By Steve Clemons - April 1, 2008, 9:17AM
Yesterday, 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 publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note