Conservatives Angry at More Wars in Koran-Zone & Obama’s Disappointing Incrementalism on Cuba


obama small.jpegYesterday, I had coffee with a former three-star general who has outed himself as a political conservative in his post-military life. Joining us was a former conservative member of Congress, a conservative CEO, a top tier conservative organizer, and a conservative pundit. I discussed the Iraq War, Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan/Pakistan, nukes, and Cuba with them.
The anger among the serious strategic-thinking conservatives about the state of the country, its foreign policy position, the value of the dollar, and the beleaguered military is serious — and John McCain seems to have no idea how much frustration is boiling among conservative patriots with his saber-rattling about hundred year deployments and more wars in the “Koran-zone.”
But one of the really interesting lines from the general and heartily agreed to by the conservative organizer and also the pundit was:

No one serious can support our policy towards Cuba. Fifty years of failure. We need to engage those people. Commerce and travel, exchange between their people and our people. . .well, you know what I mean. Cuba is an easy fix. Castro’s brother, Raul, is lifting all sorts of restrictions on his public, and we’re doing squat. If we want to steal Hugo Chavez’s thunder in Latin America, then open up to Cubans and see where the currents take us. Can’t get worse than the “zero” we have achieved thus far.

If serious conservatives can say this, why can’t the serious Dems running for the White House?

I asked a serious person, Susan Rice, what she thought of our US-Cuba policy on a recent Obama campaign conference call. I respect Rice who is on leave from Brookings now while advising the Obama campaign. However, her response on the embargo seemed the same kind of triangulation on the issue that a calculating political cynic might offer — not a campaign ready to crash through cynicism and more optimistically rewire and redraw the lines of how we think about U.S. foreign policy challenges.
I asked Rice if Obama — who has been the most progressive among the three standing presidential candidates on US-Cuba policy — would at least go back to the ‘status quo’ during the Bush administration in 2003. Before Bush tightened up the noose on Cuban-American family travel, remittances, and other exchanges, there was quite a bit of “non-tourist” travel to Cuba — usually for educational and cultural reasons.
Rice’s response was “no.” She said that those kinds of openings for non-tourist travel would depend on Cuba having “fair and free elections”, releasing political prisoners, adherence to human rights conventions, and the like.
This is out of the playbook of Republican Congresspersons Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and the Diaz-Balart brothers of South Florida. The notion that a nation isolated for decades from the U.S. will adopt norms of American style democracy in exchange for the benefits of non-tourist travel and other exchange is not realistic. America hasn’t taken that course with China, with Vietnam, and now not even with North Korea.
Last year, I praised Obama’s stance on Cuba and called it brave and that it reflected the future rather than the past. But if Obama is not even willing to return to the norm that existed for the first three years of the George W. Bush administration, then he and his team are suffering from an incrementalism of vision and opportunity that they need to quickly correct.
Interestingly, US-Cuba policy is changing without many folks noticing. First, Raul Castro has removed restrictions on the purchase of some computers, DVDs, video tapes, and DVD and video players. And this past week, he has removed all restriction on the sale and ownership of cell phones.
If I was running for President of the United States and had opened the door for a potential new course in US-Cuba relations, I’d say something about Raul Castro’s moves. But as far as I can tell, Barack Obama and his team haven’t moved a centimeter or said a word of late.
Quietly though, the Bush administration is diverting some funding away from US-based anti-Castro organizations. There is a quiet relaxation underway in US-Cuba relations that I fear highlighting because Bush might stop it — and McCain would yell about it; Hillary Clinton would say “now is the wrong time”; and Obama might say not until we have a free and fair system of elections and a thriving democracy in Cuba.
But Obama doesn’t even want to go back to the Bush administration’s standard of non-tourist people to people exchange. Unacceptable.
Hillary Clinton is far more restrictive of course and would maintain a Cold War-hugging stance on Cuba at least until Florida votes were counted — but at least her foreign policy adviser, Lee Feinstein, said that he’d be cool with the NY Philharmonic going to Cuba.
Obama spokesman Bill Burton just wouldn’t go that far though he said they’d “give a hard look” at the possibility.
And yet I have no problem at all getting conservative national leader after conservative national leader to parrot former Colin Powell chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson‘s famous line in GQ Magazine:

Our U.S.-Cuba policy is the stupidest policy on earth.

