President Obama followed up his handshake with Raul Castro this weekend with an hour-long meeting bringing together the leaders of the United States and Cuba for the first time in more than half a century. Obama touted the meeting as a representation of his view that “we can disagree with a spirit of respect and civility, and over time, it is possible for us to turn the page and develop a new relationship between our two countries.”
The idea of turning the page on Cuba is broadly popular. Majorities of Americans and even Cuban Americans support trade normalization. But several likely Republican presidential candidates have denounced the move, and it will likely be part of the litany of objections from the right to the Obama era of foreign policy in the context of the 2016 election. Hillary Clinton’s own transparent flip-flop on the embargo, which is glossed over in her book, will surely fuel further objections from Republican candidates.
Unfortunately, these Republicans will probably make the mistake of criticizing the wrong thing about this administration’s Cuba policy. The issue with President Obama’s glad-handing of Raul Castro isn’t the obvious trollishness of it, particularly toward older Cuban Americans, or his gauche attitude toward making light of the crimes of the Cuban regime, or the fact that the president has embarked on this normalization without the approval of Congress (Constitutions are so passé these days). Still, there’s no reason for President Obama to do buddy-buddy sitdowns with Raul Castro (we can trade with them, as we do with other nations, without becoming BFFs) except to rub it in the face of his critics.
But the president’s trolling of Cuba-defending Republicans ought to result in mockery, not outrage. Because the real problem with the Obama administration's approach to normalization with Cuba isn’t the normalization itself. It’s that this normalization came without getting the United States any of their long-stated policy priorities for the Cuban people in return. Normalization is President Obama’s gift to the Castro regime—a gift with no strings attached.
This is, not coincidentally, the exact same problem we see with the administration's approach to negotiations with Iran (with far more at stake, of course). In both cases, an avowed enemy of the United States is handed huge strategic concessions by the Americans—in exchange for what amounts to nothing.
Unilateral sanctions on Cuba have been oppressive and largely ineffective, and that’s why the public largely supports lifting them. But rolling them back should have come through the normalization process in Congress, and it should have come in return for tangible reforms in Cuba.
The government in Havana is best understood as a cross between violent left-wing radicals and organized crime. And we are normalizing our relations with them now—for what, exactly? So agricultural interests can make a buck? So academic leftists can check off a wish list item? Letting Cuba off the hook should presumably be an opportunity to prod the nation toward reforms that benefit its people and American interests. But President Obama will have none of it. By pursuing another misguided unilateral policy, he has squandered an opportunity to encourage freedom on the island and open up trade relations at the same time.
What does the United States get in return for this overture? Do we get normalization of the status of Guantanamo? Do we get our fugitives back so they can face justice? Does Cuba apologize for any of its support for terrorism? Does Cuba have to render justice or accountability for shooting down American civilian aircraft in international airspace, as it did in 1996? Do meaningful numbers of Cuban political prisoners get released? Does Cuban social and political repression ease one iota? Does Cuban support for radicalism and violence abroad cease? Does the Cuban communist grip on power and society relax even slightly? Does America receive Cuban support or even neutrality on any issue over which Cuba was previously opposed? Does Cuba concede a single item of strategic value or tactical value?
The answer to every single one of these questions is the same: no.
Ronald Reagan’s line about his preferred end to the Cold War—“We win, they lose”—is a statement that had more than one foreign policy expert laughing at the time. Barack Obama has appropriated that line as his own, but he's flipped the actors. “They win, we lose” is the approach of his foreign policy and national security apparatus. It’s varying degrees of disaster for us and our friends, but the other guys love it. They might even be grateful, if they were the grateful sort—but, typically, they are not.
We should not labor under the illusion that our friends—and as important, our enemies—abroad do not understand this in full. No doubt the White House thinks the Obama handshake with Castro is an appealing visual of a new era. But outside the hothouse of self-referential left and libertarian policy circles, it is read as something else: more accurately, a surrender—a gift in return for no tangible reforms, no prisoner releases, no policy changes—nothing.
Finding a clear indication of who got the better end of virtually any deal negotiated during President Obama’s second term is simple: Just look at the smile on the guy in the other chair.
Ben Domenech is publisher of The Federalist.