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“Talking Encourages Effective Change”: Obama In Cuba, And The Astounding Legacy Of A Pragmatic President

I’m old. Not as ancient as, say, the dinosaurs, but I’m certainly not young. In fact, I’m only a few years younger than the president, which, while young for the White House, is kind of old in my house.

How old am I? Well, I’ll tell you: I’m old enough to remember when all manner of things now the stuff of daily life were the stuff of Hollywood — the notion of an African-American president, for one.

Or, for instance, relations with Cuba. Are you mad, son? That embargo outlived the Iron Curtain! We will never have anything to do with Cuba (other than smuggled cigars) until the Castros are dead and a unicorn sits on a throne of dollars in the heart of Havana. The sky is blue, the grass is green, and Cuba is natio non grata, forever and ever.

Until this month. Until Sunday. Until, actually, December 2014, when the president announced, “Today, the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba” — an announcement which frankly left me gobsmacked and a little pie-eyed. I hadn’t been paying attention, you see, and seemingly out of the blue, this president had done the undoable, as if 50 years of human history could be changed with human hands. Now he’s walking around Havana and meeting with Raul Castro.

Or how about that other impossibility: U.S.-Iranian détente? I actually remember when the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was stormed. I’m also old enough to remember George W. Bush’s 2002 Axis of Evil speech, the one that torpedoed active Iranian cooperation with America in post-9/11 Afghanistan. And yet here we are, one president later, in possession of a nuclear deal with one of our most implacable foes, a foe that has in the meantime elected a slate of surprisingly moderate politicians to its parliament, reinforcing Obama’s position that talking encourages change more effectively than ceaseless saber-rattling.

Oh, I’m old enough to remember all kinds of things. I remember when “LGBTQ rights” were called “the homosexual agenda” and orange juice pitch-woman Anita Bryant told America that the gays wanted to hurt your children. I also remember the AIDS crisis, and how many people had to die before anyone in power began to treat them with dignity. I think that as a young woman I literally wouldn’t have been able to imagine a circumstance in which a sitting U.S. president would oversee the establishment of same-sex marriage as a constitutional right. Obama “evolved” on the issue, he told us — bringing America along with him, allowing us to evolve toward that more-perfect union of which our founders spoke.

And don’t think I’ve forgotten health care reform, which has been impossible since Harry Truman. I remember when the current Democratic frontrunner tried her hand at reshaping health care and got so badly burned that she and her then-president husband paid for it for years. Today, on the other hand, millions of Americans for whom basic health care was once as unimaginable as that unicorn in Havana now have insurance, and cannot be denied coverage for pre-existing conditions — such as, for instance, domestic violence or having a cervix. ObamaCare is, in many ways, feminism at its most brass-tacks, and I’m pretty sure Young Me also couldn’t have imagined having a president who is a feminist.

No one accomplishes anything on their own, no matter the office they hold. In the course of seven years, the president has had to learn from, respond to, and work with people ranging from grassroots activists to Pope Francis (while, it should be noted, the opposition party has done all it can to prevent him from accomplishing anything at all). And on many of these matters, Obama has just barely been ahead of the curve. When he announced the change in relations with Cuba, for instance, just less than half of Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County supported the embargo anymore — down from 66 percent in 2004 and 56 percent in 2011.

The president has never been a revolutionary; to borrow from Lin-Manuel Miranda, he is and has always been a bold pragmatist — which is, in my book, a compliment.

I don’t want to give the impression that I agree with everything Obama and his administration have presided over. Ask me (or better yet, don’t) about Obama’s record on Israel/Palestine — or maybe talk to the Central Americans deported back to their home countries after fleeing unspeakable violence. To borrow from the internet, your faves are always problematic. My faves are, too.

And yet. There are days on which this old woman looks at her young president’s record, and all but falls out of her chair. The foregoing is but a partial list, missing many things Obama has accomplished or advanced that were, as far as I once knew, impossible or pretty near. The beautiful thing, of course, is that you don’t actually have to be old to see it — you just have to be paying attention.

Thanks, Obama.

