Washington President Obama is worthy of admiration for his efforts to improve relations with America’s adversaries: Iran, North Korea and a few others. But for most of those states, it’s time to give it up, and the Obama administration appears to realize that.
At the same time, one adversarial state remains ripe for engagement, but Washington doesn’t seem interested.
During the campaign, Republicans belittled Obama’s remark in a debate two years ago that he would engage hostile nations “without precondition.” At the time, that comment did seem naive. But the controversy surrounding it appears to have chastened him, and he has approached this issue with appropriate circumspection. He repeatedly let the nations know he was willing, perhaps even eager, to improve relations after the calamitous Bush years. And then, one by one, each of those countries let Obama know in no uncertain terms that he was wasting his time.
In the months since Obama took office, North Korea has test fired long-range missiles, threatened and belittled South Korea, and conducted a nuclear test — even as Washington let Pyongyang know that it wanted to improve relations. Finally, it appears, the administration has had enough.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in Phuket, Thailand, recently, was characteristically late for a session where, it turned out, a North Korean delegate was scheduled to make a statement. The North Koreans stormed out when Clinton failed to show up to hear them. Then they held a news conference to denounce her.
For her part, Clinton said America and its Asian allies have reached a “ new consensus” on North Korean policy — to ratchet up pressure, exactly the opposite of Obama’s original goal: improving relations.
Of course, relations with Iran have gone no better. Before the elections there last month, Tehran had responded equivocally to Obama’s public overtures, including his greeting to “the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” in March, on the Persian New Year.
Even before the Iranian election, there was considerable debate within the administration about the appropriate approach to Iran. During the American presidential campaign, Clinton ridiculed the idea of engaging Iran. But the Iranian government’s brutal response to the postelection demonstrations there swung most everyone to her point of view. A few weeks after the vote, Obama said he was “appalled and outraged by the threats, beatings and imprisonments.” In Asia last week, Clinton said the United States would extend a “defensive shield” over the Middle East if Iran continued to develop nuclear weapons. She declined to explain exactly what that meant. Still, quite obviously, the attempted rapprochement is dead.
The questioner in that campaign debate two years ago asked Obama about five states: Iran, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela and Cuba. One of those states seems positively benign compared to the others. That’s Cuba. The Cuban regime has no apparent interest in nuclear or biological weaponry, unlike Iran and North Korea. It is not guilty of sponsoring terrorism in neighboring states, unlike Syria. It is no longer trying to export “socialist revolution,” unlike Venezuela. It is not guilty of nuclear proliferation, unlike North Korea.
Cuba’s sin: It has a repressive, dictatorial government — just like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, China, many of America’s most important allies.
Here is a problem pregnant for resolution. What’s the hold up? Domestic politics, of course — the longstanding perception that a president who makes overtures to Cuba will lose Florida in the next election. But that calculus has changed. Second and even third-generation Cuban-Americans now dominate that community and do not hold the hard-line views of their elders.
The Obama administration reversed several Bush-era policies. It relaxed restrictions on Cuban-Americans’ travel and remittances to the island, eased limitations on phone calls and took other small steps. Essentially, Obama has put relations with Cuba back more or less where they were when President Bill Clinton left office.
In a CNN poll a few months ago, 71 percent of Americans said they favored restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba. Meantime, the state of the Cuban people grows ever more desperate. Last year’s tropical storms and the worldwide economic crisis have pushed even the moderately well off into poverty. Some Cubans are hungry. Obviously that is the Castro government’s fault, not Obama’s. But I believe restored relations with the United States would, in time, force the Cuban government to liberalize. With that would come increased prosperity.
Obama promised fresh thinking. This problem, 50 years old, could not be more stale.