Maybe the Dems will eventually get there — but the Democratic frontrunner’s Cuba position seems to tilt too much towards the timid and less towards the bold. Changing US-Cuba relations is easy — low-hanging fruit in the realm of things a president can do to telegraph to the world that a new era is beginning in American foreign policy.
— Steve Clemons


26 comments on “Conservatives Angry at More Wars in Koran-Zone & Obama’s Disappointing Incrementalism on Cuba

  1. Dennis says:

    “If serious conservatives can say this, why can’t the serious Dems running for the White House?”
    Because, Steve, whether you like to admit it or not, there is little difference between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to establishing a hegmony. You need go no further to establish that than to admit that both political partys and most of their members voted to support the Iraq invasion because of personal political considerations rather than military necessity. Our political history is full of that. That is the history of our government.
    And now that the American people have finally caught on in such a big way, we have a department of Homeland Security that is doing as much or more to control the American people than it is to do anything else, including protect Americans from terrorists.
    The illegal spying on Americans even prior to 9/11 wasn’t for catching terrorists only.


  2. Jim Clark says:

    So, since unnamed Republicans will confidentially tell you the truth
    about Cuba, Democratic Presidential candidates are spineless
    because they won’t publicly campaign on Cuba. Sheesh.
    Despite your clear-eyed foreign policy perspectives, your political
    perspective seems excessively earnest.


  3. George says:

    All this just points out the upside of global warming: One of these days, Florida will be under water.


  4. Robert M says:

    The reasoning is simple. It’s the election stupid. Why wave around a red flag for the Republicans. They are disorganized by infighting why should Obama give them something to unite around.
    As to your general, I never take these people seriously because they never do the public work to be taken seriously.The closest they get is like Adm Fallon. And once confronted they surrender to USMJ 88 and shut up even after they are out.
    Steve very few people get to talk to these people except in the closeted fishbowl of their think-tank. And when you take them out and tell tales like this one, most people think only of fish tales. Show us the fish what is his name and background.


  5. TokyoTom says:

    Steve, I have long been in favor of opening to Cuba, but it simpky doesn’t concern me as worthy of much concern in the context of the election. Rather, I’m worried about whether or not we’re going to bomb, bomb, bomb Iran and otherwise make things worse for our nation as a whole in order to satisfy certain elites.
    Does pushing on Cuba help Dems win the election? If not, why push?


  6. Tony Foresta says:

    Conservatives cannot define or frame liberals. I know in the kabuki theater that is American politics conservatives imagine they are sanctioned by thebabyjesus and/or the heavens to brute this or that partisan opinion, or conjure this or that aspersion, scurrilous accusation, or slime to hoist on their opponents, – but conservatives have no inherent right to pimp these wildly deceptive and inaccurate proclamations, nor can conservatives imagine any authority or innate credibility affording chosen select cabals the supremist preeminence to pass judgment on any other person, party, or group. The hypocrisy would be laughable, were it not so alarming. Who cares what aspersions, scurrilous slander, or slime socalled conservatives pimp about any democratic candidate. Any American who reads knows and understands full well the the rightwingattackmachine, and the Weyrich, Coors, Sun Yung Moon, Merdock, and “Bush crime family cabals” will stoop to the lowests depths of human depravity to slime, silence, and dismiss any opponent, or dissenting voice.
    You sit down with these pathological liars Steve, ask them – I beg of you – ask anyone of them to define what would be “victory” in Iraq. If anyone of them dare to answer that question, I might listen or be interested in what they have to say. Otherwise, conservatives are kinder gentler wingnuts, who are beholden to compassionate fascists, who are obedient to the ruthless tyrants and traitors in the Bush government.
    “Deliver us from evil!”


  7. Mr.Murder says:

    An in-law is a former three star(ret.) and he didn’t vote for Bush in ’04.
    Counting the votes matters more than anything else. Look at Congress fall over itself trying to feign some level of concern at everyone else losing their homes.
    Pikes and and pitchforks are all that will change DC at this time.


  8. drstevebq says:

    Regarding your conservative coffee-mates… they need to say it in public with their names attached. Otherwise, to heck with them…. their silent anonumous opinions over coffee do not matter, and they are cowards for not going public.


