American Strength in Dialogue and Engagement

by Paul R. Pillar

Fidel Castro has put out on media run by the Cuban Communist Party a rambling piece that is a reply of sorts to what President Obama said during his recent visit to Cuba, and especially to the president’s major speech at a Havana theater. The aged and now seldom-seen revolutionary leader touches on topics ranging from the Bay of Pigs invasion to Cuba’s self-described resistance to South African influence in Angola. Mostly it is a defensive and uncomfortable-sounding attempt to dampen the appeal of Mr. Obama’s “sweetened words.” Castro strains to deny any superiority of the United States on any measure beyond size and strength. “We are capable of producing the food and material riches we need,” he writes. “We don’t need the empire to give us anything.”

One can imagine the sort of conversation that probably transpired between Fidel and his younger brother Raul, who has been running Cuba the last few years, after the presidential visit. How could you let him embarrass you like that, the older Castro might have asked, referring especially to the joint press conference with President Obama and Raul Castro in which the latter was forced into the unfamiliar position of having to take uncensored questions from foreign press. When asked by a reporter about human rights and political prisoners, Raul stumbled and stammered and challenged people to come up with a list of political prisoners—a challenge that human rights groups promptly met by furnishing such lists.

The openness of the whole visit was obvious and genuine, with the U.S. delegation not trying to close off topics where the United States might have something to answer for, or where Cuba may have actually been ahead of the United States (as with universal health care). And U.S. leverage during the making of arrangements for the visit was sufficient for everything about the visit, including the openness itself, to be open to the Cuban people.

Usually authoritarian regimes that have something to be defensive about manage to keep things more under control with regard to what is conveyed to their own citizens. When Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev held their kitchen debate about the merits of the U.S. and Soviet systems, Soviet media broadcast it only late at night and with Mr. Nixon’s comments only partly transcribed.

This all brings us to a contradiction in the position of those in the United States who have been most opposed to dialogue between the United States and regimes they especially don’t like. In recent years the regimes most in question have been those in Cuba and Iran, because they have been the subject of two of the Obama administration’s most important foreign policy initiatives. Many of the same people firmly opposed to any dialogue and engagement with such regimes also are outspoken American exceptionalists who believe strongly in the American story as being superior to any other nation’s story. They agree with George W. Bush when he said, “I know how good we are, and we’ve got to do a better job of making our case.” So why not welcome additional opportunities to make that case to the benighted people living under the regimes in question? What’s there to be afraid of?

Well, we all know some of the reasons for opposition to engagement with those regimes. One is that if Barack Obama is the one who made a move, that is taken as a reason to oppose it. Another is to avoid running afoul of certain obdurate constituencies, such as older generation Cuban Americans in Florida and New Jersey or followers of an Israeli government determined to keep Iran ostracized. And another is the common but mistaken notion that merely talking is some kind of reward.

But if we really believe in the appeal of the American message, we should welcome every opportunity to make it part of open dialogue with audiences, and regimes, overseas. One well-placed presidential speech and a joint press conference probably made the Castro brothers squirm more than have years of embargo.

This article was first published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright The National Interest.

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One Comment

  1. The U.S. has been trying to get Cuba as part of its territory since shortly after the Revolutionary War. We have never had much luck with that. I’d like our international relations with them to be better, but they have good reason to be slow to trust us.

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