An Offer Castro Couldn't Refuse - or Survive

An Offer Castro Couldn't Refuse - or Survive

Mini Teaser: The facts of the international scene have changed drastically in the last few years, but not many conservative pundits have changed their minds.

by Author(s): Owen Harries

One of the regular features in the lively new English magazine, Prospect, is called "Previous Convictions." In it, a contributor is invited each month to explain how and why he came to change his opinion on some issue. Introducing the series at the top of the page is a tart remark by John Maynard Keynes: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"

Keynes' question is one that could usefully be put just now to many conservative pundits on U.S. foreign policy. The "facts" of the international scene have changed drastically in the last few years; how much changing of mind has accompanied this transformation? Regrettably, in many instances the answer would have to be: Not much. Instead, what has been evident is the all too familiar phenomenon of people responding to change by energetically digging deeper into entrenched positions, pausing as they do so only to complain about the inconstancy of those who refuse to follow their example.

I've already discussed Robert Kagan in these terms in a previous Quarterly, but he is far from alone. Another example is provided by Joshua Muravchik in his new book, The Imperative of American Leadership, reviewed in this issue. When Muravchik offers an explanation of why, now that the Cold War is over, many of us have opted for a more discriminating and less "proactive" foreign policy than the one he favors, he does so not in terms of a rational (even if, from his point of view, misguided) response to changed circumstances, but in terms of a "collapse of confidence" in America or a "lethargy" on the part of the offending parties. Another example of unreconstructed thinking was provided at a Washington seminar recently, when a distinguished commentator who occupied prominent positions in both the Reagan and Bush administrations (Chatham House Rules, so no name in this instance) characterized the countries of today's Central Europe as "neutrals" stuck in a "no-man's land." For him the basic model of East-West conflict was clearly as serviceable as ever.

One can only go so far in discussing this whole issue in general terms before becoming a bore, and becoming bogged down in disputes over words. Better to focus on a particular example, which allows one to be more particular and concrete; and what better example to focus on than the emotional and contentious issue of American relations with Castro's Cuba, which came back into the news with a bang in the spring. Let me explain, then, why, after thirty-six years of being a tough guy on this issue, I have now changed my mind.

As long as the Cold War was in progress, and America's conflict with the Soviet Union was of overriding concern, Cuba mattered for two reasons. First, it was a geopolitical threat as an ally of, and potential base for, a rival superpower, especially as it was strategically situated only ninety miles off the coast of Florida. As such it was the location for the most serious crisis of the Cold War. It also could, and did, provide significant numbers of troops to support Soviet ventures in Africa and elsewhere. Second, ideologically it threatened to contaminate and subvert Latin America and the Caribbean with potent Marxist-Leninist ideas and insurgency.

Some would argue that it was important for a third reason, because of U.S. concern over human rights. This, however, is not convincing. Disgraceful as Castro's human rights record has been, the United States tolerated similar, and even worse, violations in other Latin American countries over the same period without acting to punish or end them. In the case of Cuba, human rights as a foreign policy issue was much more a function of geopolitical concern and ideological hostility than an independent variable.

With the end of the Cold War, the rationale of the very tough policy followed by the United States toward Cuba over the last three and a half decades has collapsed. Cuba is no longer the strategically placed ally of an unfriendly superpower. The attraction and subverting power of Marxism-Leninism in the region, as elsewhere, has declined to somewhere between slight and zero. Objectively, then, there is no reason why Cuba should today have more importance attached to it than has been given any other obnoxious and inefficient Latin American dictatorship over the decades. It is extremely unpleasant for those who live under it--as is the case with many, many countries in the world--but in the larger American foreign policy scheme of things, it is no longer of great importance and should fade as a significant issue.

But that, of course, is not how things are, and this for several reasons. First, there are a large number of Cuban exiles in Florida with strong feelings on the subject, and they have political clout. For them Cuba is the highest priority, and they see the matter in simple, uncomplicated terms of good and evil, an issue to be determined on its own merits rather than one that has to be fitted into the larger pattern of American interests and obligations. If I were a Cuban exile that is the way I would see things--but it is not the way in which responsible policymakers can afford to see them. Neither the perspectives of exiles nor the politics of Dade County should determine American policy.