  9. rapier says:

    Almost nothing positive can be done vis a vis Cuba with Helm Burton in force. Strategy or policy don’t mean much. What matters is who owns Cuba. According to old deeds and titles which are recognized by Helms Burton Cuban Americans own much of Cuba. It’s the 800 pound gorilla in the room. Nobody has the nerve to touch it. For good reason.
    Almost anything done by an American citizen or the government in relation to Cuba could and will be blocked by the courts because of Helms Burton. Anything except one day when a Cuban American walks onto a Cuban farm or a Havanna house and declares it theirs, squatters please leave promptly.


  10. Carroll says:

    Well, there is already a change in policy…at least in who we are giving the loot to..although we are increasing the amount of the loot.
    Our politicans just can’t give our money away fast enough can they? I read today that 28 million Americans are on food stamps and here we are giving 45 million in grants to free people who get free milk and free college educations from Castro.
    “The Bush administration is undertaking a major do-over of the controversial Cuba democracy grants, restricting the funds available for anti-Castro groups in Miami and sending more resources to non-U.S. international advocacy organizations, officials and others familiar with the programs say.
    The new orientation, which has sent tremors of uncertainty among many grant recipients in South Florida, comes as the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development prepare to award a record $45.7 million in Cuba democracy grants this year — more than triple the 2007 levels.
    And for whoever said the average American doesn’t care or doesn’t pay attention….if one of the three candidates told the public today how much of their money is spent on crap like “freeing Cuba” and promised to stop it..he wouldn’t need an election, he would be carried on the shoulders of 300 millions Americans (less the US zionist and the Cuban exiles) and deposited in the WH tomorrow.


  11. arthurdecco says:

    The only problem the Democrats have in Florida is who counts the votes and how they count them, Mr. Wilson.


  12. Gordon Wilson says:

    I would imagine that the Democrats have enough problems with Florida without looking for more trouble.


  13. JohnH says:

    What’s interesting to me is that Ackerman went out and tried to systematically read the tea leaves about Obama. Steve tries to extrapolate from the random tea leaf, which I guess is an occupational hazard of being a wonk.
    By now it’s probably too late to extrapolate from recently picked tea leaves. After what happened to Samantha Powers, I would be astounded if any of Obama’s advisors say anything for attribution that is outside of the strict bounds of conventional, beltway wisdom. Honest, nuanced positions are gone for the time being. Battles have to be carefully chosen, and alienating a bunch of Cuban-Americans in a battleground state may not be worth the fight, though it might be part of a longer term campaign to root of the rot infecting the foreign policy establishment and the body politic.
    People like me who think there is something seriously off kilter in the mind set of the DC foreign policy establishment need to press Obama if and when he wins. He is the only candidate that brings even a remote prospect for a cultural change in foreign policy.


  14. WigWag says:

    “This is out of the playbook of Republican Congresspersons Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and the Diaz-Balart brothers of South Florida.”
    Steve, just a week or so ago, you excoriated (in three separate posts) Cogresswoman Debbie Wasserman Scultz for articulating the exact same policy on Cuba that Senator Obama’s advisor Susan Rice now articulates. As I am sure you remember, there was an organized campaign directed at the congresswoman criticizing her willingness to cozy up to Illeana Ros-Lehtinen and the Diaz-Balart brothers on the Cuba issue. Now that it’s clear that Senator Obama’s campaign has almost an identical position on Cuba as Wasserman Schultz, Ros-Lehtinen and the Diaz-Balart brothers, can we expect the same level of outrage directed against the Obama campaign as was directed against Wasserman-Schultz? Of course not! I guess it’s okay for the Senator to adopt his Cuba position out of political expediency; it’s just not okay for the congresswoman to do that.


  15. RonK, Seattle says:

    Is it all about ethanol?


  16. Jay C says:

    Steve, regardless of anything anyone in the Obama, Clinton or McCain campaign(s) says at this point in time, I think it’s foolish to expect ANY change in US Cuban policy until AFTER this November’s election. While your conservative kaffeeklatsch may be unanimous in their judgments about the inanity and counterproductiveness of current policy towards Cuba, I notice that none of them seem to be current officeholders (are they?) – and thus, probably more willing to voice their objections: they don’t have to fear their criticisms showing up in (negative) campaign ads.
    Like it or not, I think that Cuba poicy is just too much of a hot-potato political issue to expect much to be done about it (or even talked about) in an election year. After next January: I would be surprised, actually, if an Obama or Clinton Administration didn’t ease up. McCain: well, who knows?