 

By: Emily L. Hauser, The Week, March 21, 2016

March 23, 2016 Posted by | Cuba, Diplomacy, President Obama, Raul Castro | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Critical Role Of Diplomacy”: The GOP Presidential Candidates Really Embarrassed Themselves During The Iran Navy Incident

It was a foreign policy crisis: After an equipment failure rendered their vehicle inoperative, a group of American military personnel had fallen into the hands of an adversarial state far away. How would the president get them back? A daring rescue mission? Threats of military action? Diplomacy? Outright groveling? In the end, he felt he had no choice but to submit to the hostage-takers’ demands, and the government wrote a letter filled with apologetic language (“We are very sorry” for the incident, and “We appreciate” our adversary’s “efforts to see to the well-being of our crew” they held prisoner for 10 days).

You would think that Republicans, who are so committed to the singular importance of “strength” in foreign affairs, would have been outraged and appalled at the weakness shown by the president in this incident. But they weren’t. That’s because the president was George W. Bush, and this was April 2001, when an American spy plane had to make an emergency landing on a Chinese island after a mid-air collision with a Chinese fighter jet. Here’s the letter of apology.

It was hard not to be reminded of that incident 15 years ago when this week two small American naval boats apparently drifted into Iranian territorial waters in the Persian Gulf after engines failed, and the Iranian navy detained them. As soon as the capture of the vessels was reported, Republican politicians stiffened their spines, flexed their pecs, and condemned the wimpy and feckless Obama administration that was obviously going to grovel before the ayatollah, leaving our brave sailors at the mercy of the Iranians for who knows how many days, weeks, or months. “The fact that [the capture] happened is a direct consequence of the weakness of the Obama-Clinton foreign policy,” said Ted Cruz, no doubt thinking wistfully about how if he were in charge, once the boats came up on radar the Iranians would have said, “Let them go where they want — we don’t want to anger President Cruz, who is so strong and resolute.” Joe Scarborough, perhaps caught in the middle of a Charles Atlas workout, tweeted, “Hey Iran, you have exactly 300 days left to push a U.S. president around. Enjoy it while you can. After that, there will be hell to pay.” Jeb Bush, testosterone practically dripping off his iPhone, tweeted, “If our sailors aren’t coming home yet, they need to now. No more bargaining. Obama’s humiliatingly weak Iran policy is exposed again.”

But then something strange happened. Wednesday morning, after only 16 hours, Iran released the sailors back to the United States, along with their boats. And we didn’t even have to bomb anybody.

A few conservatives are currently expressing faux-outrage over photos taken by the Iranians showing the sailors with their hands on their heads during the capture, as though that were some epic humiliation. But what’s important is that the whole matter was settled through a series of phone calls between American and Iranian officials, in which they apparently agreed that nobody was trying to be provocative and it would be best not to blow this out of proportion. Secretary of State John Kerry explicitly made the case that the administration was able to resolve this incident the way it did because of the diplomatic contacts that had been built up during negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. “We can all imagine how a similar situation might have played out three or four years ago,” he said. “Today, this kind of issue was able to be peacefully resolved and efficiently resolved, and that is a testament to the critical role that diplomacy plays in keeping our country safe, secure and strong.”

So what do we learn from this? First, diplomacy does work. It’s possible that even if we hadn’t spent a couple of years negotiating with Iran, we would have arrived at the same outcome, but it probably didn’t hurt that our officials and their officials have a better relationship today. And it’s hard to imagine that even the most bellicose of Republican candidates wouldn’t have done the same thing the Obama administration did.

Maybe we’re supposed to believe that if someone like Ted Cruz was president and a couple of small boats got captured, when his secretary of state said, “Mr. President, I’ll call their foreign minister and see if we can’t get this taken care of,” he’ll say, “No, Bob — I’m going to go on TV and tell those jerks that if they don’t release our sailors in 10 minutes, we’re letting the bombs fall!” But I doubt it. In the real world, Republicans do diplomacy when the situation demands it too, and I have trouble believing that any politician would be so reckless as to cause a confrontation when it would have been so unnecessary.

