12/22/2014 10:31 am ET Updated Feb 18, 2015

Race to the Bottom

In announcing his policy shift on Cuba, President Obama called for an honest discussion over the embargo on Cuba. That discussion should include a reflection over what place human rights have in American foreign policy. On human rights worldwide, it feels like the U.S. has presiding over a race to the bottom. Since 2009, we have: thrown the Green Revolution in Iran under the bus; drawn red lines over the use of chemical weapons on Syrians and let them be crossed without consequence; been far too silent as Christian minorities in the greater Middle East are being literally wiped out.

And this brings us to Cuba. Maybe it is a time for a new policy, but the timing of this détente is a bit curious. As we watch the collapse in oil prices affect Russia and Iran, shouldn't we have been able to extract more from Cuba as their energy patron (Venezuela) is suffering even more than Moscow and Tehran? With Republicans taking over the Senate, Marco Rubio chairing the subcommittee with jurisdiction over Latin American affairs, and Bob Menendez serving as Ranking Member on the Foreign Relations Committee, there is little chance of getting an Ambassador to Cuba through the Senate. The process undertaken here will also have ramifications outside of the Western Hemisphere. As we keep insisting that there will be no ransom paid for hostages taken by the Islamic State, why would these jihadists - or anyone else - take this commitment seriously when we made a major change in policy for the release of one individual? Let's not forget the far more consequential Iranian nuclear deal still to be negotiated. Given the secretive nature of this Cuba deal - over 18 months nonetheless - the anxieties of those who are worried about what the Administration may be negotiating with Iran will certainly be heightened.

What has been troubling about all the commentary over the new Cuba policy is what is missing from the conversation: any goals or milestones for human rights in Cuba. The potential benefits have been extolled out of the Administration, by the Editorial Board at The New York Times, by The Council on Foreign Relations. No one has detailed how we expect the human rights of the Cuban people to get better.

Instead we are urged to rely on the magical elixir of engagement. We are reminded that engagement with China made it less "Maoist" - but they readily admit that democracy and human rights haven't advanced as a result of this engagement. The truth is that we don't know whether engagement will work. As China demonstrates, those who argue for engagement never have to deal with being wrong. Indeed, they start off with the premise that it will take a long time to work, and if the policy is not yielding results, the answer is more engagement.

When it comes to repressive regimes - China, Saudi Arabia, and others - we have engaged, and engaged, and engaged again, and are still waiting for reports of progress on human rights. Consider the case of Turkey. The Republic of Turkey has enjoyed nearly a century of engagement with the West. The Obama Administration went a step further and made Erdogan's Turkey one of its prized partners in the world, and this is its reward: a Western "ally" that helped bring about the Islamic State, the world's leading jailer of journalists, a rollback on religious freedom, and the continued occupation of an EU country (Cyprus). Is it too early to conclude that this "engagement only" policy isn't really working? Not for successive U.S. Administrations. We have people arguing with a straight face that the E.U. should negotiate Turkey's membership with greater urgency.

All of us who are not jumping for joy over this latest commitment to engagement must be forgiven, because history suggests once the U.S. begins "engaging," our commitments to human rights fade into the background. Maybe we would cut those pushing engagement more slack if they spoke as honestly as the fictional State Department's Albie Duncan from The West Wing, who provided the following caveat for his argument in favor of engagement with China:

You know there's a decent chance I'm full of cr*p, right? "Free trade is essential for human rights". . .the end of that sentence is "we hope because nothing else has worked."

Foreign policy is clearly an art, and one that depends on coming up with the right balance between carrots and sticks. We have shown the unfortunate tendency of abandoning sticks once we've reached for the carrots. For the sake of human rights around the world, hopefully we can recommit to a balanced approach.