Shadow Government

The Loyal Opposition and the Global Maelstrom

The series of crises buffeting the global order is creating such a maelstrom that each week's emergency quickly becomes last week's forgotten headline. Every few days seem to bring a head-snapping change in geographic direction. The last three months alone have seen tensions over China's atavistic assertions of imperial privilege in East Asia; Russia's forcible rearrangement of borders at Eurasia's hinge point in Ukraine; the emergence of Boko Haram as a first-order terrorist threat in western Africa; American signals of retreat and unprecedented concessions to the Taliban in Afghanistan; and now the real threat that ISIS might succeed in creating a jihadist colony across large swaths of land formerly governed by Syria and Iraq, in the process potentially disintegrating the fragile Iraqi state and launching the broader Middle East into a catastrophic Sunni-Shia war. 

All of this can be chalked up as the predicted consequences of several years of mistaken policies. At this juncture nearly six years into the presidency, President Obama seems to be defying some historical patterns, and not in a flattering way.  While most presidents learn in office and gradually improve in their handling of national security policy, this president appears to be regressing, making even more mistakes in his second term than in his first (it must be noted that "mistakes" can be choices of inaction as well as action). While most presidents spend more time and attention on foreign policy in their second terms, this president appears even less interested in foreign policy now than in his first years in office. While most presidents in time come to a more equanimous assessment of their predecessors, this president and his inner circle still appear to be obsessed with the faults (real and imagined) of the George W. Bush administration.

Outside of some die-hard partisans and academic ideologues, there are hardly any foreign policy experts who think the White House is handling these global crises well -- and those critics include more than a few frustrated policymakers currently working in the administration. The insiders know better than anyone else what it is like to be hamstrung by the poor choices and lack of leadership emanating from the Oval Office.

The Obama administration is conducting a bold but risky experiment: what would happen if the United States chose a policy of "retrenchment" and "restraint" (to use the labels favored by some proponents) from international leadership?  Judging by the results thus far, this experiment is likely to prove disastrous to our national interests.     

In recent conversations with a number of my former Bush administration colleagues, I hear a consistent frustration, anger, even sadness over the damage being done to America's interests and global standing by the Obama administration's foreign policy. And while we may also feel an occasional sense of intellectual vindication that our earlier warnings are being borne out, that is subsumed by the deep grief we feel over our nation's dire straits. In our role as the "loyal opposition," we are Americans first and Republicans second, and want desperately for the United States under this or any president to do well in the world. 

I am reminded of a meeting in the spring of 2007 I participated in at the White House, convened by my then-boss, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley with a group of senior Democratic foreign policy experts. It was shortly after President Bush had announced the "surge" in Iraq, amidst cratered approval ratings and much bipartisan criticism. Mindful that the presidential election season was just getting underway, Hadley began the meeting by reminding everyone present that "all of us, from both parties, have an interest in Iraq being in a more stable and secure place by January 2009 when the next president is sworn in." It was a sobering and clarifying moment. To their credit, the Democratic experts offered some helpful policy suggestions and agreed on the need to support a constructive path forward for Iraq.  (In an unfortunate contrast, then-Senator Hillary Clinton vocally opposed the surge for what she later admitted were purely partisan reasons to appeal to her party's anti-war base). 

Which brings us back to today's troubles. Republicans will continue to offer our critiques and our constructive policy suggestions for the Obama administration. If and when the administration makes wise choices, we will support them.  Because all of us, of both parties, have an interest in strategic regions becoming more stable and secure places.            

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Can the U.S. Force Cuba to Reform? Not a Chance.

In an article published last week in Foreign Policy, Christopher Sabatini called for elevating the tone of the debate on U.S.-Cuba relations by dispensing with what he characterized as shouting and name-calling. If that is the case, it is not quite clear how referring to supporters of the U.S. embargo as "rabid," and as the mirror image of the despots in Havana, contributes to his idea of "reasoned political discussion."