Second, it’s a reminder that reducing every foreign policy question to “strength” is idiotic. There are times when strength matters a lot, and times when you have to be smart and restrained. Complaining about the “weakness” of the Obama administration may play well during primary season, but in real foreign policy a nation doesn’t demonstrate strength by going around provoking everything it sees.

That’s how you act when you’re gripped by insecurity and you need to overcompensate. Candidates can live in their fantasy world, where they’re constantly causing dramatic showdowns they always win because of their steely glare. But fortunately for us (and for those 10 sailors), none of them had the chance to test their theory. At least not this time.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Week, January 14, 2016

January 15, 2016 Posted by | Diplomacy, GOP Presidential Candidates, Iran Navy Incident | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Security To Take Risks”: Secure Enough To Explore The Possibilities Of Our Ideals

In his interview with Tom Friedman, President Obama discussed how his foreign policy is guided by a principle I haven’t heard him articulate before.

What struck me most was what I’d call an “Obama doctrine” embedded in the president’s remarks. It emerged when I asked if there was a common denominator to his decisions to break free from longstanding United States policies isolating Burma, Cuba and now Iran. Obama said his view was that “engagement,” combined with meeting core strategic needs, could serve American interests vis-à-vis these three countries far better than endless sanctions and isolation. He added that America, with its overwhelming power, needs to have the self-confidence to take some calculated risks to open important new possibilities — like trying to forge a diplomatic deal with Iran that, while permitting it to keep some of its nuclear infrastructure, forestalls its ability to build a nuclear bomb for at least a decade, if not longer.

We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk. And that’s the thing … people don’t seem to understand,” the president said. “You take a country like Cuba. For us to test the possibility that engagement leads 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, and so [there’s no reason not] to test the proposition. And if it turns out that it doesn’t lead to better outcomes, we can adjust our policies. The same is true with respect to Iran, a larger country, a dangerous country, one that has engaged in activities that resulted in the death of U.S. citizens, but the truth of the matter is: Iran’s defense budget is $30 billion. Our defense budget is closer to $600 billion. Iran understands that they cannot fight us. … You asked about an Obama doctrine. The doctrine is: We will engage, but we preserve all our capabilities.”

The notion that Iran is undeterrable — “it’s simply not the case,” he added. “And so for us to say, ‘Let’s try’ — understanding that we’re preserving all our options, that we’re not naive — but if in fact we can resolve these issues diplomatically, we are more likely to be safe, more likely to be secure, in a better position to protect our allies, and who knows? Iran may change. If it doesn’t, our deterrence capabilities, our military superiority stays in place. … We’re not relinquishing our capacity to defend ourselves or our allies. In that situation, why wouldn’t we test it?”

I say that I haven’t heard him articulate this principle before – but that’s simply because I haven’t heard him apply it to foreign policy. But the minute I read this portion of the interview, I thought of something a young Barack Obama told Tammerlin Drummond back in 1990 not long after he’d been elected the first African American President of the Harvard Law Review.

The post, considered the highest honor a student can attain at Harvard Law School, almost always leads to a coveted clerkship with the U.S. Supreme Court after graduation and a lucrative offer from the law firm of one’s choice.

Yet Obama, who has gone deep into debt to meet the $25,000-a-year cost of a Harvard Law School education, has left many in disbelief by asserting that he wants neither.

One of the luxuries of going to Harvard Law School is it means you can take risks in your life,” Obama said recently. “You can try to do things to improve society and still land on your feet. That’s what a Harvard education should buy – enough confidence and security to pursue your dreams and give something back.”

I believe that what the President is talking about is something we all know deep inside ourselves but rarely allow to take hold. Too often our fears feed our sense of insecurity and keep us from taking the kinds of risks that could improve things. We embark on a never-ending quest to find more (money, power, etc) and never recognize that the ground we are standing on is already secure enough to allow us to let go and explore the possibility of our ideals.

The damage that kind of cycle does to an individual is very similar to how the fear-mongering from Republicans is affecting our country right now. It is in this way that President Obama embodies what is truly exceptional about the United States. He knows that just as a young man with a degree from Harvard Law School could afford to take some risks with his career (and look where that got him!), the richest and most powerful nation on this earth is secure enough to be able to take some risks to promote engagement and the potential for peace.

