Talk to Cuba

October 12, 2012

An article published this week by The Cable ran with the headline “Top Romney Advisor supports negotiating with terrorists.”  It told the story of Mitchell Reiss, named one year ago, to a top spot on the Governor’s campaign foreign policy team.

In a 2010 book, Reiss presented “an argument that the United States not only should, but at times must enter into conversations with hostile foreign elements.”  Reiss is not indiscriminate about negotiations and, in fact, published a tough piece in January criticizing the Obama administration’s negotiating strategy with the Taliban; not saying it was wrong, but arguing it was poorly conceived.

Even that was too much for his candidate.  Just four days later, at a debate in South Carolina, when a Fox News reporter asked Governor Romney if Reiss was wrong about talking to the enemy, he threw Reiss under the bus and said yes.

It is odd just how out of fashion talking to our adversaries has become.  We are able to celebrate a milestone this month, the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, because President John F. Kennedy thought that talking to the Soviet Union would be preferable to having our country and theirs blown to kingdom come.  Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev used diplomacy to avoid catastrophe.

This week, Nicholas Burns, a veteran diplomat, wrote about the missile crisis and what lessons it might offer to President Obama and Governor Romney as they think about U.S. foreign policy in 2013 and the years to come.

“Kennedy concluded,” Burns wrote, “that we had to think about the Soviet people in a fundamentally different way if we wanted to avoid nuclear Armageddon… Kennedy advocated building bridges to the Soviets, as the ‘human interest’ of avoiding world war had to eclipse the more narrow ‘national interest.’”

This is, after all, the conclusion that the Government of Colombia and the FARC reached, preparing as they are for peace negotiations next week in Oslo, and later this month in Cuba.  President Juan Manuel Santos is saying already he is confident that the FARC is willing to reach an agreement to end the decades-long civil war.

Direct diplomacy with Cuba is what President Obama promised in the 2008 campaign.  Nothing indiscriminate; “There will be careful preparation. We will set a clear agenda,” Obama said in a speech before the Cuban American National Foundation.  His view was endorsed by Jorge Mas Santos, son of the founder of CANF, once the epicenter of support for a hardline against the Castro government:

“The other centerpiece of U.S. – Cuba policy has been that there should be no negotiations and conversations with Raul Castro,” Mr. Santos said. “Although this may sound tough, on its own it is ineffective and plays into the hands of Raúl Castro.”

At the beginning of his term, Mr. Obama acted as if he could think about Cuba’s people in a different way.  He restarted Migration Talks that George Bush broke off.  He permitted U.S. participation in below the radar, multi-party talks including Cuba on oil drilling in the Gulf and protecting the environment we share.  The governments have spoken directly, about imprisoned U.S. contractor Alan Gross, and at the margins of international conferences.

At times, Cuba’s government was probably uncooperative.  There’s undoubtedly more that we don’t know.  But it’s hard to discern the results if there is.  In a world where talking to “the enemy” is so discredited, this appears to have been all they could do.

Surely, as President Kennedy liked to say, we can do “bettah.”

In 2009, Peter Kornbluh, who directs the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, and William LeoGrande, Dean of the School of Public Affairs at American University, published a compelling history of U.S. negotiations with Cuba and laid out a roadmap for how the two countries could sit down and really make progress.

Both candidates can read the entire article on the Internet.  Here’s hoping the victor has a working browser.  If Kennedy could deal with Khrushchev, and Colombia can talk to the FARC, surely the next U.S. president should talk directly to Cuba.  He might consider ending the Cold War and letting the citizens of both countries move along with our lives.  Bolder figures have done a lot more even when faced with greater stakes.

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