The McMaster of Cuba Policy Destiny

February 24, 2017

We’ve been reading an analysis about how a new approach to foreign policy went horribly wrong.

The President, we are told, came to office and dismantled essential elements of the National Security Council. He preferred to rely on task forces and an “inner club” of trusted advisors in national security and foreign affairs. His structural changes weakened access by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the president, whom the new administration viewed with suspicion. The old guard in the Pentagon was relegated to a “position of little influence.”

President John F. Kennedy’s ad hoc decision-making style, his freezing out of top military advisors, and diminishment of the National Security Council’s role backfired in the early months of his presidency. Without a formal systematic review, he went forward with the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. The invasion not only collapsed in failure, but also resulted in the President distancing himself from his senior military advisors and trusting them even less.

This practice of “consulting frankly only with his closest advisors, and his use of larger forums to validate decisions already made would transcend [Kennedy’s] administration,” the author writes, with its consequences spilling into President Johnson’s decisions and leading us deeper into Vietnam.

The responsibility for what he calls “one of the greatest American foreign policy disasters of the 20th century” lies with President Kennedy and the arrogance of the New Frontier, as well as with President Lyndon Johnson, who allowed domestic political considerations to dictate military strategy in the conduct of the war. But, echoing the title of his book, “Dereliction of Duty,” H.R. McMaster also calls out the Joint Chiefs of Staff for failing to confront President Johnson with their objections to his strategy for conducting the war, and deceiving the Congress by appearing to support it.

On Monday, as the author, Lt. General H.R. McMaster, became National Security Advisor, we could only imagine how he processed what occurred in the first month of the Trump Administration, and what that, in turn, could mean for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy going forward – including U.S. policy toward Cuba.

If Lt. General McMaster has priors on Cuba, we haven’t seen them. His passages on the Bay of Pigs and the Missile Crisis in “Dereliction of Duty” contained no bugle-blowing or hand-waving about “finishing the job” in Cuba. He may harbor such feelings, but we did not see them in his book or in this week’s coverage about his appointment to lead the National Security Council.

Once the administration’s review of Cuba policy concludes, and before the rollout of a new policy begins, Lt. General McMaster will have a chance to lead as he wishes members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had done some 50 years ago.

He knows what happens to U.S. foreign policy when the decision-making process is broken, when too much deference is given to domestic politics, and when the voices of reason, including our nation’s military, rest on the sidelines or fail to be heard: Foreign policy goes off the rails. That hurt us in Vietnam before; it can hurt us in making U.S. policy toward Cuba again.

The Washington Post called Lt. General McMaster a “soldier who can say, ‘no, sir.’” If he finds himself standing between the President and a plan to roll the last two years’ Cuba reforms back, we hope he makes his voice heard.

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“100 Days of Disquietude”: Will Trump Meet Milestone Without Messing With Cuba?

April 28, 2017

We start with a “hat-tip” to the editors of Project Syndicate, for invoking Gabriel García Márquez in an edition marking the Trump administration’s first hundred days.

Admittedly, it’s Day 99 and we don’t want to jinx our chances. But since we anticipated that the new administration would keep its promise to cancel the Cuba policy reforms of the last administration within the first 100 days, we’re relieved. And at least one South Florida hardliner, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27), sounds disappointed.

According to Channel 10 News in Miami, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen was concerned that a letter written by 16 retired military officers would lead the President to renege on his word to her South Florida constituents.

Their letter, reflecting U.S. history and military strategy, advised the Trump administration to continue normalizing relations with Cuba in travel, counterterrorism, border control, environmental protections, and trade to advance the security interests of the United States.

“We acknowledge the current regime must do more to open its political system and dialogue with the Cuban people. But, if we fail to engage economically and politically, it is certain that China, Russia, and other entities whose interests are contrary to the United States’ will rush into the vacuum.” With engagement, they wrote, “We have an opportunity now to shape and fill a strategic void.”

“If President Trump goes back on his word and doesn’t roll back on these concessions,” Rep. Ros-Lehtinen said, “I think a lot of our folks in our community will be quite displeased.”

