It was not my intention to turn this essay into a critique of President Obama's foreign policy, mainly because I wanted to avoid bringing the red herring of partisanship into what ought to be a debate about the best interests of the US in Cuba. Besides, although twice I did not vote for Mr. Obama, I actually agree with some of his policy decisions, such as trying to close the Guantanamo prison, or relaxing restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances to the island. Still, it is impossible to discuss the recent changes in US policy toward Cuba outside the context of President Obama's entire foreign-policy record.
A few years ago, the President defined the tenet of his foreign policy as "Don't Do Stupid S..." The more I look at this Castro deal, the more I see it as another example of that same stupid stuff he wished to avoid. In this light, his latest exploit belongs right next to other foreign-policy disasters, such as the Russian reset, the Syrian red line and the handling of the Egyptian crisis.
By almost every parameter, this agreement with Castro is a bad one. First, President Obama ignored Alan Gross' predicament for almost five years while the hostage's health deteriorated. Then he rushed in to negotiate under pressure, to avoid the black eye the death of the hapless Mr. Gross would have represented. Once at the negotiating table, Mr. Obama reneged on his principle that a swap for the convicted Cuban spies was unacceptable, and went on to release them. Then he went farther, and gave Castro another item from his wish list: removing Cuba from the roster of countries that support terrorism. Then he went even farther and granted Castro the political legitimacy implied by US diplomatic recognition -- the legitimacy he craves to perpetuate his regime in the hands of his chosen heirs. All this in exchange for little, aside from the emaciated Mr. Gross.
Thus, President Obama not only handed Castro a huge propaganda victory, but also created a dangerous precedent by signaling our enemies that major policy concessions can be gained by taking an American hostage. What's worse, he relinquished the two basic tenets of our Cuba policy: the principle of reciprocity -- whereby the US would relax their policy of isolation as the Castros relaxed their absolute control over the island -- and the emphasis on genuine freedom for the Cuban people. On this last issue, Mr. Obama broke his personal promise to Cuban dissidents.
The justification for this dramatic reversal can be summarized in three words: "Hope in Change." Mr. Obama hopes that his change will achieve three goals: to tilt Cuba's internal dynamic toward a transition to democracy; to encourage Latin American nations to pressure Cuba to improve its human-rights record; and to enhance the perception of the US in the region. I fear he will be sorely disappointed on all three. Blaming the US is too valuable a commodity for Latin American populists to discard it so easily. It is naïve to believe that the same nations who have insisted on Cuba joining the OAS and the Summit of the Americas will apply any significant pressure on the human-rights issue. Hoping that American engagement will substantially change Cuba's internal dynamic goes beyond wishful thinking. Why would American engagement succeed where others have failed? Is American engagement inherently superior to others?
This is possibly the most important flaw in the liberal approach to US-Cuba policy. Curiously, the same people who reject the idea of American exceptionalism are willing to believe that American engagement will make all the difference in Cuba. They are imbued by a belief -- I call it the "reaction theory" -- that explains everything that happens in Cuba as a reaction to an American action. According to this, Fidel Castro embraced the Soviets because of US hostility, or invaded Angola to derail President Carter's attempt to normalize relations. This profoundly racist theory consistently overestimates the power of US engagement, and underestimates the Cubans' ability to exercise free will and make decisions as rational actors.
The truth is that the Cuban regime has always favored internal control above all else, including the welfare of its own people. No enticement will be sufficient to change their minds. This will begin to change only when a new generation takes the reins of power. It was in that eventuality where the old policy had its best chance to work. By surrendering our incentives now, this deal squandered that possibility, decreasing the chance of near-term democratization in favor of goals that are, at best, uncertain.
It is true that foreign policy is a pragmatic business where you are forced to make unsavory decisions to uphold other priorities. Cuba, however, offered the US a rare opportunity to align national security with a principled policy in support of democracy and human rights. In favoring stability over regime change, this deal with Raul Castro smacks of the times when the US legitimized cruel Latin American tyrannies for the sake of geopolitical stability.
This post is part of a Huffington Post blog series called "90 Miles: Rethinking the Future of U.S.-Cuba Relations." The series puts the spotlight on the emerging relations between two long-standing Western Hemisphere foes and will feature pre-eminent thought leaders from the public and private sectors, academia, the NGO community, and prominent observers from both countries. Read all the other posts in the series here.
If you'd like to contribute your own blog on this topic, send a 500-850-word post to firstname.lastname@example.org (subject line: "90 Miles").