Blogs

America's Palestine Refugee Policy Is Insane

The Buzz

One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. By any measurement, Western policy towards United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the internationally funded agency for Palestinian “refugees,” meets that definition. One example is the newly released 2015 State Department Framework for Cooperation Between UNRWA and the U.S.

This exercise in repetition occurred in the wake of a war that again exposed UNRWA’s unsavory and illegal activities, from being “shocked” that its schools were used to store Hamas’ rockets and rote condemnations of Israel, to its employees cheering the murder of Israelis. The framework nevertheless represents the American commitment to prolong the existence of UNRWA, established almost exactly 65 years ago.

The bulk of the document deals with UNRWA management. For example, there are the “15 objectives of the Medium Term Strategy” and the “Development of Strategic Response Plans for each of UNRWA’s five fields of operation through a consultative process.” The document also speaks of the “Continued implementation of ongoing management reforms, particularly in the areas of results-based management, resource mobilization, human resources, transition to and management of a new enterprise resource planning (ERP) data management system, and internal communications.”

These reflect the professionalization of UNRWA from a temporary relief organization into a multifaceted international organization dealing with Palestinian “basic education, health, relief and social services, microcredit, camp improvement and infrastructure and other assistance,” and “human development of Palestinian refugees by improving living conditions, economic potential, livelihoods, access, and human rights.” In other words, all the things that a Palestinian state should be doing for its citizens at home and outside its borders.

They also take for granted that UNRWA will not only continue to exist through at least 2021 (the end of the next five year planning cycle,) but will also grow in both scope and size, then and beyond. There is no talk about limiting UNRWA’s operations, or turning responsibilities over to the Palestinian Authority or to countries that host Palestinian “refugees.” In fact, the only talk about an end to UNRWA is the boilerplate statement that “The goal of U.S. support to UNRWA is to ensure that Palestinian refugees live in dignity with an enhanced human development potential until a comprehensive and just solution is secured.” Left unsaid is the fact that only the United Nations General Assembly can dissolve UNRWA, and that body’s definition of a “comprehensive and just solution” to the Arab-Israeli conflict is unlikely to be realized anytime soon, if ever.

The Framework does make a sideways nod to the reality that the 2014 Gaza War generated some bad publicity for UNRWA, during the course of which American legislators demanded investigations into how Hamas weapons found their way into UNRWA schools. For the State Department the matter is pressing particularly given that Section 301(c) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (amended) states that “No contributions by the United States shall be made to (UNRWA) except on the condition that (UNRWA) take all possible measures to assure than no part of the United States contribution shall be used to furnish assistance to any refugee who is receiving military training as a member of the so-called Palestine Liberation Army or any other guerilla-type organization or who has engaged in any act of terrorism.”

Thus the new Framework states:

“The United States and UNRWA share concerns about the threat of terrorism, including within the context of the United Nation’s firm commitment to counter terrorism and the conditions on U.S. contributions to UNRWA under section 301(c). To this end, UNRWA is committed to taking all possible measures to ensure that funding provided by the United States to support UNRWA is not used to provide assistance to, or otherwise support, terrorists or terrorist organizations.

The United States and UNRWA intend to continue to work together throughout 2015 to enhance collaboration and communication on issues related to conformance with conditions on U.S. contributions to UNRWA as detailed in section 301(c). The United States supports UNRWA’s policy to take all possible measures to ensure that staff members understand and fulfill their obligations, under Agency Rules and Regulations, to refrain from prohibited outside activities.”

This constitutes an UNRWA commitment to update its human resources manuals, nothing more. There is no mention of UNRWA’s refusal to use U.S. or Israeli terror watch lists to ensure any commitment to combat terrorism.

The unreality is compounded by the still more ludicrous statement that the U.S. “notes with appreciation efforts taken by UNRWA during the course of 2014 to strengthen the Agency’s neutrality compliance, including but not limited to the development of social media guidelines for official UNRWA communications…”

Whether the UNRWA spokesman crying on camera while being interviewed constitutes “neutrality compliance” is unclear, as is the celebration of the recent Jerusalem murders of rabbis on the Facebook pages of UNRWA teachers. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect UNRWA employees, the vast majority of whom are Palestinian, to express neutrality. But if that is the case, then the Framework’s endorsement of “UNRWA’s human rights, conflict resolution, and tolerance education program” may also be questioned, or at least its implementation.