 

By: Nancy LeTourneau, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, April 7, 2015

April 8, 2015 Posted by | Diplomacy, Foreign Policy, President Obama | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Barack Obama Is Not Neville Chamberlain”: Have The Iranians Emerged Stronger From Lausanne? No

Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that we have secured a long-lasting peace with Iran, or that Tehran’s deeply troubling bad behavior in the Middle East will be modified.

We all know the framework nuclear agreement between six world powers and Iran is far from perfect — when you’re sitting at the table with the Russians, Chinese, French, and Iranians, how could it be? — but it has bought something quite valuable: time. And now, the underlying, fundamental question — does the deal dampen the prospect of war itself? — must be answered, ever so cautiously, yes.

Predictably, hawkish critics have been quick to accuse President Obama over the last several months (before the agreement was even reached) of selling out Israel with these Iran negotiations, with comparisons writ large to Neville Chamberlain, the feckless British prime minister who threw the Sudetenland (a portion of sovereign Czechoslovakia) to the wolves to appease Hitler in 1938 (the French were in on the sellout as well). It is “peace in our time,” Chamberlain proclaimed, waving a piece of paper to prove it.

But wolves are always hungry. Six months after the Munich deal, Hitler gobbled up the rest of Czechoslovakia as well — before rolling into Poland six months after that. The second World War was on, and Chamberlain would go down in history as a naif, a coward, or both.

Unprepared and anxious to avoid war, British and French demands during the Czech crisis were directed not at the source of the problem — Hitler — but at his intended victim, the Czechs. The Germans were never asked to disarm or even scale back their growing military machine. The true appeasement of Munich was the feeding of the wolf with the naive belief that it would not wish to feed again.

Hitler emerged from Munich stronger, having won everything he desired and giving up nothing to Chamberlain. Have the Iranians emerged stronger from Lausanne? No.

Iran is giving up 68 percent of its nuclear centrifuges for at least a decade. Tehran has agreed to not enrich uranium beyond 3.67 percent purity — enough to produce electricity but nowhere near the level needed for nuclear weapons — for 15 years. Its current stockpile of low-enriched uranium —10,000 kiliograms — will be cut 97 percent. The once-secret enrichment plant at Fordo — discovered by American intelligence in 2009 — will be converted to a “research center.” A heavy water reactor at Arak — theoretically capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium — will be redesigned and rebuilt to prevent this.

Can Iran be trusted to actually do all this? Not on your life. For more than a quarter-century, Iran has lied about and hidden virtually every part of its nuclear program from the rest of the world. It has threatened to destroy Israel. To this day, it continues to support terror groups like Hezbollah and murderous regimes like Syria. Iran has since 1984 been considered by the U.S. to be a state sponsor of terrorism.

This is why as part of the Lausanne framework, the U.S. and its allies have demanded regular and intrusive access for international inspectors — not just of Iran’s nuclear facilities, but of their supply chains. And it’s why the sanctions that have crippled a broad swath of the Iranian economy will remain in place and be lifted gradually and only when the U.S. and others are satisfied that their demands are being met. Beyond this intrusive on-ground presence, U.S. ELINT (electronic intelligence gathering) and other measures will be stepped up to provide extra layers of scrutiny.

The WWII appeasement comparisons lobbed by Obama’s critics would only be remotely accurate if Chamberlain and France’s Édouard Daladier told Hitler in 1938 that he needed to dismantle two-thirds of the Wehrmacht to prove his intentions benign, or that Allied inspectors must be allowed into German armament factories in the Ruhr to ensure no further production of Panzers.

Obama, German Chancellor Merkel, French President Hollande (whose position on Iran has been toughest of all) and Britain’s outgoing Prime Minister Cameron know better. “Distrust but verify” is the phrase you hear in the West Wing — better than Reagan’s “trust but verify,” which he used with a far bigger and more dangerous enemy, the Soviet Union, back in the 1980s.

