Jamming Bridges, Burning Bridges: What is it with politicians from New Jersey?

January 17, 2014

Aren’t there enough reasons to junk our Cold War-era policy toward Cuba?

You’d think so.  The policy doesn’t work.  It hurts the Cuban people.  It infringes on the liberties of Americans barred from visiting the island or doing business there.  It stops world-class Cuban pharmaceuticals from reaching patients here who need them.  It emboldens hardliners in Cuba to slow down their government’s economic reforms.  It boomerangs against the United States in Latin America.  It isolates the U.S. internationally.  It stops our government from negotiating for the release of the imprisoned USAID subcontractor Alan Gross.

The list goes on.  Each rationale for replacing the policy is powerful by itself.  But if you put them together, even after you add President Obama’s reasonable reforms on travel and remittances and negotiating with Cuba on matters like migration, the essence of the policy – harsh sanctions and diplomatic isolation – remains in place…undisturbed, seemingly impervious to knowledge and reason.

Is there nothing that will cause the executive branch to do needs to be done?  Is there no principle or no new fact, no new argument that will spur them to action?

Anything?  Anyone?

Two astute observers of national security, Yochi Dreazen and John Hudson, may have solved the puzzle.  Follow their logic.

In Pennsylvania Avenue’s Cold War, they depict a White House and U.S. State Department striving to salvage a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” an agreement put at risk by the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Menendez, a member of the president’s political party, and the senior Senator from the State of New Jersey.

By introducing legislation (which has bipartisan support in the Senate) that will scuttle their diplomatic solution, Menendez, as the White House sees it, is dragging the U.S. perilously close to starting a war with Iran.

“The lobbying campaign against Menendez’s bill – which would impose expansive new sanctions on Iran if the current nuclear negotiations fail – highlights his surprising emergence as one of the White House’s leading congressional adversaries (on a number of Obama priorities, including Cuba).”

Dreazen and Hudson write that “Menendez’s hard-line positions on the Cuban issue could leave him vulnerable to White House retaliation,” and suggest “the administration could decide to punish Menendez for his support of the Iran sanctions bill” by making a series of overdue reforms in Cuba policy, such as opening the island to more travel by Americans or strengthening bilateral relations.

“If I’m president and I want to stick it to Menendez,” a Congressional aide says, “I would take it out on his Cuba policy.”

For burning bridges with the President on Iran, could the White House send some payback in Menendez’s direction by making progress on Cuba?

Yes it could.

Of course, they wouldn’t call it retaliation.  They wouldn’t have to; there are ample justifications to reform the policy on the merits.

They could point to last year’s travel reforms implemented by Raúl Castro’s government that have already enabled 185,000 Cubans to travel abroad in the last year alone.

They could highlight the decisions being taken now by the European Union that put normalizing relations with Cuba toward the center of its foreign policy agenda.

They could acknowledge the need for bilateral cooperation on matters like the environment by highlighting Cuba’s decision to resume drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico in 2015.

They could side with scores of his Senate colleagues who wrote President Obama that Alan Gross needs to be returned home, and he should “take whatever steps are in the national interest” to negotiate with Cuba for his release.

Foreign policy expert Steve Clemons has written about Bob Menendez and his efforts to thwart reasonable reforms on Cuba since 2007.  He argued recently that the senior Senator from New Jersey had become the Democrats’ Jesse Helms for his broader role as an obstacle to change from his perch on Senate Foreign Relations.  Clemons has wisely focused on how reforming Cuba policy would have strategic echoes benefiting the United States across Latin America and the world.

He and others make these arguments because, in the Obama era, substance matters.  The nuts and bolts of politics are known to be foreign to them; so much so, Politico reports, when Senators were invited to relax with the President at the White House and they read “cocktails” on the invitation, they thought they saw a misprint.

If even schmoozing seems like a remote concept is action on Cuba even conceivable as a message to Menendez on Iran?  We don’t know.  But, this could be even more exciting than Governor Christie stopping traffic on the George Washington Bridge.

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