Saturday, April 11, 2015

Say 'Uncle': The Last Battle of the Cold War

On the rarest of occasions, a single battle outlasts the war itself. The Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union ended more than 20 years ago, but one of proxies involved in that conflict has lingered as a thorn in the side of America.

Today, President Barack Obama will meet with, and shake hands with Raul Castro, the current President of Cuba. Such a high level meeting between neighbors (separated only by 90 miles of water) hasn't occurred Richard Nixon was Vice President in 1958 and met with Fidel Castro, a then-relatively unknown Cuban revolutionary. In the last half century, the United States and Cuba had little official contact, with no diplomatic relationship to speak of. However, the angst between the two nations was more than palpable on several occasions, the pique of which came during the Kennedy administration with the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Isn't this conflict in the past? After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, shouldn't we have made up with the Cubans by now? America has a working relationship with almost all of the other former Cold War foes, including Russia, China, all of the former eastern bloc, and even Vietnam. So, why not Cuba? And is this the right choice for the United States?

The first, and perhaps most obvious, reason that the relationship between the United States and Cuba haven't thawed from the Cold War: Fidel Castro is still alive. This stalwart of Cuba turns 89 years old this summer and has outlasted all of the key players from the Cold War. Since Castro led his communist revolution in 1958, the United States has seen 11 different presidents. None of them thought Castro could last this long.

Castro technically relinquished his power to his brother, Raul, in 2008 because of failing health, but the mere fact that Fidel lives has embittered the United States and its leaders to the point where none of them wanted to blink first and reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba while Fidel lived. I don't know that any of them could stand the thought of dealing with a man who has defied the United States so brazenly and survived politically to tell about it.

The past relationship between Cuba and the United States has been complicated with threats of invasion, scores of assassination plots against Fidel, and nuclear weapons. I doubt Fidel was in any hurry to be the one to attempt to usher in a new era of diplomacy with America.

Castro's dedication to communist governing policies can't be explained in any way other than stubbornness. Why else would he continue the economic backwardness of his nation unless to prove some point to capitalist nations that he will not be the one to say 'uncle' in what has proved to be the last battle of the Cold War?

Another key aspect of the change in American-Cuban relations stems from the current advantageous point in the Obama presidency. The meeting today between Raul and Obama would not have occurred if Obama was not entering into the lame duck portion of his administration. The American president has less than two years remaining in his tenure and this is the point where men become concerned about their legacies. Obama need not worry about what voters or his own party thinks. But everyone who ascends to the presidency cares about how history will judge them.

Looking only at foreign policy, the Obama administration has been a series of peaks and valleys. Give credit to the president for giving the green light to take out Osama bin Laden. While critics say this decision was a 'no-brainer,' the choice wasn't without risk. A military strike into a foreign nation (Pakistan) without permission could have had serious ramifications if the mission wasn't successful or if the intelligence proved to be faulty. Obama has authorized various drone strikes on high value terrorist targets and helped greatly diminish the threat of piracy off the African coast.

Of course, the last six years have seen some drastic failures as well. Questions still linger about the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The quick withdrawal of American forces in the Middle East have left a power vacuum that ISIS is fighting to fill. The United States doesn't seem that greatly concerned about the systematic slaughter taking place in Syria, even after Obama placed a 'red line' that would trigger American military intervention. When that line was crossed, the Obama administration did not deploy troops.

Now, Obama is attempting to use any political capital left to create long lasting American policies. While I don't doubt that the president wants to do what is best for the nation in his mind, I also believe these actions are part of an effort to be remembered as a great president. His two latest foreign policy endeavors represent an attempt to achieve what has eluded some of the better American leaders of the 20th century.

Last month, the Obama administration arranged an agreement that would see Iran stop development of nuclear weapons in exchange for worldwide economic sanctions being lifted. Now, the president is opening up to the Cuba.

A segment of Americans believe that Obama making an overture to Cuba and the Castro regime is a poor choice and an admission of failure. Under Fidel Castro, entire generations of Cubans have been subjected to extreme forms of government control, violence, fear, and abject poverty. They are forced to live in an environment where they are decades behind the rest of the modern world. But this is precisely one of the reasons that President Obama is making the right decision.

I don't believe there is any shame or weakness for the United States to reach out to Cuba. If anything, it demonstrates the lessons of history and a statement attributed to former British statesman, Lord Palmerston, when said: "We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual ..." Though President Obama's motives may selfish, and the Castro regime is most assuredly suspect, the American interest in Cuba is no longer to isolate a weak and pitiful nation. Our interest is to help Cuba to its feet and build a mutually beneficial relationship.

Does this mean we lost the last battle of the Cold War? I suppose some critics will say that Obama caved in and allowed Fidel to get the last laugh. But why wait any longer to rectify a policy that hasn't been effective? There's nothing wrong with letting go of an old grudge that serves no real purpose.

Despite an aggressive policy towards Cuba, the Castro regime survived. That doesn't mean they won or we lost. Their survival hasn't been one of real existence, but of subsistence. Cuba doesn't even register on the international radar of threats to America, and they haven't since 1962. It's time to move on.

Thanks Obama.

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