But a deeper look at the document and the background of the American commitment to UNRWA suggests another vast disconnect. The framework states “All U.S. foreign assistance programs are required to demonstrate performance and accountability, and clearly link programming and funding directly to U.S. policy goals.” How prolonging the Palestinian “refugee” issue through the permanent institutionalizing of UNRWA serves U.S. policy goals is mystifying.

Beyond that, UNRWA officials at the top continue to defend the Palestinian “right of return,” in speeches as well as on official web pages, not to mention its pervasive promotion in UNRWA schools. How does promoting the Palestinian ideology that they are entitled to return to places once occupied by parents, grandparents and great-grandparents which are now in Israel, and in the process transform Israel into a Jewish minority state, serve U.S. policy, much less the cause of peace?

The new U.S.-UNRWA Framework is foreign policy by inertia. In 2013 that inertia cost $294,023,401, the amount of the U.S. contribution to UNRWA (in addition to $356,700,000 in aid to the Palestinian Authority). U.S. support to UNRWA kept Palestinians in stasis, promoted Palestinian rejectionism, and did not advance the cause of peace, or U.S. policy.

Asaf Romirowsky is an adjunct fellow at the Middle East Forum. Alexander Joffe is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow of the Middle East Forum. They are co-authors of the book Religion, Politics, and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief.

Image:Wikimedia/DFID/ CC by 2.0​

TopicsPolitics RegionsMiddle East

The Most Dangerous Nuclear Threat No One Is Talking About

The Buzz

While Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs are all the rage these days, the most dangerous nuclear threat facing the world continues to go largely unnoticed.

Namely, China and India are both on the cusp of deploying multiple independently targetable reentry (MIRV) vehicles on their ballistic missiles, a development that is likely to have profound, far-reaching consequences for the region and beyond.

MIRVed missiles carry payloads of several nuclear warheads each capable of being directed at a different set of targets. They are considered extremely destabilizing to the strategic balance primarily because they place a premium on striking first and create a “use em or lose em” nuclear mentality.

Along with being less vulnerable to anti-ballistic missile systems, this is true for two primary reasons. First, and most obviously, a single MIRVed missile can be used to eliminate numerous enemy nuclear sites simultaneously. Thus, theoretically at least, only a small portion of an adversary’s missile force would be necessary to completely eliminate one’s strategic deterrent. Secondly, MIRVed missiles enable countries to use cross-targeting techniques of employing two or more missiles against a single target, which increases the kill probability.

In other words, MIRVs are extremely destabilizing because they make adversary’s nuclear arsenals vulnerable to being wiped out in a surprise first strike. To compensate for this fact, states must come up with innovative ways to secure their deterrent from an enemy first strike. This usually entails increasing the size of one’s arsenal, and further dispersing to make it more difficult for an enemy to conduct a successful first strike. For example, when the U.S. first deployed MIRVed missiles in 1968, the Soviet Union had less than 10,000 nuclear warheads. A decade later, however, it had over 25,000 (of course, the Soviet Union deploying its own MIRVed missiles incentivized expanding the size of its arsenal since more warheads were needed per missile).

With regards to China and India, then, the introduction of MIRVed missiles could have profound consequences of both of their nuclear postures. One of the most remarkable aspects of every nuclear state not named Russia or the United States is they have relied on an extremely small nuclear arsenal to meet their deterrent needs. This is especially true of India and China who have generally maintained minimum deterrence and no-first use doctrines. With the introduction of countervailing MIRVed missiles, however, there will be strong incentives on both sides to vastly increase the size of their arsenals if any to guard against the threat of a first strike by the other side.

