Obama's Shift on Cuba Comically Overblown

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For all the media attention paid to President Obama’s decision to “normalize” relations with Cuba, it’s not entirely clear what the president can do on his own to justify all the portentous headlines.  On its face, it would seem very little.

He cannot lift the trade embargo without congressional cooperation, which he won’t get. He cannot send a U.S. ambassador to Havana without Senate confirmation, which probably won’t happen. He cannot even expand the size of our interest section in Cuba into a full-fledged embassy without congressional appropriations, also doubtful.

He can relax travel restrictions to Cuba, but 600,000 Americans already travel every year to the island nation, mostly Cuban-Americans visiting family. It’s not clear that the number will increase that significantly in the wake of Obama’s decision.

Thanks to his announcement, those who do make the journey will for the first time be able to use their bank debit and credit cards while there. They can bring back Cuban cigars and rum as souvenirs. But neither product will be imported for sale in the U.S. unless Congress agrees to lift the trade embargo, a change of course for which the president laid no predicate on Capitol Hill.

In short, Obama’s decision is more expressive than definitive, which is by now a familiar recourse for a president whose foreign policy record abounds with symbolic statements and empty gestures. Like his executive decision not to deport some illegal immigrants, his executive action on Cuba can be reversed as easily as it was made by a successor with different priorities.

As a result, media speculation that this small alteration in U.S.-Cuban relations will work a profound change in the tyranny that has oppressed Cuban society for nearly six decades seems comically overblown. The Castro regime weathered the loss of its Soviet sponsors, who had sustained Cuba’s primitive economy, as well as the prestige it once enjoyed in parts of our hemisphere and on college campuses. It’s just a Caribbean backwater now, with antique cars, the ruined beauty of its towns and a flourishing sex tourism trade.

Yet the regime shows no sign of change or self-doubt. It’s unlikely to become a more benign agency merely because of the presence of more American tourists. I think it’s safe to assume the political prisoners Raoul Castro agreed to release, as welcome as that action is, will not find their “liberty” any less precarious should they resume their human rights advocacy.

Obama loyalists point to our normalization of diplomatic and commercial relations with China and Vietnam, which have expanded extensively even though both regimes continue to oppress their citizens. That is true. Of course, China is a great power, and its enormous impact on global security and prosperity necessitates our engagement with it. Cuba’s heyday as David to America’s Goliath has long passed. We have no important security or economic interests at stake in the decision to exchange ambassadors or trade with Cuba.

Like China, in the two decades since we normalized relations, Vietnam has remained a one-party state that imprisons those who challenge its prerogatives. Yet relations between our countries have strengthened as Vietnam emerges as a thriving, mostly free-market economy and likely ally in opposition to Chinese adventurism in Southeast Asia.

As someone who was marginally involved (as an aide to Sen. John McCain) in the events that led to normalization with Vietnam, I can testify that the process was the mirror opposite of the approach President Obama took on Cuba.

In the first place, it was a decision that could be fairly attributed to two presidents, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. In 1991, the Bush administration approached Vietnam’s U.N. delegation with a proposal for a quid pro quo normalization process that became known as the “roadmap.”

We had three major issues with the Vietnamese at the time. First, we wanted them to withdraw their forces from Cambodia, which Vietnam had invaded in 1978. Second, we wanted them to release from “re-education camps” South Vietnamese officials imprisoned since the war had ended. Finally, and most importantly, we wanted Vietnam to cooperate much more extensively than it previously had in determining the fates of hundreds of American servicemen still listed as POW/MIA in Vietnam. If they did those things, two successive U.S. administrations said they would lift the trade embargo and eventually restore normal diplomatic relations.

The Vietnamese never formally agreed to the roadmap, but they complied with its conditions. They got out of Cambodia and emptied the re-education camps. Their cooperation on POW/MIA investigations, which had been grudging and fitful, soon became much more helpful and trusting, and allowed for what will be remembered as one of the most extensive efforts to account for the fallen in the history of warfare.

Clinton had succeeded Bush 41 when it came time to reciprocate. Both presidents had worked assiduously to get Congress and other stakeholders to buy in to the roadmap. Bush had sought the counsel of Vietnam veterans in both parties in Congress, particularly McCain and Sen. John Kerry. He asked McCain to travel to Vietnam as his emissary. Kerry chaired a special committee to help determine the fates of missing servicemen, a committee on which McCain and several other Senate veterans of the war served.

Owing to his personal history as a draft avoider and opponent of the Vietnam War, Clinton acted gingerly before taking any step toward better relations. He sat in many meetings with representatives of the veteran organizations, the families of the missing, members of Congress. Cabinet-level discussions were held. The Vietnamese were pressed again and again for more cooperation on POW/MIA investigations. Clinton asked McCain and Kerry to author a Senate resolution calling for lifting the embargo and then to persuade a bipartisan majority to support it.

Consequently, the decision to normalize proved far less controversial and politically confrontational than does Obama’s decision on Cuba. It wasn’t much of an issue in Clinton’s re-election. Relations between the U.S. and Vietnam have grown steadily closer and more beneficial to both parties. A course was prudently considered and elaborately negotiated, a political consensus to support it was built carefully, and a relationship was established by meaningful actions from both parties.

That is how statecraft is made by an administration interested in making history instead of headlines.

Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain and was a senior adviser to the McCain for President campaign.

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