The U.S. obsession with Cuba, originating in the early 19th century, is a narrative woven with threads as varied as race and rum. But they are all bound together with one fact as permanent as Cuba’s geography: its strategic location.

As this Geopolitical Futures tract observes: “Cuba lies between southern Florida and the Yucatán Peninsula, creating the Straits of Florida and the Yucatán Channel … Those 90 miles continue to be one of the most important sea lanes for the United States. The presence of Soviet submarines in Cuba threatened both straits. There are those who ask why the United States was so frightened of a small country. It wasn’t. The U.S. government was not concerned about the Cuban government. It was concerned about the use of Cuba by the Soviets.”

In breaking from the Cold War policy he inherited, President Obama sought to end Cuba’s isolation and fill the void with diplomacy, bilateral agreements, trade, and wider opportunities for contact between Cubans and U.S. visitors to the island.

By many reasonable measures, things are going well. For example, the decision to end the permissive migration policy, which induced Cubans to risk treacherous journeys to gain residency by simply setting foot on land, has caused illegal migration to plummet.

Cuban and U.S. authorities now have wider latitude to cooperate on environmental problems, drug interdiction, scientific research, and more. As the Associated Press reported earlier this week, reduced restrictions on U.S. travel enabled close to 300,000 American visitors to journey to Cuba in 2016, a jump of 76 percent over 2015. Their trips put money in the pockets of Cubans running small businesses, and contribute to the people-to-people interactions that are good for individuals, families, and businesses of both countries.

In sum, the new policies contribute to stability and closer relations, while also allowing the new administration to continue making progress with Cuba on the issues which divide us while continuing to collaborate on our vital mutual interests.

The retired flag officers made the right case for keeping the policy, especially if what Ana Palacio, the former foreign minister of Spain, said to Project Syndicate, is right – that the stars of National Security Advisor Lt. General H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are rising, and the “adults are back in charge.”

We’ll see. After all, the administration’s Cuba policy review continues in secret. Their new budget for the State Department, while cutting aid for development, appears to beef up by 900 percent at least one account from which “regime change” money has historically been drawn. The administration doesn’t end with its first hundred days, and the President can still keep the promises he made during the campaign, as reported by Channel 10, that “he’d be tough on Cuba and would roll back President Obama’s policy toward the island, even if it meant closing the newly opened U.S. Embassy.”

The question aptly raised by the retired military leaders – what do you want “filling the void”? – frames the choice before policymakers today.

Do you want refugees, oil pollution, and the navies of hostile powers roiling the waters between the United States and Cuba, or do you want two-way travel, grain shipments, and bilateral cooperation bringing stability and safety to our respective shores?

Let’s hope the adults are in the room.

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Mr. President, can we have 10 minutes of your time?

April 21, 2017

Engagement, listening, and freely exchanging views can change minds. Just ask President Trump.

When he met last week with President Xi Jinping of China, President Trump said China “could easily take care of the North Korea threat,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “But then Mr. Xi explained the history of China and Korea, Mr. Trump said. ‘After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy.’”

From this remove, we can’t know whether the President has ears to hear the strong arguments for keeping and growing the diplomatic and economic opening he inherited from the Obama administration.

But if he did listen, we think he could see the link between what he promised on the campaign – that he could get a “better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole” – and the existing policy, which is already delivering the goods for the United States and the Cuban people.

So, taking a page from President Xi’s playbook, we’re asking President Trump to take at least 10 minutes to consider the strongest arguments we and other advocates are making for pursuing the policy of engagement with Cuba now.

You can read the letter to the National Security Council sent by the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA) about President Trump’s Cuba policy review here.

Governor Phil Bryant of Mississippi had a message for President Trump when he returned from his visit to Cuba this week. He urged him to see past the narrative of Cuba from the 1960s to “get that dialogue going in a very positive manner.”

When Gov. Bryant speaks – a Republican, rated the fifth most conservative governor in the U.S., who stuck by his endorsement of President Trump last fall – it’s reasonable to think he’ll be heard.