Of course, the consequences of China and India acquiring MIRVed missiles would not be limited to those states alone. Most obviously, India’s acquisition of MIRVed missiles would immediately threaten the survivability of Pakistan’s nuclear forces. In the short-term, this will probably result in Islamabad further dispersing its nuclear arsenal, which in general will leave it more vulnerable to Islamist terrorist groups in the country. Over the long-term, Pakistan will feel pressure to expand the size of its arsenal as well as acquire MIRVed capabilities of its own.

The same pressures will be felt in Moscow. Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia has relied on its vast nuclear arsenal to compensate for its relative conventional weakness. In the eyes of Russian leaders, this will only grow more necessary as China continues to modernize its conventional military forces. Currently, Russia holds vastly more nuclear warheads than China, which is a source of relief for Moscow. As China MIRVs its missiles, however, as well as likely builds up the size of its arsenal, Moscow will see its nuclear superiority over Beijing rapidly erode. It can be counted on to respond by abrogating its arms control treaties with the United States, and expanding its own arsenal as well. In such a situation, a U.S. president would come under enormous domestic pressure to meet Russia’s buildup warhead for warhead.

Thus, while the prospect of North Korea and Iran acquiring operationalized nuclear arsenals may be concerning, China and India’s MIRVed missiles present far greater threats to the world.

Zachary Keck is the managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

Image: Wikimedia

TopicsSecurityNuclear Weapons RegionsAsia-Pacific

Turkey's Strategic Choices

The Buzz

Over the last few weeks, a number of prominent world leaders have called on Turkey.

Late in November, for example, Vice President Joe Biden was in Turkey to discuss cooperating against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. His visit was followed by that of Russian President Vladimir Putin. This month it was Frederica Mogherini’s turn, the European Union’s new foreign policy chief. Her visit coincided with ones by Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskite, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who also holds the presidency of the European Council.

Clearly, Turkey is in high demand, but which way will Turkey actually go: East or West. East represents a world with an emphasis on sovereign democracy, state capitalism, authoritarianism, populism and the rise of religiously driven nationalism, in contrast to a West traditionally associated with liberal democracy and markets predicated on the rule of law, transparency, and accountability. Here Putin’s Russia offers a good approximation of the East compared to the transatlantic community which represents the West. It will be important to sustain the pace of these visits from members of the transatlantic community and match them with deeds to revitalize Turkey’s relations with the West, especially economic ties.

It is no surprise that Turkey is in high demand. It sits in the midst of a neighborhood in a chronic state of upheaval. Across the Black Sea, Putin’s Russia has annexed Crimea and continues to destabilize eastern Ukraine. Furthermore, Russia continues to perpetuate frozen conflicts of the post-Soviet space from Transnistria in Moldova to Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia and Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan.

However, no challenge has been greater for Turkey than the instability in Iraq and Syria. Turkey is hosting a refugee population fast approaching two million and is far from seeing the moderate opposition gain the upper hand and replace Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. Instead, the emergence of IS has further exacerbated the situation and led to Turkey being portrayed in Western media as both a key player in efforts to “degrade and ultimately defeat” IS as well as a spoiler of these efforts. The latter portrayal is often based in part on Turkey’s reluctance to support the Kurdish resistance to IS’s onslaught on the Kurdish town of Kobani located on the Syrian-Turkish border.  Some have gone so far as to accuse Turkey of directly assisting IS.

The need to improve relations with Turkey and better coordinate the fight against IS brought Biden to Turkey. The visit came on the heels of deep policy differences between the U.S. and Turkey over how to deal with IS. The U.S. emphasized the immediate threat from IS and the need for Turkey to be more forthcoming in its support to defeat IS militarily. For his part, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted on the need to create no-fly zones along the Turkish border to increase pressure on al-Assad and bring about regime change.

These differences brought bilateral relations to a new low when Biden claimed publicly that Erdogan had privately recognized Turkey’s failed policies in Syria. This remark precipitated denials and calls for an apology from the Turkish side. Nevertheless, the threat from IS and the growing instability in the Middle East elicited a more pragmatic approach from both sides, as was captured by Biden when he stated, “We need Turkey. And I think Turkey believes that they need us, as well.” Time will tell whether his remarks will translate into action on the ground and if these two allies will be able to transcend their differences and achieve greater strategic cooperation.

