Obama’s Cuba Calculus

The Buzz

As a rule, President Obama has tended to make his foreign policies subservient to domestic political ends.  That is, as a leader primarily concerned with pushing through domestic reforms—healthcare, economic recovery, immigration—Obama generally takes care to limit his administration’s exposure to risky foreign endeavors.  To do otherwise would be to jeopardize success on the home front.  Viewed in this light, the president’s announcement of a rapprochement with Cuba stands out as an anomaly.  What explains the shift?

Obama always evinces a mindfulness of what the U.S. public and political system will withstand when it comes to foreign policy.  Like Bill Clinton before him, President Obama appears to be in line with public opinion—or, at least, reflexively distrustful of any sort of foreign policy behavior that would risk upsetting the domestic apple cart.  This sensibility was evident in Obama’s first-term decision to wind down the U.S. presence in Iraq against the advice of senior military advisers and in his parallel move to “surge” troop numbers in Afghanistan, for example.  It also informed Obama’s reluctance to sanction U.S. leadership in removing Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi (with the administration instead preferring to “lead from behind”) and his consistent opposition to broad involvement in the Syrian civil war.  The bottom line for President Obama has been that, while foreign policy catastrophes should be avoided, offering the least line of resistance to foreign threats usually is the best course of action.

The president’s opening to Cuba stands apart from this general pattern of statecraft.  It is difficult to divine the domestic political ends that will be served by the plans to ultimately normalize diplomatic relations with Havana.  To be sure, U.S. businesses will stand to benefit from any future investment opportunities in Cuba, but such interests have never succeeded in persuading former presidents to lift the embargo.  Average Americans might also be tempted by the prospect of visiting the Caribbean nation, yet there has been no groundswell of support for a rethink of U.S.-Cuba relations.  In fact, the groups that care most about U.S. policy towards Cuba—that is, groups representing Cuban exiles—can be counted upon to vocally oppose the move.  Nor will the policy do anything to improve President Obama’s relations with Congress, with lawmakers already lambasting the White House for once again using executive powers to institute sweeping changes in national policy.

Far from hewing to domestic opinion on the matter, then, pursuing rapprochement with Cuba might well end up hurting President Obama’s domestic standing.  So why has Obama seen fit to announce what he describes as “the most significant changes in our policy [towards Cuba] in more than fifty years”?  One explanation would be if there were pressing geopolitical reasons for reconciliation.  Yet whether Cuba is mollified or ignored makes little difference to the safety and security of the U.S. homeland.  Nor does a rapprochement with Cuba serve any broader geopolitical ends—as, for example, Obama’s earlier rapprochement with Myanmar clearly did (in that instance, as a way to tacitly balance against the rise of China).  Cuba is a small nation that lacks a superpower patron.  While Havana has much to gain from improved relations with the U.S., the relative gains for Washington, DC are hard to discern.

If not done in response to domestic or geopolitical exigencies, however, what might explain the decision to usher in a thawing of relations with Cuba?  Two factors stand out as chief culprits: opportunity and legacy.  First, the negotiations to release Alan Goss likely presented President Obama with a readily available and, presumably, well-exercised channel of communication with Havana that, one might reasonably assume, was not difficult to exploit in service of broader diplomatic ends.  Especially if it was the Cuban government that took the initiative in proposing a broad package of conciliatory reforms, it would have been easy for the administration to see (and difficult for it to reject) such a deal as low-hanging fruit, a diplomatic achievement to buffer criticism that Obama has presided over nothing but failures in terms of foreign policy.

This leads to the second factor.  As a second-term chief executive with few clear-cut achievements to show for his six years in office—whether in terms of foreign policy success or domestic political accolades—President Obama may well have concluded that rapprochement with Cuba was worth pursuing simply as “the right thing to do,” a prudent (if unpopular in some quarters) reversal of a decades’ old policy that has done nothing to produce tangible benefits either for the U.S. or for the Cuban people.  Obama might reasonably have concluded that a policy of openness towards Cuba will be judged favorably by historians as a long overdue chapter in the troubled story of U.S.-Cuban relations.  After all, it is almost axiomatic in the study of American politics that “anticipated future opinion” is perhaps the most important type of public opinion there is.

President Obama will incur some short-term domestic-political backlash over his opening to Cuba.  That much is clear.  But, merits of the policy aside, Obama arguably has acted like a true leader on this issue.  That is, he has made a far-reaching and wide-ranging foreign policy decision without any obvious deference to the domestic repercussions that he or his co-partisans will face, and has instead focused upon implementing what he views to be the most sensible and level-headed course of action for the country.  In this sense, Obama’s Cuban policy might be remembered as his first bona fide foreign policy: a decision made in blissful ignorance of the domestic political milieu above which it hovers.