This week President Trump also heard from a renowned group of retired U.S. military flag officers. In a letter to the White House, they said, “The continued normalization of relations with Cuba is important to the national security of the United States and to the stability of relationships in the Western Hemisphere.” They also argued that keeping the reforms that allow greater travel and trade, “will empower the Cuban people to better determine their own futures.”

President Trump, who is famously deferential to his military advisers, should carefully consider what these highly decorated military leaders said about how we can best protect U.S. security and realize our humanitarian goals for the Cuban people.

How about negotiating strategy? Professor Bill LeoGrande and Marguerite Rose Jiménez, writing in The American Conservative, offer clear, smart, and honest advice informed by history: “The idea that the best way to support a political opening in Cuba is for the United States to demand human-rights concessions as a condition of engagement is not just a bad negotiating strategy. It also represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how the United States can most effectively influence Cuba’s political future.”

“Rather than make demands Cuba is sure to reject,” they argue for a policy that “aims to create conditions that provide Cuban leaders with self-interested reasons to allow greater political and economic freedom.” In addition to citing evidence that current policy is realizing important goals – from growing availability of Wi-Fi hotspots to the greater latitude for U.S. diplomats to meet Cubans from across the political spectrum – they echo an argument made by the generals: “Building bilateral economic ties creates the incentive for Cuba to maintain an open flow of people and ideas, and to be more responsive to U.S. concerns on a whole range of issues, including human rights.”

The promise that favorable conditions created by engagement with Cuba could produce better results than the previous policy of estrangement is being fulfilled every day. Our good friends at Cuba Educational Travel released this survey which shows how “U.S. travelers are engaging directly with Cuban citizens, speaking to them about economics, internet, technology and other key issues at a critical moment of transition on the island” thanks to the recent reforms.

It was no accident that Dr. Maria Grazia Giammarinaro, UN special rapporteur on trafficking in persons, was able to spend five days in Cuba discussing human rights and human trafficking with Cuba’s government. It was the result of bilateral diplomacy with Cuba, affirmations by the U.S. of respect for Cuba’s sovereignty, and decisions taken by Cuba’s leadership that contributed to the climate that made her trip possible and effective.

In this space we have expressed pessimism about the Trump administration’s Cuba policy review and whether his appointments and previous statements signal a preordained result. At the same time, silence is not a strategy. The most consequential decision that the administration can make to advance U.S.-Cuba relations is to understand that a political and economic transition is underway, and to pursue a policy that will support that progress in the years ahead.

If we had 10 minutes, CDA would tell the President about our trips to Cuba, including the most recent visit with Republican Members of Congress, and the conversations we’ve had with Cubans inside and outside the government. “All of them,” as we said in our letter to the NSC, “expressed their support for a continuation, even an expansion, of U.S. policy so they have the greatest latitude and opportunity to build a future for themselves in Cuba.”

If the President would listen, this is what we’d say. It may not work. We’re not naïve. But if it worked for President Xi, why not us?

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The Bay of Pigs, Presidential Promises, and the Cuba Policy Review

April 14, 2017

One thing that makes Americans cynical about politics is that sources of mainstream opinion get euphoric when political leaders break their promises.

“Scarcely 12 weeks into his presidency,” the Los Angeles Times observes, “(President) Trump has backed off or reversed many of his most provocative campaign promises on foreign policy.”

Simply hearing President Trump say NATO is not obsolete, China is not a currency manipulator, and the Export-Import Bank is a good thing made their knees buckle. A few more weeks like this, as one Washington narrative suggests, and President Trump will have navigated all the way to the center.

We’ll see. As Brian Goldsmith wrote for The Atlantic last year, “Once in office, presidents almost always try to carry out their pre-election agendas. When they’re unable to keep those promises, it’s usually because of congressional opposition [think health care] – not because they’ve discarded campaign rhetoric to pursue other goals.” Scholars have examined the record – from Roosevelt to Reagan – and found “two-thirds of the winning candidate’s policy pledges were at least partially fulfilled after four years.”