Russian President Putin’s visit to Turkey occurred within a week of Biden’s departure, against the backdrop of Turkey minimizing its criticisms of Putin on Crimea and Ukraine.  Such a response is very puzzling, particularly because “territorial integrity” has long been a sacrosanct principle of Turkish political culture. Turkish citizens have long been warned about conspiracies threatening Turkey’s territorial integrity and unity. Turkey’s silence is all the more puzzling considering that there is a large minority of Tatars in Crimea with close ethnic, historical and religious ties to Turkey. Much more conspicuously, in Syria, Russia and Turkey hold diametrically opposed policies: Putin has been unrelenting in his support for al-Assad, while Erdogan has been a virulent opponent and considers any attempts to compromise with him as amounting to treachery.

Turkey’s silence on Crimea is likely due in no small part to its massive dependence on Russian energy, especially natural gas. Prospects of Russian gas, coupled with Russia’s capacity to interrupt gas and petroleum flows through the South Caucasus, clearly weighs heavily on Turkey’s stance on Russia. Furthermore, Turkey runs a massive trade deficit with Russia and can only balance it partly with income from Russian tourism in Turkey and with Turkish companies doing business in Russia. Thus, maintaining good relations with Russia has become an economic sine quo non for Turkey.

There is much to be said about Putin’s leadership style and anti-Western rhetoric, which endears him to Erdogan and, to some extent, the Turkish public. One fascinating manifestation of this came at a previous meeting between the two leaders in St. Petersburg in November 2013. During a press conference, in response to a comment by Putin that “Turkey [had] great experience in EU talks,” Erdogan said, “You are right. Fifty years of experience is not easy. Allow us into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and save us from this trouble.”

Clearly, Putin has been clever in exploiting Turkey’s grievances. For example, following recent EU economic sanctions on Russia, Putin offered Erdogan the possibility of greater exports to Russia, allowing him to mitigate the impact of sanctions on consumer goods while simultaneously whetting the appetite of Turkish businesses that have lost markets in the Middle East. This has been accompanied by a promise to replace the cancelled South Stream natural gas pipeline project with an alternative one to carry gas to Europe via Turkey. As can be seen, then, Putin is trying to entice Turkey away from the West and increase its dependence on Russia.

It is against this backdrop that Mogherini’s visit becomes strategically important. Turkey’s problematic relations with the EU have been captured by a standstill in accession negotiations. Technically, for Turkish accession to be completed, 33 chapters representing the EU acquis, the corpus of EU laws and policies, have to be negotiated and closed. Croatia, which began accession negotiations together with Turkey in 2005, completed them in late 2011 and became a fully-fledged member of the EU in July of this year. In Turkey’s case, eight chapters were suspended in December 2006 by the EU while another nine chapters are being blocked by France, Cyprus, Germany and Austria. It was only last summer that the 14th chapter was finally opened for negotiations after stalling back in 2010.

However, the chaos surrounding Turkey is pushing both sides closer together. This fall, both sides expressed their will to revive relations.  Ahead of her visit to Turkey, for instance, Mogherini emphasized the strategic importance of EU-Turkish relations while Johannes Kahn, the Commissioner for the EU’s Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement, stressed the EU’s determination to get accession negotiations with Turkey back on track. Similarly, an October 2014 EU document stated that, “active and credible accession negotiations provide the most suitable framework for exploiting the full potential of EU-Turkey relations.” A similar sentiment came from Ankara when Erdogan announced that 2014 would be the year in which the EU and Turkey committed to revive the accession process. Subsequently, Minister for EU Affairs and Chief Negotiator, Ambassador Volkan Bozkır, announced “Turkey’s New EU Strategy” in Brussels in September 2014, and detailed the measures to be taken to improve ties.