Image: Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

TopicsDiplomacy RegionsAmericas

The Philippines Wants Submarines to Deter China

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The Philippines is seeking to procure three submarines a senior Philippines naval official announced on Wednesday.

According to numerous local media outlets, Caesar Taccad, the vice commander of the Philippines Navy, said that the navy has begun laying the decade-long groundwork necessary to build an effective submarine fleet.

“Submarines take a lot of gestation period,” Taccad was quoted as saying. “The rule of thumb in the development of support facilities, the people and technology of operating such a force is 10 years. Now when should we start? We can start now so we can [acquire them] 10 years from now.”

Taccad also revealed that the Philippines Navy had created a submarine office last year to help facilitate this process. “Actually we already formed a submarine office in the Philippine fleet,” he said.

The rear admiral said that the country was ultimately hoping to acquire at least three submarines but that financial constraints might limit them to only two vessels. “If you cannot afford three, get two just like we're getting two frigates and two strategic sealift vessels so they can replace each other during maintenance. If you only procure one and continuously use it, it will only last for 5 years,” he explained.

Amid ongoing disputes with China over overlapping claims in the South China Sea, the Philippines has spent PHP41 billion ($925 million) on modernizing its military platforms since President Benigno Aquino took office in 2010. Still one of the weakest military powers in the region, last month President Aquino pledged to devote an additional PHP91 billion ($2.01 billion) to modernizing the country’s defense by 2017.

Much of this, including the submarines, will go to procuring platforms to counter China in the disputed waters. “We need submarines for deterrence,” Taccad explained at the press conference.

It is not the only one, as states throughout Asia have been looking towards submarines to counter China’s growing military might. Japan has long fielded a capable undersea fleet, and is in the middle of procuring ten Soryu-class subs. It also seems increasingly likely that Australia will purchase its own Soryu-class subs from Tokyo. South Korea has also long maintained an undersea fleet, which it is rapdily expanding, and Taiwan is seeking to build new subs indigenously.  

Even before the Philippines’ decision, Southeast Asian waters have become increasingly crowded with various submarine fleets over the years. All three nations that sit atop the Malacca Strait-- Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia-- operate submarines and, perhaps most notably, at least with regards to China, Vietnam is spending $2.6 billion to acquire six Kilo-class submarines from Russia.

No word yet on which country the Philippines might turn to when it comes time to purchase its own undersea fleet.

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. He can be found on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

Image: Flickr/Official U.S. Navy Page/CC by 2.0

TopicsSecuritymilitary RegionsSoutheast AsiaSouth China Sea

Turkey’s War on Rule of Law: One Year On

The Buzz

On the morning of December 17, 2013, Istanbul police launched a massive anti-corruption operation. They detained 52 people, including the sons of three ministers, several bureaucrats, and some of Turkey’s most prominent businessmen. Within a week, on December 25, a second, even larger, probe was unveiled. This was a scandal of historic proportions, implicating the upper crust of Turkey’s ruling elite dating back to 2012. The crimes included gold smuggling and money laundering that spanned Turkey, Iran, Dubai, and China, totaling some €87 billion (appx. $108 billion) in illicit transactions.

One year later, it is clear that the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) has managed to stifle the probes through mass firings, the near-destruction of the rule of law, manipulation of the parliamentary process, and blocking the free flow of information. The AKP clampdown raises troubling questions about Turkey’s future as a democracy and a NATO ally, as well as its faltering candidacy for the EU.

At the time, Turkey’s then-Prime Minister (now president) Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed that a network of individuals had been plotting to overthrow his government. He was referring to the Gulen movement, headed by the AKP’s one-time ally, the U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan denounced what he called the Gulenists’ “parallel structure” to the Turkish state, and promptly deemed all police officers, prosecutors and investigators involved in the case as agents of the exiled cleric.

The AKP-government began to fire and re-assign Turkish policemen that were involved in the graft investigations. Within two months, the number had reached thousands. Key suspects of the probes were released from prison by the first week of March.

The AKP also abused its power to both reshuffle and restructure the Turkish judiciary. Between December 2013 and January 2014, the newly appointed chief prosecutor of Istanbul fired all of the prosecutors who had been involved in the corruption investigation. One prosecutor said that his arrest orders for key corruption suspects were never carried out and his files were confiscated. Meanwhile, nearly 100 prosecutors and judges were removed from their posts. The newly appointed prosecutors were asked to revise the original indictments to reflect the view of the AKP government, and by October, every last case in the probe was officially dropped.

