Foreign Policy Reset
By Michael Duffy/Washington.
August 24, 2007.
Once questions have been raised about your
foreign policy judgment, it's not easy to
put the genie back in the bottle.
But try you must, which is why Barack Obama's
latest foreign policy offering, regarding
how to open doors with Cuba as the Castro
era ends, is at least as much about repairing
his image for Democrtic voters as it is
about reshaping U.S. relations with Havana.
Not that it doesn't deserve a careful look
in its own right.
Writing in the Miami Herald, Obama called
the Bush approach to Cuba "blundering"
and instead laid out a new path toward improved
relations: lifting all restrictions on visits
to the Island by Cuban Americans (visits
are permitted only once a year now), as
well as limits on their financial remittances
to kin on the island.
Obama held out the promise of bilateral
talks with a post-Fidel regime. But he also
stressed that he would refrain from any
other concessions until Havana made more
dramatic steps toward political reform.
"As we reach out in some ways now,"
Obama wrote, "it makes strategic sense
to hold on to important inducements we can
use in dealing with a post-Fidel government,
for it is an unfortunate fact that his departure
by no means guarantees the arrival of freedom
on the island."
Given that Hillary Clinton has been all
over him for appearing to agree to bilateral
talks with dictators too quickly and for
making noises about invading Pakistan to
go after al-Qaeda, Obama's pronouncements
are an attempt to reset the table on foreign
The new approach on Cuba is designed to
show that Obama is both innovative and sound;
in other words, someone who is experienced
but not so experienced that he is stuck
in the old way of thinking. "Barack
is trying to send a signal of change in
foreign policy," one of Obama's foreign
policy advisers said. "New century.
New challenges, new opportunities, new thinking...
What's new here is that we are trying to
restore the ability of Cuban Americans to
be involved with Cuba - who better than
they? On the other hand, Castro has defied
all expectations before and though there
will be a post-Fidel government, its not
likely to be a democracy. So we need stuff
in our pocket to [bargain] with."
Whatever it may be saying publicly, the
Obama campaign knows its man stumbled in
recent weeks on foreign policy and that
he needs to start over. But he is not backing
away from the idea of changing U.S. foreign
policy either. "Barack's judgment on
the war has been good. New thinking without
judgment just leads to mistakes."
But Obama's latest gambit isn't only about
recasting his image - he is also laying
down a trademark political bet here. Normally,
Cuban policy is never much more than a wash
for Democrats: so many Cuban Americans register
and vote as Republicans that there isn't
much point in trying to woo them with policy
proposals, unless they are hard-line, which
usually results in pandering charges. But
Obama seems to see an opening here others
don't: he appears to be making, with this
proposal, a pitch for younger voters and
newly arrived Cuban immigrants, who have
more liberal attitudes about rules regarding
money and travel.
Two well-placed G.O.P. sources told me
that there is evidence that this group -
admittedly a small one - feels much differently
from the old guard. Either because they
didn't live through the revolution or have
immigrated so recently, typically in the
last five to seven years, they still feel
some tie to the regime, or people who work
for it. And one hard-line Cuban-American
political activist said that some Cuban
Americans resent the Bush Administration's
restrictions and are no longer as enamoured
of the Republican connection. They are beginning,
she said, to think anew. "People are
shopping now," she said.
And so once again, the big questions that
trail Obama everywhere are at work in the
Cuba offering: is he taking on many of the
established rules about presidential campaigns,
and as a result, is doomed to come up short?
Or can he expand the party with his embrace
of change on so many fronts that those conventions