Economic factors and public opinion in Turkey are also favorably disposed for an improvement in relations with the European Union. Until 2013, Turkey’s economy maintained robust growth. Since then, however, it has encountered myriad challenges, including a general slowdown in emerging economies around the world and regional instabilty. Democratic regression and a weakening of the rule of law are also frequently cited as has having an adverse impact on the Turkish economy.

Closer relations with Russia are unlikely to remedy these problems. Turkey’s exports to the EU are almost tenfold of those to Russia and nearly 70 percent of Turkey’s foreign direct investment (FDI) comes from the EU. Mogherini’s visit comes at a time when public opinion in Turkey has begun to turn in EU’s favor. According to the 2014 Transatlantic Trends published by the German Marshall Fund, after consecutive years of decline since 2006, those among the Turkish public who looked at membership favorably increased by 8 percentage points to 53 percent from 2013 to 2014. The Turkish public senses that economic, political and strategic considerations make it quite clear that Turkey needs to re-anchor itself to the transatlantic community.

The EU and the U.S. need to reinforce this trend. Mogherini’s words should be matched with action. Thus, it is paramount that the EU opens a number of new chapters for negotiations. Turkey has expressed interest in the opening of at least three chapters calling for domestic political and economic reforms. While Turkish membership is not likely to happen anytime soon, maintaining a credible process is crucial. In the meantime, it is important to take up the World Bank’s recommendation to upgrade the customs union between the EU and Turkey. The customs union helped make Turkey the 6th largest trading partner of the EU and the 16th largest economy in the world. There is also the need for greater recognition from the EU that it benefits from economic relations with Turkey, especially at a time when the EU economy is still struggling to come out of recession and sanctions on Russia are adversely impacting exports.

The strategic value of Turkey’s EU ties continues to be of great importance, particularly in light of the heightened contest between the West and Russia and deep instability throughout the Middle East. In 1995, the U.S. played a key role in supporting the negotiation and signing of Turkey’s customs union with the EU as well as Turkey’s EU membership vocation as a means to deepening Turkey’s transatlantic relations.

The U.S. should reinvigorate these efforts. Additionally, the U.S. should explore the idea of enlarging the TTIP to include Turkey or sign a bilateral free trade agreement with Turkey. This would help re-anchor Turkey to the transatlantic community, enlarge the business community with a stake in liberal market values, make Turkey a net contributor to the transatlantic economy, help with employment creation, and increase strategic cooperation. In turn, stronger and deeper relations with the West would help revive Turkey’s democracy and economy, as well as its soft power in its neighborhood. This would not necessarily mean Turkey’s relations with the East would weaken. Relations with Russia could be maintained and even expanded but without making Turkey vulnerable to Russian influence. Similarly, in the Middle East Turkey could return to the days when it was hailed as a model for the region, economically as well as politically.

Kemal Kirişci is the TUSIAD Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Program at Brookings, in Washington, DC.

Image: European Commission

TopicsDiplomacy RegionsEuropeMiddle East

Beware of Chinese Hegemony

The Buzz

Amidst misguided campaigns to make the world safe for Western liberal democracy, the global community has forgotten that authoritarian countries, too, are guilty of hegemony. Soon after Russia’s October Revolution, the Comintern billed itself as the savior of post-colonial societies looking to emerge into modernity from the yoke of Western exploitation. The price for such delivery? Adopting a Soviet system of government.

China is in danger of reviving that tradition of exporting its take on authoritarianism. Granted, its methods are much more subtle. In place of the Soviet demand for twinning, China requires loyalty in matters of foreign affairs, which often means foregoing true democracy. The country has (sincerely) insisted that, unlike the West, it is opposed to interference in the internal affairs of others.  However, a bet that China will succeed in bringing about true multilateralism where the Pax-America order has failed will prove to be a fantasy.

Last month was the culmination of China’s yearlong announcement that it will take up its own mantle of global governance. Since the lead-up to the APEC summit, Beijing has rolled out a veritable alphabet soup of multilateral organizations to challenge the much-maligned preeminence of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization.

