Shadow Government

Selling the Republican brand will be easier once the consequences of Obama's choices are clear

Originally published as part of a roundtable discussion on an article by Danielle Pletka about the future of the Republican party.

Danielle Pletka's thought-provoking piece on the future of foreign policy in the Republican Party deserves more systematic and fulsome treatment than time and space currently allow. Some random reactions will have to suffice for now. That said, I very much look forward to the debate that Pletka invites. It's indeed an important one. The intra-GOP divisions to which she alludes are in some cases deep and wide. Moreover, they frequently appear to touch on matters of first principle that not long ago seemed largely settled -- an apparent shattering of the Reagan-era consensus, the long-term consequences of which I sense may trouble me somewhat more than they do her.

Pletka suggests that the GOP must be a party that believes there are things worth fighting for. Agreed. But what, exactly? Elsewhere, she makes the case for America's "obligation (not merely the occasional inclination) to help others attain the benefits of a free society." What's the connection, if any, between those two important thoughts? And doesn't that go to the heart of the larger problem that seems to be bothering a lot of Americans when it comes to the Republican Party? Not that they don't think we'll use force, but that we've been all too eager to pull the trigger? What's the limiting principle? Where won't we fight and why?

Pletka of course understands this well. She notes the importance of Republicans explaining to the American people "how much can be done consistent with America's deepest principles but without the use of force, without threats, without protectionism, and without breaking the bank." That seems to me an essential task going forward: to restore the public's faith that the GOP is not only the party most willing to stand up and defend America's vital interests in a dangerous world, but also the one that will do so employing the most creative, competent, and forward-looking strategies -- a national security policy that makes the use of force not just the last resort, but almost always unnecessary because of what Pletka calls the exercise of "genuine American leadership that meets challenges before they become threats."

In this regard, perhaps more than Pletka, I tend to think that the GOP will need to engage in a more thorough-going reckoning with the Bush-Cheney years, particularly the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences. Not, as she correctly warns, for the purposes of "killing" that legacy, but rather for an honest accounting of the good, the bad, and the ugly, and the lessons learned. It's necessary for its own sake of course. But it's also important, I think, as part of the task of rebuilding the public's overall confidence in the Republican foreign policy brand.

A few odds and ends. I don't think Pletka mentions free trade and energy policy. The Republicans should own these issues, especially the impending American oil and gas boom. The impact on America's economic strength at home and strategic flexibility abroad promise to be revolutionary if properly and comprehensively exploited.

Finally, it's worth noting that the speed of the GOP comeback will at least in part be determined by what happens in the world between now and 2016. Pletka is harshly critical of President Obama's foreign-policy record. I generally don't disagree. But the fact is that Obama has not suffered some of the mega-disasters that so obviously plagued the administration of Jimmy Carter and made Reagan's critique so innately compelling for the American people. No Iranian hostage crisis. No Desert One fiasco. No hollow military on display. No Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. While it's clear to Pletka and me that Obama's policies are sowing the seeds of expanding international instability, chaos and violence, the fact is that the day of reckoning has not yet come -- when the price for "leading from behind" will really come due in much higher sacrifices of American blood, treasure, and honor. Benghazi was but the canary in the coal mine, a foreshadowing of the super storm yet to hit.

But for now, it must be said that Obama has largely succeeded in avoiding the worst, in kicking the can down the road. Can it go on for another four years? I would guess not. But I could be wrong. If I am, if Obama's luck continues to hold, if the world is such in 2016 that a plausible case can still be made that the Democrats have been responsible stewards of America's national security, then whatever the Republicans do in opposition to get their foreign policy house in order (as necessary and essential a task as that no doubt is) may not be enough to make an electoral difference.

John Hannah, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, served as national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney from 2005 to 2009. 

Shadow Government

How not to appease a dictatorship

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