Is Obama Neville Chamberlain because he hasn’t insisted on the complete fantasy of total disarmament from Iran? Of course not. Iran isn’t a vanquished power, like Germany or Japan in 1945, when we had total command of the strategic situation and could dictate terms to a T. Diplomacy and arms reduction is a process of gradualism, with each side — wary and distrusting — cautiously taking interim steps and searching for common ground. The last four decades of relations between Washington and Moscow — frosty, warmer, and now frosty again — have been defined by competition, distrust, misunderstandings, and a series of gradual arms reductions pacts.

Has Obama sold out Israel as Chamberlain did Czechoslovakia? Of course not. Obama has stepped up funding of Iron Dome, the missile defense system that saved lives during last year’s war with Hamas. He quietly gave Benjamin Netanyahu bunker buster bombs — a request rejected by the Bush administration out of fear that Israel was sending U.S. military technology to China. “Even some of the hawks from the George W. Bush administration grudgingly give Obama credit for behind-the-scenes progress,” says former Reagan foreign policy advisor Elliott Abrams. And Ehud Barak — Netanyahu’s former defense minister and a former prime minister himself, tells CNN, “I should tell you honestly that this administration under President Obama is doing in regard to our security is more than anything that I can remember in the past.”

Some sellout.

No one says this deal is perfect. And given Iran’s history of lying and cheating, no one says we’ve achieved “peace in our time.” But if Iran cheats, as Obama said last week in the Rose Garden, “the world will know it. If we see something suspicious, we will inspect it…with this deal, Iran will face more inspections than any other country in the world.” Hardly an expression of confidence in the mullahs’ true intentions.

And hardly a betrayal of our good friends in Israel.

 

By: Paul Brandus, The Week, April 6, 2015

April 7, 2015 Posted by | Diplomacy, Foreign Policy, Iran | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“We Should Just Go Ahead And Start Bombing”: The Insane Logic Underlying Republican Opposition To The Iran Deal

Republicans are, naturally, united in their opposition to the preliminary deal the Obama administration struck with Iran to restrain its nuclear program. And now, the presidential candidates in particular are going to compete with each other to see who can make their opposition more categorical. They’re all criticizing it, of course, and Scott Walker has already said that on the day of his inauguration, he’ll pull out of the deal. I’m guessing the rest of them will follow suit and pledge something similar. The question is: OK, so on January 20, 2017, you announce that we’re out of the deal (since we’re in the Republican fantasy world for the moment, let’s put aside the involvement of Europe and the UN). What happens next?

Well for starters, the Iranians would no longer be constrained by the things they agreed to. They could kick out all the inspectors and institute a crash program to create a nuclear weapon if they wanted. Are Republicans saying that Iran would never do that? I don’t think so. Yet in practice, the Republican position seems to be: 1) We can never trust the Iranians to adhere to the terms of any nuclear deal we sign with them because of their insatiable thirst for nuclear weapons, so 2) If there’s no agreement at all—no limits on nuclear research, no limits on the quantity and purity of uranium they can enrich, no inspections—then everything will be OK.

To be clear, I’m not saying this deal is perfect, though a lot of people who know a lot about this issue are arguing that it’s far stronger than what they expected (see here, for instance). But Republicans aren’t saying we need to reopen negotiations and push for something better. They’re just saying we should scrap the agreement, and then … well, they actually don’t say what happens then.

In effect, the Republican argument is, We’ve put this dangerous criminal in prison, but I don’t think this prison is secure enough. He might escape! So the answer is to tear down the prison and let him go. Then we’ll be safe from him.

So they ought to be asked: Are you proposing a re-negotiation of this deal? Or are you just saying that if we scrap it and reimpose sanctions on Iran, then they’ll capitulate to all our demands? And if that’s what you’re saying, is there any reason at all to think that might happen? After all, Iran has been under sanctions from the U.S., the EU, and many other countries for years, yet their nuclear program has continued. What will be different without an agreement?

We should hear conservatives out on all their specific complaints about this deal. They might have a case to make about particular weaknesses. But in every case, we have to ask: What’s your alternative? I haven’t yet heard an answer from any of them, other than the few honest enough to say what so many of them are thinking, that no deal will ever work and we should just go ahead and start bombing.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect, April 3, 2015

April 4, 2015 Posted by | Diplomacy, GOP Presidential Candidates, Iran | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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