Do we really need another lesson on the folly of attempting to appease dictators?
Apparently, Foreign Affairs thinks so -- albeit inadvertently. They recently posted a piece, "Our Man in Havana," about the heroic efforts of some Obama administration officials to give the Castro regime everything it wanted for the release of jailed development worker Alan Gross. Specifically, this meant gutting the official U.S. democracy program for Cuba that Gross was operating under. In the end, however, they just could not overcome the intransigence of -- not the Castro regime -- but the "Cuban-American Lobby" in Congress.
Indeed, not only did they not wind up with the long-suffering Gross's freedom, but, to boot, former Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela was forced to sit through a humiliating meeting with Cuban officials ranting about all the dictatorship's grievances against the United States. As the article puts it, "The Cubans were far less flexible than the Americans expected." (One doesn't know whether to laugh or cry.)
The central figure in this drama of high diplomacy is one Fulton Armstrong, a controversial former CIA analyst who began a second career as a staffer for Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA). (Today, he is affiliated with American University.) Armstrong was such an unabashed promoter of U.S.-Cuba normalization in the inter-agency process that he was shipped off to Europe during the Bush 43 administration, although not before playing a role in trying to scuttle John Bolton's nomination to serve as U.S. representative to the United Nations.
Apparently, Armstrong was enlisted by the administration to serve as a go-between with the Castro regime, no doubt due to the fact that he was a "friendly face" in the eyes of the Cubans. His mission: convince the Castro regime that the Obama administration agrees with them that USAID's Cuba democracy programs "are stupid" and that, in the words of Armstrong, "we're cleaning them up. Just give us time, because politically we can't kill them."
The article also includes other Armstrong-sourced inanities meant to further discredit the USAID program: that he was told by a "State Department official" that Gross's mission was "classified" and by another that Gross "likely worked for the Central Intelligence Agency." Apparently, Armstrong needs new sources, because such assertions are nonsense and known to be by anyone remotely associated with the program (as I was during my time with the Bush administration.)
The ever-resourceful, man-on-a-mission Armstrong even enlisted his former boss, Senator Kerry, in the appeasement effort, arranging for him to meet with Cuban officials in New York. The article reports, "there was no quid pro quo, but the meeting seemed to reassure the Cubans that the democracy programs would change, and the Cubans expressed confidence that Gross would receive a humanitarian release shortly after his trial." (That was in March 2011.)
Enter the villain: Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), a member of the nefarious "Cuban American Lobby." He supposedly called Denis McDonough, Obama's deputy national security adviser, to say basically hands off the Cuba program. According to a former government official, "McDonough was boxed in." Now, there's a tough call: side either with a lawless dictatorship or with an influential U.S. senator from your own party.
In the end, the effort to appease the Castro regime ended predictably: no freedom for Alan Gross and only utter contempt from Castro regime lackeys. Indeed, is there any mystery why Gross continues to languish in a Cuban jail cell when, according to Armstrong, unnamed administration officials signal to the Cubans that they think the democracy program is "stupid" as well? Moreover, offering to gut a democracy program because a dictatorship opposes it sends a terrible message to authoritarian regimes around the globe.
As I have written several times before, the best approach to securing Alan Gross's freedom is not giving in to the demands of an illegitimate regime, but by denying it things it wants and needs, such as U.S. tourists spending hard currency under currently licensed travel programs. Let's hope this Fulton Armstrong-led fiasco puts an end to any more appeasement attempts and the issue is placed in the hands of those with a more sober understanding of the nature of the Castro regime
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.