China’s most credible claim to leadership is in the area of infrastructure development. Not surprisingly, the most developed of its multilateral initiatives is the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Twenty-one countries have subscribed to the $50 billion bank to make a dent in Asia’s $3 trillion infrastructure funding need. Significantly, South Korea and Australia did not join due to American and European diplomatic pressure. The Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, China’s bid to transform Asia into the EU lite, met with even more intense resistance. Still, the APEC nations have agreed to explore the idea.

Nor Beijing is neglecting alliance-building outside of Asia. The New Development Bank (more commonly known as the BRICS bank) was established earlier this year and is the most mature of China’s multilateral engagements outside the region. Beijing is also actively building silk roads to Central Asia, East Africa, the Middle East and Europe to facilitate trade and investment. Even the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an anti-terror security body comprised of Central Asia and China, is looking to expand and strengthen economic ties between its members.

In its new leadership role, China is promising it will avoid the traps of Western multilateralism. Namely, it will not demand that countries meet conditions for financial aid that disregard local input and circumstances. In a key foreign policy speech given late last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping rebuked the Western order and pledged that China will “respect the independent choice of development path and social system by people of other countries."

This is obviously pretense. First, China’s overseas development projects to date have often disregarded local considerations. True, its bilateral investments have filled a gap where developing countries in Latin America and Asia fail to meet the free-market, liberal requirements of organizations like the IMF and WTO. For example, the China Development Bank and China Export-Import Bank provided approximately $110 billion to developing countries in 2009 and 2010. Latin America received $79 billion from these two Chinese banks from 2003 through 2011, far outpacing the World Bank’s $57 billion. Africa, the largest beneficiary, has reportedly received approximately $170 billion in foreign investment over the last nine years. () While avoiding the political chaos and economic instability of Western-style globalization, many Chinese investment projects have nevertheless led to vast local environmental destruction. Unemployment remains untreated or worsens since China prefers to use its own workers. Local laws and regulations may remain untouched, but Sinification persists.

Second, even without explicit economic coercion, China is starting to mold its patron countries into its own image of authoritarian capitalism. This is especially pronounced in Central Asian governments, particularly the regimes of Nazarbayev’s Kazahstan and Karimov’s Uzbekistan. And despite their democratic ambitions, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Venezuela Argentina and many other recipients of Chinese dollars are all leaning towards statist models of development.

Most importantly, China’s largest foreign policy goal is to realize the China dream. Echoing Xi, Li Keqiang, China’s premier, has stated that China must pursue the “strategic goal of achieving the great renewal of the Chinese nation.” While many Asian countries are still happily signing trade agreements with the Middle Kingdom, they remain concerned about a return to the Imperial tributary system. The emperor rarely interfered, but there was an understanding that China was owed deference and political loyalty.

To be sure, China's ambitions should be encouraged if the calculus that much of the developing world has made is correct. Economic development comes before any other considerations. Being part of the Beijing sphere of influence is a small price to pay if it means importing the success of the China model.

The devil, however, is in the local details. Whatever large-scale trade agreements are agreed upon in principle, the individual member nations determine implementation. It is eminently sensible that they would want a voice in how economic investments will be used. Their fears of losing sovereignty will not be assuaged simply because a new global power is at the helm.

China has already begun to discover this with the BRICS bank. Despite being far and away the largest economy in that acronym, China made many compromises unbefitting its relative stature to share decision-making control with the others. It remains to be seen whether China will have to make similar concessions with respect to its newest multilateral ventures. While there is room for optimism given the early stages, China should beware the temptation to believe it can succeed where its Western counterparts have tried and failed.

Rebecca Liao is a corporate attorney, writer and China analyst based in Silicon Valley. Her writing has appeared in Financial Times, Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic and Bloomberg View, among various other publications. She tweets at @beccaliao.

Image: Flickr/APEC 2013/CC by 2.0​

Topicsgeopolitics RegionsAsia-Pacific

The Cuba Opening: A Welcome Blow Against the Posturing School of Foreign Policy

Paul 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.

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. Senator 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 laughing-stock 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.                                   

TopicsCuba RegionsLatin America

Pages