Anya Landau French is director of research for the New America Foundation/U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative.
Normally I say my piece and I let it go. But sometimes, the point bears repeating, especially when it deals with serious national security questions. It also bears repeating when Eugene Robinson takes it up on the op-ed page in today’s Washington Post.
Under new rules prompted by the failed Christmas Day terrorist attack, airline passengers coming to the United States from 14 nations will undergo extra screening: Afghanistan, Algeria, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. For our first quiz of the new decade, which country doesn’t fit with the others?
The obvious answer is Cuba, which presents a threat of terrorism that can be measured at precisely zero. Cuba is not a failed state where swaths of territory lie beyond government control; rather, it is one of the most tightly locked-down societies in the world, a place where the idea of private citizens getting their hands on plastic explosives, or terrorist weapons of any kind, is simply laughable.
There is no history of radical Islam in Cuba. In fact, there is hardly any history of Islam at all. With its long-standing paranoia about internal security and its elaborate network of government spies and snitches, the island nation would have to be among the last places on Earth where al-Qaeda would try to establish a cell, let alone plan and launch an attack. Yet Cuba is on the list because the State Department still considers it — along with Iran, Sudan and Syria — to be a state sponsor of terrorism.
Really? Despite the fact that the U.S. Interests Section in Havana was one of the few American diplomatic posts in the world to remain open for normal business, with no apparent increased security, in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks?
Robinson thinks that President Obama should take Cuba off the list once and for all.
Granted, the president already has plenty on his plate. He may be reluctant to introduce yet another variable. It’s not hard to imagine a senator or a group of House members holding, say, health-care reform hostage over Cuba policy.
But it’s difficult for me to believe that Obama fails to see how insane our current policy really is. He needs to change it — and he can begin by ceasing to pretend that looking for al-Qaeda terrorists on flights from Cuba is anything but a big waste of time.
Now that I have “predicted” the opening of this debate, allow me to predict that embargo proponents are sure to pile on Robinson, and claim he’s offering the Castros the keys to the castle (or at least the lifting of the embargo). But that simply isn’t the case. The U.S. embargo is a huge tangle of laws and regulations built up over more than four decades – most of the economic sanctions that would normally go away with taking any country off the terrorism list would still stay in place with respect to Cuba thanks to the late Jesse Helms (author of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which significantly tightened the embargo on Cuba).
If removed from the terrorism list, Cuba would still not be able to import or export most anything to or from the U.S., nor receive private or public credit terms, nor receive U.S. foreign assistance . . . you get the point.
So the real benefit of taking Cuba off of the terrorism list goes to the United States itself. Removing the one country everyone believes no longer belongs there could increase the credibility and impact of such a list. And so long as we lack a clear and consistent standard for why one country is on the list and another one isn’t (there is broad consensus that Cuba remains on the list for domestic political reasons), the rest of the world may take our fight against terrorism that much less seriously. Worse, it causes us to waste precious resources we need focused on the real threats to our country.
So, yeah, what he said.
— Anya Landau French