The AKP government in January also introduced a proposal for structural changes to Turkey's top judiciary council, the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (known by its Turkish acronym HSYK), which appoints the country’s judges and prosecutors. The bill called for the politically appointed justice minister to replace members of the HSYK, effectively subordinating the judiciary to the executive branch. The bill passed in mid-February but was partially annulled by the Constitutional Court two months later. However, in October the AKP pushed back by promoting a list of its own candidates for the body’s new round of elections. The candidates won 8 out of the 10 seats available.

The AKP also passed several key amendments to the penal code over the last year that makes the wiretapping and tracking of corruption suspects more difficult, with the provisions applicable to only certain crimes. This undermined the original evidence collected during the graft probe, as the main method of evidence- gathering had been wiretapping. Other amendments made it mandatory for judges to seek consent from government officials before moving forward with certain cases, including those tied to the corruption scandal. Earlier this month, the Turkish government pushed through new legislation to restructure Turkey’s two top courts, the Court of Appeals and the Council of State, with judges more to its liking.

The AKP has also successfully inhibited the parliamentary process. At a special meeting in March to address the graft charges, the deputy speaker of parliament rejected proposals by all three opposition parties to formally acknowledge the allegations against the former ministers, and instead only read a summary of the charges. In May, six months after the scandal, the parliament finally set up a commission, but one whose composition was skewed, with 9 out of 15 members hailing from the AKP. The commission was supposed to conclude its inquiry within two months but has yet to do so. Last month, an Ankara court officially banned Turkish media from reporting on the parliamentary inquiry.

While the AKP has done irreparable harm to Turkish institutions, it rightfully charges that there has been an illegal campaign conducted against the ruling elite. Officials’ phones were tapped in violation of the law, and the targets even included Erdogan and his family. But instead of investigating and prosecuting these violations through due process, the AKP government has launched a hasty, messy, and unlawful prosecution of the Gulen movement. The government has also denied itself the opportunity to challenge the charges leveled during the corruption probe through legal means.

The deterioration of the rule of law in Turkey is now undeniable. Several EU officials have raised alarm about the judiciary bills, while the European Commission criticized the AKP’s moves against its police force. According to a Transparency International report released this month, Turkey’s 2014 corruption-perception rating dropped from 50 to 45 -- the largest drop for any country this year.

Nonetheless, AKP appears indifferent to the damage it is causing to Turkey’s international image. Just this weekend, the government launched a new attack on the Gulen movement, detaining at least 24 police officers and journalists without cause and, drawing even more international criticism. While these moves may have helped the Erdogan government further consolidate power, the AKP can only ignore the diplomatic consequences of its actions for so long. More importantly, it is impossible to know how much damage this will cause to the foundations of Turkey’s democracy for years to come.

Merve Tahiroglu is a research associate focusing on Turkey for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Image: Flickr/World Economic Forum/CC by 2.0.

TopicsDemocracy RegionsMiddle East

Diego Garcia: A Potential Casualty of the CIA Torture Report?

The Buzz

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s so-called “torture report” has hardly precipitated the kind of political earthquake that its authors might have hoped for.  Public reaction to the report’s contents has been muted, and it seems unlikely that any prosecutions will result from its publication.  The report’s release has been more of a damp squib than a catalyst for change because—although this truth might be difficult for some to accept—it has only succeeded in revealing details about a practice that most Americans already knew was taking place in general terms.

The domestic political fallout of the committee’s report is thus likely to be fairly well contained.  Yet the blowback might still be significant abroad.  In particular, the report has the potential to empower overseas critics of U.S. foreign policy, its myriad details of CIA wrongdoing constituting a surfeit of “facts on the ground” to bias national conversations against U.S. counterterrorism policy.  In countries where pro- and anti- American forces are pitted against each other, the Senate Intelligence Committee report offers both moral and tactical advantage to those who would like to see the U.S. global footprint curtailed.

The United Kingdom is one such potential battleground, where MPs and members of civil society alike are calling for a rethink of the U.S. military presence on Diego Garcia, a British territory in the central Indian Ocean that plays host to one of the Pentagon’s most strategically important military installations in the world.  As well as being an important staging post in America’s recent wars in the Middle East, Diego Garcia has been named as a CIA “black site” by international organizations such as the United Nations and Council of Europe, as well as human rights groups like Reprieve, who have pointed to the presence of so-called “prison ships” moored offshore as well as detention facilities on the island itself.  Coupled with the mistreatment of the island’s indigenous population as part of the base’s creation in the 1960s and 1970s, these allegations have muddied the name of Diego Garcia in the British public consciousness.  If this is the true face of the Anglo-American special relationship, is it really a love affair worth pursuing?

The CIA’s torture report was ominously silent on the topic of Diego Garcia, however, prompting accusations that the British government lobbied for its removal from the final text.  It is already a matter of public record that Diego Garcia was at least used as a fueling stop for two “rendition” flights in the 2000s.  Why, then, the pretense that Britain’s association with the rendition and/or torture programs is non-existent?  Parliamentarians in London are demanding not only answers but also access to the Senate committee’s documents.

