For those still trying to categorize President Obama’s foreign policy, look no further than his upcoming trip to Cuba. The visit is the fruition of his Cuba initiative, a policy whose main goal was always to provide a reason for the president to go to Havana and embrace the Castro brothers. The visit epitomizes his view of the world and his role in fixing the United States’s role in the world.
No benefits from his Cuba policy accrue to U.S. security, our economy, our values, or our reputation in the world. That is what’s at the core of Obama’s foreign policy: since the United States has caused problems in the world by being too rich, powerful, and influential, Obama must tame it by giving in, pulling back, and genuflecting before U.S. enemies. With false humility, he defers to those who hate us, and thus he makes the world a better place. He’s earning that Nobel Peace Prize ex post facto.
But of course someone is benefitting from the policy, and greatly: the Castro regime.
What a Young Cuban Knows that Obama Doesn’t
Imagine you are a Cuban twenty-something living in a communist system that oppresses you politically and deprives you economically. A steady diet of propaganda has told you that everything wrong in Cuba is the United States’ fault. To be sure, enough information gets into Cuba that you know there is more to the story. Moreover, no matter what you have been told through official channels, you and your friends would escape to the United States in a heartbeat if you could.
But now the U.S. president is demonstrating that he agrees with the propaganda. Every time over the last year that he has condemned the U.S. embargo and called for normalization and an end to Cuba’s “isolation,” the regime made sure you heard it on state TV and radio.
Nevertheless, because you know the regime far better than Obama does, you don’t take his word at face value any more than you do the regime’s. You have lived the reality of communist oppression your whole life, as have your parents and grandparents. You know the Ladies in White are assaulted regularly as they process to church in support of their imprisoned loved ones.
You know that the youth of Cuba—people like you—who dare to raise their voices in street demonstrations are subject to extra-judicial kidnappings. You know that young Cubans who express their political views through their art, like the rapper Omar Sayut, are jailed for offending the regime’s sensibilities. And you know that 50 years of trade with Europeans and Canadians and anyone else in the world willing to risk doing business with Cuba have made little difference for any Cuban except privileged party members.
You suspect that with Obama’s initiative you are watching a reenergizing of the regime, a regime that holds you in contempt while the octogenarians and younger party cadres eager to take their places solidify their hold on power. You know more than Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry because you live this life, but also because you don’t embrace an absurd worldview that holds the United States responsible for the crimes and incompetence of a dictatorship you experience every day.
Inconvenient Facts about the Cuba Deal
But intentions matter most to the Obama administration. They offer a lot of rhetoric in defense of their Cuba policy. They say it is designed to overturn a failed policy based on an embargo that has not accomplished its goals. They say it is designed to boost Cuba’s economy for the sake of the average Cuban by ending the island’s isolation. They say they hope political reform will be the ultimate result of the new policy. And they say better relations will result in more cooperation on our common security interests in the hemisphere.
Some inconvenient facts contradict them. First, the U.S. embargo was codified into a law, the Libertad Act, that contains a clear path for normalizing relations and expanding commerce. That path is for the Cuban regime to allow free elections and embrace democratic governance. Second, most of the world trades with Cuba and has for years, so the U.S. embargo is not the cause of Cuban economic deprivation. Rather, communism is.
Third, the Castro dictatorship, even after all of Obama’s kowtowing, maintains its close hold on Cuba’s economy so it can keep the party and the military business barons rich and content. Obama and Kerry might be naïve about what is going on here, but the regime is surely not.
Fourth, as to Obama’s hopes of catalyzing political reform, one need only note that since the president’s initiative was rolled out, arrests of political dissidents have skyrocketed and are now at a five-year high. Raul Castro knows his mark, and is making sure any Cuban (or American official) foolish enough to believe he and Obama have reached a deal to end the communists’ reign will be sorely disappointed.
Fifth, as to Obama’s hope for a regional partnership on common security interests, the Cuban regime and Russia continue to discuss their own partnership to reopen a spying outpost at Lourdes, not to mention the nefarious Cuba-North Korea connection and Cuba’s long history of being on the wrong side of the drug war.
