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Wife of US Contractor Jailed in Cuba Waits for Action, While Obama Sweetens a Deal for Sudan

Yesterday's Miami Herald featured a plea from Judy Gross, wife of the American USAID subcontractor who has been held in Cuba for 11 months (under investigation and without any formal charges filed yet), to Presidents Obama and Castro to "be different than your predecessors, change the tide of bilateral relations."

"This is my plea to Presidents Obama and Castro: Be different from your predecessors, change the tide of bilateral relations. I call on President Obama, in whom my husband believes so much, to not forget his pledge of a "new beginning" in relations with Cuba. And I call on President Castro to continue working on improving Cuba's human rights record. To both, I beg: Do not make Alan's case an excuse to fall further apart, but rather an example of a new era in U.S.-Cuba relations."

Mrs. Gross's plea marks the family's decision to break from the State Department's ineffective 'don't look at me' posturing. Instead, Mrs. Gross has decided to publicly address the root causes for her husband's detention: namely U.S. intervention in Cuban internal affairs (by contracting people like her husband to enter Cuba on tourist visas and offer sophisticated communications technology - friends in Cuba tell me he was carrying BGANs - that would raise eyebrows in any country), and the two countries' deeply rooted mistrust for one another.

Your heart goes out to the family. Whatever they may or may not have understood about the risks of traveling to a foreign country on a tourist visa, funded by the mortal enemy of that foreign country, they surely didn't contemplate Alan Gross missing his 40th wedding anniversary this summer and being away from his daughter in her time of greatest need (the Gross' 26 year-old daughter was just diagnosed with breast cancer). What's worse is that the U.S. government, which could so easily offer a gesture of good will to Cuba in hopes of encouraging the humanitarian release of Mr. Gross, has done literally the opposite, seemingly oblivious to the central role it plays in the case.

It's got me wondering whether the Obama administration's inability to dispense with what should be an easily handled diplomatic snafu, and its weakness generally on Cuba, isn't really due to something bigger than Miami, as is so often the case when it comes to Cuba. Afterall, the White House holding off on new rules to encourage academic and cultural travel to the island not only didn't help Joe Garcia win a seat in Congress in last week's midterm elections, it may have harmed him. Garcia, who repeatedly told supporters new Cuba travel rules were on their way back in August, was obviously swept away by the same anti-incumbent tide as dozens of other Democratic candidates, but on Cuba, he took a bold (for him) stand - and the administration left him looking out of the loop and unable to influence the White House on a signature issue for him. So I just don't buy that this weakness on Cuba is all about protecting the Joe Garcias out there.

When you take a look at Obama's foreign policy ventures of the past 18 months, most if not all of them (but one) have something in common: a willingness to deal, to engage, to compromise. There's a willingness to give something up - something that might hurt, that might make the President look less "tough" - in order to get something. Here's the latest example:

"President Obama has told Sudan that if it allows a politically sensitive referendum to go ahead in January, and abides by the results, the United States will move to take the country off its list of state sponsors of terrorism as early as next July, administration officials said Sunday.

The offer, conveyed to the Sudanese authorities over the weekend by Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, represents a significant sweetening of the package of incentives the administration offered to Sudan in September for its cooperation with the vote.

. . . Administration officials said then that they did not expect to take [Sudan off the terrorism list] until late 2011 or 2012, one official said, because it was also linked to a resolution of the violence in the Darfur region. But now the United States has made it contingent only on the referendum."

Cuba policy is the one exception to this give-and-take approach. It's the perversion of the low hanging fruit principle. Many foreign policy analysts, most notably my colleague Steve Clemons, expected that because Cuba policy reform represents so few risks (and quite a few rewards), that the administration could come in and be bold on Cuba. But instead, the administration seems to treat Cuba policy as the one policy where it can still look "tough" and "uncompromising" while doing its compromising elsewhere around the world - because there are no real risks to doing so.

Judy Gross fears her husband has become a pawn in a 50-year old deadlock between two countries. The reality could be much worse than that.