The mounting pushback against the supposed cover-up of Anglo-American collusion could manifest itself in dramatic fashion, particularly with regards to Diego Garcia.  It is at least possible that MPs could move to block the renewal of the agreement governing U.S. access to the base, which is due to be discussed this year for renewal by 2016.  Less exceptionally, MPs could demand enhanced British oversight of what takes place on Diego Garcia or else impose limits on what the island can be used for.

Any such development would be a diplomatic headache and embarrassment for the British government, which prides itself on being a reliable ally of the United States, but losing Diego Garcia would be much more of a bombshell for the United States.  Prized for its seclusion, stability and strategic location, Diego Garcia means a great deal to military planners in the Pentagon.  It would be an upset if this prized asset was placed in jeopardy because of backlash from one of America’s closest allies.

The fact is, however, that a clandestine program of torture is rightly a tough sell—if not always at home, then certainly in some foreign quarters.  As such, the effects of the Senate report cannot be expected to be wholly ephemeral.  Political entrepreneurs abroad—especially those with an ax to grind—will make certain of that.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Master Sgt. John Rohrer

TopicsSecurity RegionsSouthwest Asia

Fixing the Mess in Syria

The Buzz

Everyone except Bashar al-Assad agrees that the only way out of the Syrian conflict lies in a negotiated political solution. Known for refusing to compromise on his objective of total victory, Assad will not bend unless other nations force him to do so. The failure of the Geneva II talks, and the success of the chemical weapons deal (agreed to in the face of U.S .air strikes) underscore how Assad responds to pressure.

Presently, the U.S.-led coalition possesses enough power to draw the Syrian regime to the negotiation table, but the coalition also finds itself in a complicated position. On the one hand, since Assad will attempt to test U.S. readiness, the United States remains unwilling to issue any threats it is not prepared to act upon. On the other hand, any major military intervention against Assad could very likely bring about a sudden regime collapse, which would greatly empower radical Islamists. 

During the last few months, three major factors have developed simultaneously that present the international community with a unique opportunity out of this dilemma. If acted upon, they could signal a potential breakthrough in the long-standing Syrian civil war.

The first factor is the increasingly accepted belief that ISIS is a symptom of the Syrian conflict. That is, it was the ongoing fighting in Syria that allowed ISIS to position itself as a potential regional force. This likely worries Assad given that Washington is currently crafting a new strategy that is expected to devote more resources to the opposition versus the regime part of the conflict, which will deny Assad the time he needs to crush the rebels.

A second factor is Assad’s failure to ally himself with the United States in the war against ISIS, unlike his main opponents (moderate Syrian rebels). If the U.S.-led coalition sends a strong signal of dedication to protecting their Syrian allies on the ground, Assad will be paralyzed for the first time since the beginning of the conflict. Of course, he will test America’s commitment to the moderate fighters by conducting minor attacks, but even a measured response from the U.S. will stymie those attempts. 

Assad will not want to escalate things with the US-led coalition because that would risk losing the support of his Alawite-dominated military. The Alawite community is currently fighting for its survival, and it will therefore desert Assad the minute them puts them on the path towards fighting a war with the U.S. in which they stand no chance at victory. Undoubtedly, in this scenario they would choose to go back home and protect their families from Islamists.

The third and final development is a “conflict freeze” proposal by the new UN mediator Staffan de Mistura. In the plan, Mistura calls for "freeze zones" to halt fighting and improve aid, and many see it as a potential first step towards a larger peace process. Notably, this proposal has already been supported by Russia, Assad’s most powerful ally.

From a military point of view, a non-escalation deadlock on the ground will translate into an unofficial ceasefire zone. From a political point of view, being unable to attack moderate rebels and fearing that he will lose his own fighters will make Assad choose a “second best” – face-saving option. Furthermore, it will motivate him to cooperate with the UN on the “freeze zones” initiative, especially since, in practice it will already exist.

Deadlock on the ground will empower the UN special envoy and this "conflict freeze" proposal could, in the long term, be a first step towards relaunching Geneva peace talks between the opposition and regime (this time in a stabilized and firmly controlled environment, where there is an equal balance of power between the two sides). At the very least, in the short term, the ceasefire zones will deny ISIS the unstable environment in which it has thus far thrived, and consequently bringing much more unity and focus into the war against the Islamic State.  

Rami Nakhla is 2014 Yale World Fellow, and member of the Syrian National Council. 

Vera Mironova is Research Fellow at Harvard Program on Negotiations and a PhD candidate at University of Maryland.

Image: Flickr/Foreign and Commonwealth Office/C.C. by 2.0.

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East