How Obama’s Worldview Explains His Policies
The Cuba initiative and anticipated visit might help us understand why Barack Obama’s foreign policy is truly sui generis. The United States has never before had a president like him who sees the world as he does, who believes it is his job to fix the main problem in the world: the United States’ overweening role in the world.
I’ve observed Obama apologists (and some academics who should know better) over the years try to categorize Obama’s foreign policy as something familiar and therefore less objectionable than what could be summed up as “We are the change we have been waiting for.”
But let us dispense with all that. First, Obama is not a realist. They maximize power to ward off threats, and they give no handouts without getting something for security in. If anyone thinks the president is a realist, he should admit Obama is not a very good one. Neither is Obama a liberal internationalist (what used to be called “idealism”), although he comes close. These defer to international institutions whenever they can, but Obama has played the “cowboy” just as he accused George W. Bush of it.
Witness Libya, a ham-handed intervention if ever there was one. He might want this label if forced to choose one, but he’s sinned against that orthodoxy with both Libya and his drone wars. Nor is Obama a nationalist, but is quite the opposite. Suffice to say there is very little of Old Hickory in him, what with his undefended red lines and the mullahs’ humiliation of our armed forces.
That leaves us with a lesser-known but important tradition in international relations, critical theory. I won’t bother with all the jargon this approach is laden with (its roots are in Marxism so, you know, it would be abstruse when it is not fatuous), but it sums up to this: the exploiting classes of the world have insisted that the arc of history is toward Western Civilization’s goals and methods, but this is wrong and should be thwarted by the oppressed peoples of the world. They have a right to be heard, to be respected, and to chart their own courses without the West being the model. Critical theory encourages a non-Western centric foundation for analysis, then says, “Let’s see what happens when the oppressed are free to be themselves and follow their own ideas.”
Well, good luck with that. These theorists have never been very optimistic that their urgings will be heeded. But just think: what if the leader of the free world agreed with them?
Obama, the West’s Anti-Hero
This view comes as close to explaining (and justifying) Obama’s view of the world as I can imagine. His platitudes about commerce and democracy notwithstanding (note I did not say “free markets,” because I don’t hear him talk much about them, and he’s dramatically reduced our moral and material support for democrats around the world), Obama’s actions in the world trumpet that the United States, as the leader of the Western world, has been the cause of the problems of the non-Western world, and that has to be righted by the emergence of a tamer, quieter, more conciliatory, and accommodating United States.
It so happens that this theory also would have made it convenient for a truly revolutionary president of the United States to thrust himself upon the world stage, give the first in a series of speeches denigrating his own country, and then receive the Nobel Peace Prize (presumably for that speech, since he’d done nothing else on the world stage).
His “bold” initiatives would soon follow: a reset with Russia that ends our missile defense commitment to Eastern Europe; the Iranian deal that rewards them with billions of dollars for terrorism and a path to a nuclear weapon; this Cuba initiative that lets Castro continue to single-handedly determine the future of nine million people; and, if the Wall Street Journal has it right, something has been in the works recently to give the North Koreans the bilateral talks they so desperately want without having to curb their nuclear saber-rattling.
In short, critical theory provides support for Obama’s steadfast belief in his own importance and wisdom. It is all about him. It always has been. Or at least it is more about him than anything else.
The End of American Exceptionalism
I wish to be wrong about the trip. I hope he’ll surprise us all and do something noble while he’s there being presidential and theory-testing. Even as he embraces Fidel and Raul and offers condolences for the loss of their brother, Ramon, who died this week (an agriculturalist and not much of a revolutionary), he should make a show of his and Kerry’s declarations that they care about political reform.
It is too late for him to fix this initiative by demanding reciprocity for the sake of the Cuban people as well as the United States’s reputation, but I would be the first to applaud him if he were to make a scene by trying to visit with dissidents—not regime-approved dissidents, but the Ladies in White, the Cuban Youth Movement for Democracy, and others like them—then leave the visit early when he’s refused.
But I’m not holding my breath. It is about him and his legacy with his base of support that sees him as the first president they can be proud of, precisely because he agrees that the United States is not exceptional and not the greatest force for good the world has ever known.