The ending of the US trade blockade of Cuba, now in sight, may turn out to be a cultural disaster for the Cubans as American money and the Wal-Marts and McDonalds sweep in from the ocean.
But for the US itself, as President Barack Obama described it this week, it’s “no big deal”. Fifty years ago, during the Bay of Pigs crisis, Cuba was a potentially lethal outpost of the Soviet empire. Today, as Obama told Tom Friedman of The New York Times in an interview this week, Cuba is “a tiny little country. It’s not one that threatens our core security interests.”
Friedman suggested that the common elements in President Obama’s approach to Cuba and other formerly hostile countries amounted to “an Obama doctrine”: “Having taken care of all the strategic concerns… you believe that engagement is possible [and] can lead to different outcomes that are unpredictable in advance.” Obama did not demur.
Certainly, military disengagement and diplomatic engagement have been the hallmark of this presidency in foreign affairs. Imposing a date for withdrawal from Afghanistan, refusing to get involved in attacks on Libya and Syria, taking decisive steps to mend relations with Burma, Obama has distinguished himself sharply from his predecessor. And the doctrine, if we can call it that, is expected to climax this week in the first substantive talks between an American and a Cuban president in more than 50 years.
But to what extent do Obama’s policies bring about real change?
Each of these initiatives has been taken in the awareness that American military pre-eminence remains so colossal that what more cautious or conservative US politicians would define as risks are not really risky. Speaking of the pending deals with Cuba and Iran, the President said: “We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk. For us to test the possibility that engagement with Cuba could lead to a better outcome for the Cuban people – there aren’t that many risks for us. It’s a tiny little country. It’s not one that threatens our core security interests. If it turns out that it doesn’t lead to better outcomes, we can adjust our policy.”
These developments are welcome, so one is reluctant to rain on Obama’s parade. But there is a one-dimensionality to the doctrine which is a mirror image of the one-dimensionality of George W Bush.
In both cases, it’s all about us. All about America. Iraq was invaded because Saddam was a bad man, an ally who had turned his coat and become truculent and defiant, who was therefore a challenge, like the bad guy in a western. Iraq was invaded because Donald Rumsfeld persuaded Bush that it could be done on the cheap. Neither man seems to have given a thought to what would happen once the war was won, either inside Iraq or in terms of the regional balance of power. The nightmarish chaos of the present derives directly from the egomaniacal myopia of that world view.
The Iran deal may turn out well. I certainly hope so. But again, it’s all about America. Iran’s military budget, Obama told Friedman, is $30bn; that of the US, nearing $600bn. Ergo, Iran won’t attack the US. And it won’t attack Israel because “we have [Israel’s] back.” Meanwhile a nuclear deal will encourage “those forces in Iran that say we don’t have to view ourselves entirely through the lens of our war machine – let’s excel in science and technology…”
You’ve got America the Benign, renouncing its bad old ways. And you’ve got the people of goodwill in these countries who will pick up their cue – “These folks,” Obama says, “get stronger.”
Certainly they will get happier, at least for a while. But it’s all about big results, big headlines; all about Us and our achievements. It is a Brobdingnagian vision, unable to take the compulsions and preoccupations of the “little tiny” folk at face value. Yet power remains where it was. And as in the time of Bush, American strategic decisions are taken in a vacuum of concern for the power balance either within the country itself or in its wider region.
In pictures: Timeline of US and Cuba relations
In pictures: Timeline of US and Cuba relations
1/19 Cuba timeline
July 1953: Fidel Castro begins a revolutionary campaign against the regime of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista
2/19 Cuba timeline
January 1959: Castro and Che Guevara enter Havana after a successful final offensive. Batista flees, and Castro becomes prime minister, ruling by decree
3/19 Cuba timeline
October 1960: Castro’s reforms sees hundreds of US businesses in Cuba nationalised and their owners not compensated. In December, US US breaks off diplomatic relations and imposes a trade embargo
4/19 Cuba timeline
April 1961: Cuban exiles launch the Bay of Pigs invasion with US backing
5/19 Cuba timeline
October 1962: A 13-day confrontation known as the Cuban missile crisis begins when Castro allows the USSR to deploy nuclear missiles on the island. Generally regarded as the closest the world has come to nuclear war
6/19 Cuba timeline
1962: US President John F Kennedy signs off a naval blockade
7/19 Cuba timeline
April 1980: A sharp downturn in the Cuban economy and Castro temporarily lifting restrictions sees around 125,000 people, many of them released convicts, flee to the US
8/19 Cuba timeline
February 1996: Cuba shoots down two US aircraft operated by Miami-based Cuban exiles, prompting the US to make its trade embargo permanent
9/19 Cuba timeline
June 2001: The case of the “Cuban Five” begins, as five spies in Miami are convicted of providing intelligence to the Havana government
10/19 Cuba timeline
Nov 2001: US sells $30m of food to the Cuban government to assist in the aftermath of Hurricane Michelle, which killed 22 people, the first food export between the countries for more than 40 years
11/19 Cuba timeline
Oct 2003: US President George W Bush announces fresh anti-communist measures, including tightening the travel embargo and creating a new government body, the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba
12/19 Cuba timeline
Aug 2006: President Bush seizes the opportunity of President Castro’s illness and a handover of powers to Raul Castro, urging Cubans to work towards democratic change
13/19 Cuba timeline
Feb 2008: Raul Castro officially takes over as president. Washington responds by saying its trade embargo will remain in force unless free and fair elections are held
14/19 Cuba timeline
Dec 2008: A poll by Florida International University suggests for the first time that a majority of Cuban-Americans living in Miami want an end to the embargo
15/19 Cuba timeline
April 2009: President Obama lifts restrictions on family travel to Cuba
16/19 Cuba timeline
Dec 2009: US aid worker Alan Gross is detained in Cuba on suspicion of spying for Washington
17/19 Cuba timeline
Nov 2010: American Ballet Theatre performs in Cuba for the first time in 50 years, the most high-profile in a series of cultural exchanges
18/19 Cuba timeline
Sep 2012: Cuba hints at its willingness to do a deal with Washington on the Gross case
19/19 Cuba timeline
December 2013: President Obama and Raul Castro shake hands at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. Castro says in English: “Mr President, I am Castro.” It was hailed in Cuba as “the beginning of the end” for what were then described as “US aggressions”
So while the President is smug about America’s ability to tower over Iran's militarily, the shift in the regional power balance caused by the hoped-for diplomatic re-engagement helps explain why Iran and Saudi Arabia – to the US’s perplexity – are now locked in another proxy war, this time in Yemen, on the Saudis’ doorstep
Back in the mists of his first term, Burma – “the first wall you knocked down,” as Friedman put it – was the same. A shrewd and ambitious general forced an authoritarian constitution on the country, freed Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, became president after a fraudulent general election then pushed through a raft of long-needed reforms – freeing political prisoners, legalising trade unions, relaxing press censorship. It was enough to persuade the US and its allies to re-engage dramatically with a country on which sanctions had been clamped more than 20 years before, after the 1988 massacre of demonstrators.
But as today with Cuba and Iran, it was all too easy, too flip. Three years on, the reform process has stalled because America no longer has any way of exerting pressure. Suu Kyi, brought onto the political stage as a pawn in this game, is increasingly disillusioned as new elections approach. The regime consists of “hardliners” who “are not interested in negotiations or amending the constitution or taking seriously the will of the people,” she says now. “The United States and the West in general are too optimistic.”
Power remains exactly where it was before engagement started. Business is booming. But the people remain powerless.Reuse content