That’s what the research says, and that is what President Trump’s chief strategist intends for him to do. As Steve Bannon told the Washington Times, “He’s laid out an agenda with those speeches, with the promises he made, and our job every day is just to execute on that … And he’s maniacally focused on that.”

Where does that leave Cuba? This question seems especially apt as we approach April 17th, the anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion.

It was on April 17th, 1961, that “the Cuban-exile invasion force, known as Brigade 2506, landed at beaches along the Bay of Pigs and immediately came under heavy fire,” the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library explains. “Cuban planes strafed the invaders, sank two escort ships, and destroyed half of the exiles’ air support.”

From there, the plan fell apart. Over 100 of the attackers were killed, and almost 1,200 members of Brigade 2506 were captured. It took 20 months of direct diplomacy between the U.S. and Cuba’s government for the brigade prisoners to be released from captivity. Then, according to the Kennedy Library’s account, “surviving brigade members gathered for a ceremony in Miami’s Orange Bowl, where the brigade’s flag was handed over to President Kennedy. ‘I can assure you,’ the president promised, ‘that this flag will be returned to this brigade in a free Havana.’”

More than a half-century later, the Brigade 2506 Veterans Association formally endorsed Donald Trump for president, the first endorsement for president ever made by the Brigade. The Brigade veterans were embraced by the campaign and by some hardliners in the Cuban American community; they were vilified by others. But they did so out of the conviction that if Mr. Trump were to be elected president, he would honor his pledge to undo the Obama opening unless the government of Cuba agrees to his demands, as he tweeted it should. History, of course, teaches us the Cubans are not going to obey.

President Kennedy, as we noted previously, did not understand the consequences of going forward with the Bay of Pigs invasion. President Trump’s National Security Advisor, Lt. General H.R. McMaster, wrote a book, “Dereliction of Duty,” about how defense and foreign policy decisions went off the rails; it was thanks, in part, to “President Kennedy’s informal style and structure of decision making (which) did not allow for a systematic review of the planned invasion of Cuba.”

Monday is both the anniversary of the Bay of Pigs and the 88th day of President Trump’s administration. Much of Washington is eyeing the calendar and the clock as we move closer to Day 100 and, perhaps like Steve Bannon, we’re maniacally focused on whether the Cuba campaign promise to Brigade 2506 and others will be honored or become another part of the supposed move to the center.

The Center for Democracy in the Americas has submitted a defense of the existing Cuba policy to the National Security Council staff at the White House, which is coordinating President Trump’s review of Cuba policy. We plan to release what we submitted early next week. It would be a testament to Lt. General McMaster’s belief in good process for the NSC in 2017 to do better by President Trump than President Kennedy did by the process in 1961. So we hope that our views – and those expressed by others – will help to persuade the administration to stay the course.

At some point, either we or the Bay of Pigs brigade will be disappointed. Whatever happens, it will be a reminder – to paraphrase George Orwell – that some campaign promises are more equal than others. That’s especially true when it comes to President Trump and Cuba; after all, he’s made so many.

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Calling Rex Tillerson

March 3, 2017

Where do things stand with the Trump Administration and U.S.-Cuba relations?

Recall that President Trump and Vice President Pence made clear, as candidates, that without concessions from Cuba’s government, they would reverse President Obama’s major changes in U.S.-Cuba relations on Day One. This threat continues to rattle Cubans.

President Raúl Castro, speaking in January, made clear that no one should expect Cuba to “renounce its ideals of independence and social justice or abandon any of our principles, or give in an inch in the defense of our national sovereignty.”

Even though the battle has yet to be joined, we’ve seen this array of forces before: the immutable force of Washington’s demands for existential changes in Cuba’s system poised to collide with the immovable object of Cuban sovereignty.

To be clear, we are 43 days in and the administration has made no changes to the policy. We’re not trying to jinx that. We’re trying to understand it. The administration is going out of its way to honor campaign promises. It is stocked with embargo defenders. Key leaders in Congress support rolling back travel and trade reforms and beefing up programs to take down Cuba’s system of government. We expected to be disappointed and playing defense much sooner.