But the influence of the Cuban exiles does not in itself explain the salience of the Cuba issue. For they would not have such a high purchase on policy were it not for the fact that Castro has such a powerful ability to affect American emotions. I say Castro, and not Cuba, because in a very real sense what the United States has--and has had since 1960--is a Castro policy, not a Cuba policy: hatred of (and a fascination with) him has become an independent driving force. That, and the irrational fear that any step back from the policies of the Cold War will set in motion a wholesale retreat to isolationism.
The result of all this is that today we have an absurd state of affairs in which the remnants of the grand, global strategy of the Cold War are being applied to a squalid local tyrant. Indeed, the policy of embargo has now been made tighter than it was when Cuba had real strategic significance, and in a way that virtually guarantees serious friction with other Western countries who choose to trade with the island.

"The circumstances", said Edmund Burke, "are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind." It is the inappropriateness of applying an old policy to new circumstances--reversing the Biblical error and pouring old wine into new bottles--that is the main cause of my changing my mind on America's Cuba policy.

But there are also some other compelling reasons. The existing policy has now been pursued for over three and a half decades, and at the end of that time Castro is still there and the plight of the people of Cuba is still abysmal. In other words, the policy is a resounding failure, and it is time to say enough and to try something new. Again, I have come to realize--and the crisis earlier this year over the shooting down of the two civilian aircraft was enlightening in this respect--that it is not only that U.S. policy has not achieved the desired end, but that it is counterproductive. There is actually a synergy between American toughness on the one hand and Castro's survival capacity on the other. Moreover, Castro is perfectly aware of this synergy and whenever he feels that his position is weakening--as, with the creation of the Cuba Council by diverse dissident groups in February, he almost certainly felt on this occasion--he manipulates things to produce a crisis that is intended to evoke a stern response from Washington. And, of course, Washington usually obliges, as it did in March with the Helms-Burton Act.

My change of mind was also prodded by John Chettle's eloquent argument in these pages ("The American Way", Fall 1995) that no dictatorship can withstand the full frontal impact--political, economic, cultural, social--of the United States for long. It is worth repeating its essence:

"One can lay down a general rule: Any despot inclined to maintain his position should avoid contact with the United States at all costs, even when--perhaps particularly when--the latter comes bearing gifts. Those rulers who have, for whatever reasons, lived by this injunction have enjoyed long and honored lives, and have been followed by crowds, weeping with apparent regret, at their funerals. Kim Il Sung of North Korea, Enver Hoxha of Albania, and Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran are testimony to this truth. . . .

But the moment Americans get involved--with their endless soul-searching, their endemic ethnocentrism, their constant moralizing, their relentless desire to do good, and their well-
placed faith in the ability of their own system to provide good governance--a despotic regime is in trouble. Fortunately, most despotic governments do not realize this, or, to the extent they do, they have an unbounded faith in their own ability to take the Americans for a ride, or to control the process of change. Such an assumption is not, on the face of it, illogical. Most despotic governments preside over peoples cowed by police power. Most have large armies. Most appear stable. But despite all this, once isolation has been breached, the result is well-nigh irreversible."

Current standards of polemics being what they are, it is perhaps necessary to point out that what Chettle is advocating as general policy, and what I have come to accept in the case of Cuba, is the opposite of an isolationist policy. It is one of full, multifaceted engagement. Nor is it a status quo policy, for its object is Castro's destruction. Given his understanding of the advantages of keeping his distance from the United States and maintaining a general atmosphere of hostility (something he shares with the other survivors listed by Chettle), it is likely that Castro would try to resist such a policy despite its enormous economic benefits to his country. But it would be very difficult for him to sustain that resistance for long in the face of a bland, persistent, American forthcomingness. It would be an offer he could not ultimately refuse.

Despite the combined weight of these various secondary arguments, it could be claimed that as long as the Cold War continued, its imperatives were overriding, and that--for both strategic and ideological reasons--they demanded an unyielding hostility to Castro. But now these imperatives no longer apply, and it is time to think again. When the facts change, what do you do, sir?

Essay Types: Essay