Be that as it may, Sabatini writes that not every critic of U.S. policy is a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. That is certainly true. There is no shortage of people of good will, frustrated by the ungodly conditions forced upon the Cuban people by the Castro regime, who argue for changes in U.S. policy to ostensibly help the Cuban people improve their lot in the face of oppressive state control.

Specifically, Sabatini argues that targeted economic engagement towards Cuba's nascent micro-entrepreneurs "might create the conditions for an organic process of change on the island" by fostering citizen independence in Cuba and less reliance on the state.

According to Sabatini, "Supporting these people should be as American as apple pie, right?"

For the sake of the Cuban people, would that that were the case. Allowing micro-credits and U.S.-sourced inputs to budding Cuban entrepreneurs may make for an interesting intellectual exercise (and salve a few consciences), but it has as about much chance of changing Cuba as the Castro brothers abdicating tomorrow.

Fifty years of dictatorship in Cuba have unfortunately taught us certain truths -- truths that are impervious to such noble sentiments as wanting to "do something" to empower Cubans against their oppressors.

This regime has not survived for five decades without knowing what threatens it internally and what doesn't. They understand more than anyone what de Tocqueville meant when he wrote that, "the most critical moment for evil governments is the one which witnesses their first steps toward reform." To Havana, it's not "reform or die," it is "reform and die." Indeed, the most reviled international figure inside the regime is not any American president. It is Mikhail Gorbachev, who believed the communist system could be reformed and the Party retain its primacy. The Castro brothers are not about to make his "mistake."

A second truth to understand about Cuba is that no U.S. policymaker will ever want to get rid of the Castro regime more than the regime wants to stay in power. It is not just an uneven playing field -- it is one tilting at 85 degrees. Cuba's generals know there are only two outcomes for them: total control or wind up like Mussolini or Ceausescu. To think they will be outwitted or outsmarted by Foggy Bottom bureaucrats is simply folly.

Lastly, the micro-economic space opened up for individual Cubans is hardly indicative of new thinking among Cuba's geriatric generals. Sabatini acknowledges as much, calling them "minor, timid, and insecure." That's because they are not meant as a real reform attempt to improve lives of the Cuban people. Their purpose is twofold: To get Cubans off the state payrolls and to tax activity that is already occurring on the black market.

They are meant to be minor and reversible. As soon as they have served their purpose in providing some economic relief to the state, they will be rolled back just as the regime has done countless times before. It will happen the moment the regime detects a breach in the parameters of tolerated civilian independence or when economic circumstances change. That is what happened in the 1990s when similar limited self-employment opportunities were allowed. As soon as the mendicant Castro brothers began receiving Venezuelan subsidies, the pressure was off and the openings reversed.

Well, won't that at this point generate a popular backlash against the regime? The regime has paid no price for 50 years of crackdowns on its own people; why would it worry now?

Or else, what's the harm in trying? Nothing else has worked. Because it becomes a distraction to the core issue: an unrepentant dictatorship that believes it has the metaphysical right to control every facet of its citizens' lives in the pursuit of some warped historical vision. And what would we discover in the end? That the Castro regime is against reform? Count me out.

Sabatini writes, "More than a half-century of experience with one policy has failed to produce change." But he has no monopoly on frustration or humanitarian concern. All decent people are frustrated with the lack of change in Cuba and the terrible toll Castroism has taken on the Cuban people -- most of all Cuban-Americans, who continue to see their homeland systematically destroyed while the world mocks their protests.

I would give anything to propose a surefire policy prescription that would end Cuba's nightmare. But after 30 years studying the issue, it is clear to me that there will be no change in Cuba until the Castro brothers, and their generation, are gone from the scene. Ideally, the world would come to the same conclusion, but that is pie in the sky. Nor is this to abandon the Cuban people to their fate. There are numerous channels through which humanitarian assistance from the United States is reaching the Cuban people. Under the tragic circumstances, that is the best we can do until nature takes its course. 

ALEJANDRO ERNESTO/AFP/Getty Images