The United States has been in a Cold War state of tension with one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere for half a century. The benefits of this strategy are hard to find (and harder to justify), but the drawbacks are pretty stark. The recent move by the Obama administration to move to more normal diplomatic and economic relations with Cuba may be driven by short-term petty political considerations, but the move is correct and rational on the larger scale. In The Federalist, Tom Nichols tries to talk the conservative base in off the window ledge by pointing out that there’s a strong conservative case as well:
Okay, everyone. Calm down.
There are a lot of reasons to be worried about the president’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba. Not least among them is that this is the least-adept foreign policy team in post-Cold War history (yes, I include the Carter and Bush 43 White Houses in that evaluation), and after six years of being taken to the cleaners by bad regimes, it feels like it’s happening again. It also looks too much like a quid pro quo for the release of an imprisoned American. And it’s being rationalized by the president himself in terms that show little understanding of the origins of the entire policy he’s about to overturn.
With all of that said, it’s still the right thing to do, and conservatives oppose it at their political peril.
Before we go any farther, however, what exactly are we actually talking about? To judge from the reaction of some conservatives, President Obama just proposed to send Fidel Castro a personal masseuse in a bikini stuffed with hundred-dollar bills. The fact of the matter is, we don’t know what will come from this, other than “normalization:” that is, the ability to establish an embassy, carry on diplomatic relations, and negotiate over trade. Congress — dominated by Republicans for the next two years — will have a large say in how all of that proceeds. So it’s important to maintain some perspective here, especially since there is only so much the president can do by fiat.
First and foremost, conservatives need to think carefully about the argument that Cuba is simply too evil a country to have a relationship with us. There is a moral “whataboutism” trap in that position, and liberals will gladly (and rightly) spring it. Many of the people thundering that we cannot even think of dealing with the Castros are the same conservatives who celebrate our massive, and utterly immoral, trade relations with China, a nominally Communist giant whose human rights abuses and mischief in the world dwarf Cuba’s.
Is our indulgence on China only because China is huge? Very well: I also note no similar outrage over our healthy relationship with much smaller Vietnam, a country in which American boys were killed and tortured, often with Chinese weapons and Chinese assistance. Other examples abound.
Yet we normalized relations with both nations. How many of us are wearing clothing with a “made in Vietnam” label right now? (I still can’t get used to that.) Think of it this way: all that cheap junk at your local department store eventually funds nuclear missiles aimed directly at the United States. Are we all ready for a China boycott and closing our Beijing embassy, or is moral outrage reserved only for small nations too broke to buy their way out of our condemnation, however justifiable?