One explanation could be disarray in the foreign policy machinery. As we discussed last week, the President has his second National Security Advisor in his young administration. The White House fired Craig Deare, its senior national security advisor on the Western Hemisphere, just two weeks ago. The Washington Post is asking, “Where in the world is Secretary of State Rex Tillerson?” and gamely reporting that “Tillerson’s diplomacy has been conducted out of sight.” This is the man in charge of the Trump administration review of Cuba policy.

The State Department, according to The Atlantic’s Julia Ioffe, has the comparative feel of a ghost town. She writes, “There hasn’t been a State Department press briefing, once a daily ritual, since the new administration took over five weeks ago.” Observing that the briefings are not just for journalists, Ioffe says the silence from the State Department podium deprives U.S. diplomats all over the world of a “crucial set of cues…With no daily messaging, and almost no guidance from Washington, people in far-flung posts are flying blind even as the pace of their diplomacy hasn’t abated.”

For a host of reasons that go beyond our interest in Cuba, it is unfortunate that we don’t have in place the traditional structures to mediate or understand what is happening with U.S. foreign policy.

The President, in his Inaugural Address, kicked the concept of sovereignty into play when he said, “We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world – but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.”

This week, in his first Joint Session of Congress address, he revisited this subject in much the same way. “We will respect historic institutions, but we will also respect the sovereign rights of nations. Free nations are the best vehicle for expressing the will of the people – and America respects the right of all nations to chart their own path.”

At the same time, in the Trump administration’s forthcoming FY2018 budget request, the White House is proposing a 30 percent cut in State Department funding and a 40 percent cut in USAID funding to help prioritize a sharp increase in defense spending. Priorities which have prompted some critics to call the President an “isolationist” or a “militarist.”

Again this week, in what the Washington Post described as a “sharp break from U.S. trade policy,” the Trump administration said it may ignore “certain rulings by the World Trade Organization if those decisions infringe on U.S. sovereignty.”

If sovereignty is the defining principle of Trump administration foreign policy, that is resonant with implications for the Page One issue of Russia and for our principle concern, Cuba.

In an article published last year by Vox, Fiona Hill, a former U.S. national intelligence officer for Russia, examined the motivation behind President Putin’s campaign to hack the U.S. elections. Ms. Hill wrote, “Putin wants the United States and other Western governments to stop funding, as part of their foreign policies, organizations that promote political and economic transformations in Russia. He also wants to block US officials from meeting with opposition figures and parties. From Putin’s perspective, democracy promotion is just a cover for regime change.”

Most Americans don’t like Russia’s interference in our democratic process. This isn’t about moral equivalence: it’s natural for people to want to protect their nation’s governance from outside interference. While it may be a permanent part of our national character to preach to others about the value of our system – and it has value – it is something entirely different to try and impose it on others. This is where we hope the Trump doctrine’s devotion to sovereignty extends.

The U.S. has a long history of trying to overthrow the Cuban system through measures that included the Bay of Pigs invasion, covert operations, efforts of the kind that landed Alan Gross, the former USAID subcontractor, in a Cuban prison for five years, and more. President Obama’s Cuba policy put an end to most of that. Now, advisors to the new administration, such as José Cárdenas, who testified before Congress this week, want President Trump to exert economic pressure on the Cubans and bring the old policies back. The administration will probably do so.

Yet there is another, more hopeful course, and both presidents have spoken to it. In the remarks we quoted above, President Raúl Castro also said, “As I have repeatedly affirmed, both Cuba and the United States should learn the art of civilized coexistence based on respect for differences between our governments, and on cooperation in areas of common interest that may contribute to tackling the challenges facing the hemisphere and the world.”

For his part, President Trump told the U.S. Congress, “America is willing to find new friends, and to forge new partnerships, where shared interests align. We want harmony and stability, not war and conflict. We want peace, wherever peace can be found.”

If Rex Tillerson can be found, he might suggest to Bruno Rodríguez, his Cuban counterpart, that sovereignty could be just the thing to bring the two leaders together.

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