  17. Linda says:

    Seems simple enough to me that Democratic nominee keeps FL happy until he/she wins the election and a veto-proof Congress–and then early in his/her term starts moving to change our policy toward Cuba. People in FL will benefit the most of the changes.


  18. ... says:

    steve, i appreciate you continuing to put a focus on usa/cuba relationships… the whole dynamic shows how small minded the usa looks to an outsider and you are right to work to change it…


  19. DonS says:

    John wrote, “If Obama’s proposed purge of the entrenched foreign policy mind set does make sense, but Obama does not adhere to it, we need to know it. Then Obama must be pressured to adhere to it.”
    The timing is everything of course. Even Akerman in the article (thank you for linking, which reported a broad vision but few specifics) says “once in office, Obama might feel compelled to turn his back on the critique he makes on the trail”.
    Again, tense and timing is everything — and who ever got a guarantee from a candidate that was airtight and specific. (I guess there are a few). So it is perhaps just this wiggle room, this maybe yes, maybe no, that Rice is presaging.
    Holding Obama’s feet to the fire? On what? Some generalities that that are not fleshed out but if they were would certainly be countered by McCain, before the election and, after a “win”, subject to change like everything else.
    If indeed Obama is getting cold feet on his bold vision, and if Cuba, indeed “low hanging fruit”, is an indication of this, I’m disappointed. Actually, I think both you and Steve are saying something like this, with different emphasis.
    If abandoning “fear” as the underlying ethic is to be real, just how do you do that without taking risks commensurate with a the goal?


  20. Cee says:

    There are many things that Obama and others can’t say now.
    Change is coming. Clinton knows it. McCain knows it.


  21. G Hazeltine says:

    “Koran-Zone”? This is how we respect Islam??


  22. JohnH says:

    Interesting that Steve assumes that Susan Rice alone speaks for Obama. Using this one data point, Steve writes off Obama as having “the same kind of triangulation on the issue that a calculating political cynic might offer.” Excuse me, but it’s hard to conclude much of anything from the OPINION of ONE data point, even a knowledgeable one.
    Instead of taking pot shots, it would be nice if Steve would read the Ackerman article, which includes multiple sources.
    Then it would be nice if Steve told us if he thinks it fairly represents Obama’s position, and then tell us if he thinks that Obama’s proposed change in foreign policy mind set is the fix we need.
    If Obama’s proposed purge of the entrenched foreign policy mind set does make sense, but Obama does not adhere to it, we need to know it. Then Obama must be pressured to adhere to it. Lord knows, he will be feeling enough resistance from the mob that controls foreign policy thinking today, so a countervailing pressure is critical.


  23. DonS says:

    Surely Obama, as his candidacy becomes more seriously a reality, he is taking the incrementalism route further on a variety of issues, as most of our “centrist” politics seems to demand.
    However, there is no doubt a legitimate concern that the repubs would use a more “progressive” stand as a cudgel against him if he really advocate such. (even though you seem to indicate that its a conservative stand as well — though not necessarily a main stream, in the public arena, conservative stance).
    Still, if Obama can’t take a risk here, where should we hope for more candor? (personally, I think such hope is fatuous given our politics)
    So, can the Florida landmine be defused? Doubtful, because along with being “soft on Cuba” comes a whole lot of other baggage including, perhaps, soft on terror, soft on radical Islam, soft on Palestine. Am I way off here, or do these also resonate in Florida, and beyond?


  24. Spunkmeyer says:

    Outside of Florida, I’d argue that Cuba really doesn’t register as an
    issue in the minds of the average American citizen. Why would a
    candidate decide to incur a media firestorm over what would be
    labeled by the pundits as a “controversial issue” at this crucial
    point in the campaign? All it would do is distract from the things
    most voters want to hear about.
    For the record, I strongly believe that U.S. should have full
    normalized relations with Cuba. I was there in 2003, right before
    the Iraq war, and it was apparent that the average Cuban was pro-
    American, even if their government wasn’t.


  25. Dan Kervick says:

    Yes, this is very disappointing. Unfortunately, all of our candidates live in mortal terror of the swing state Florida and its electoral votes, which have been vital in two straight elections. Remember Al Gore, who definitely knew better, and his embarrassing pandering on the Elian Gonzalez mess? I actually felt bad for Gore, because it seemed obvious that he was just holding his nose and faking it. But those are the sometimes ugly realities of US domestic politics.


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