the broad sweep of history, we have to say both lost their fundamental battles to shape American attitudes about the limits of our power and influence. There is a direct link from that failure to the president standing in front of the cadet corps at West Point earlier this week.

Borah’s influence was at its zenith in the interval between the two great wars of the 20th Century when he served as chief spokesman of the non-interventionist approach to foreign affairs. Church’s time on the world stage coincided with the post-war period when international Communism dominated our concerns and Vietnam provided all the proof we should ever need about the limits of American power.

It can only be conjecture, but I would bet that neither of the men from Idaho, who once exercised real influence in the Senate, would be comfortable with the president’s course in Afghanistan. The reason is pretty simple. Both Borah and Church, passionately committed to American ideals and to representative democracy, believed that even given the awesome power of the country’s military, there are real limits to what America power can accomplish in the world. Historically, both felt America had repeatedly embraced the errands of a fool by believing that we could impose our will on people and places far removed and far different from us. Their approach to foreign policy and identifying American interests was defined by limits and certainly not by the belief that we can do it all.

In his day, Borah opposed sending the Marines to Nicaragua to police a revolution. It simply wasn’t our fight or responsibility, he argued, and the effort would prove to be beyond the limits of American influence. Church never believed that American air power and 500,000 combat troops could help the Vietnamese sort out a civil war. Both were guided by the notion that Americans often make tragic mistakes when we try to do too much.

Other Northwesterners of the past – the Senate’s greatest Majority Leader, Mike Mansfield of Montana, Oregon’s pugnacious maverick Wayne Morse and the elegant, thoughtful Mark Hatfield – counseled presidents of both parties to understand our limits. Those reminders hover over our history and this moment in time.

None of this is to say that there are not real and compelling American interests in shutting down the 21st Century phenomenon of Jihadist terrorism. We do have legitimate interests and we must keep after this strategic imperative. But, the foundation of any successful strategy is correctly defining the problem and understanding the limitations.

Is projecting an additional 30,000 American troops into one of the world’s most historically difficult places, in the midst of tribal, religious and cultural complexity, the right approach? And, does it address the right problem? We’ll find out. The British and Russians found out before us.

As Barbara Tuchman made clear in her classic book The Guns of August – the book centers on the miscalculations and unintended consequences that helped precipitate the First World War – wars never unfold as planned. Miscalculations and faulty assumptions always get in the way of grand strategy.

Assuming progress on a tight timeline, assuming better behavior from a stunningly corrupt Afghan government, assuming our brave and talented troops can “nation build,” where others have failed time and again, are calculations and assumptions that may just not go as planned.

Grant the president this: he inherited a mess and no good option. Also, like Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam and Harry Truman in Korea, he faces great political pressure not to display weakness or signal American retreat. It has never been in the presidential playbook to candidly discuss the limits of our power and influence. The American way is to believe we can do it all.

One of the great “what ifs” of 20th Century American history, particularly the history of presidential decision-making, is the question of what John Kennedy, had he lived and been elected to a second term in 1964, would have done with American involvement in Vietnam.

Many historians now believe, with a second term secure and political pressure reduced, JFK would have gotten out. We’ll never know. We do know what Johnson did, and his inability to confront the limits of national power and define precise American interests destroyed his presidency. History may well record that George W. Bush and Barack Obama failed to confront the same limits and correctly define precise interests.

Kennedy once said this: “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie: deliberate, continued, and dishonest; but the myth: persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.”

As we head into the cold and gray of another long winter in the rugged, deadly mountains of Afghanistan, we may again – I hope I’m wrong – confront the persistent, persuasive and unrealistic myth that America’s military – motivated, trained and determined as it is – can do everything.

As I said, I hope I’m wrong.