Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Pivoting away from personalization of foreign policy

We need to get rid of Fidel Castro or Kim Jong Il, or Moqutada Sadr, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or Saddam Hussein, or Slobodan Milošević, or Guy Philippe of Haiti to solve a significant structural foreign policy problem. This has been a common, bi-partisan refrain for my entire politically aware life, and it is a trait within American politics that traces back much further than that. It is both a simple proxy of significance of a problem, and a massive and willful oversimplification of reality. It often becomes a mantra to ignore underlying structural incentives, concerns, strengths and weaknesses while allowing the formation of an irrational two minute hate to be formed and wielded as a club. And once the leader is removed through either active action, or passive luck, significant problems still remain as the situation is more complex than what can be simply explained by an evil genius dictator/autocrat/politician, even if that is the individual's case.

When I first heard the news that Fidel Castro is stepping down due to ill-health, my thoughts were on a potential US policy pivot as Fidel Castro has taken on the appearance of a domestic political bogeyman far out of proportion to his actual influence and power in so far as it impacts the United States excluding the Cuban exile community who wants to be compensated for the losses they took between 1959 and 1965 or so.

The sanctions and restriction regime against Castro were a known failure by the mid-70s but the combination of a Republican Party gaining significant strength in South Florida from the Cuban exile community, and Democrats not wanting to have a reputational cost of being 'soft on communism.' That was the basic dynamic for a good twenty five years of sustained policy failure as the sanctions allowed Castro and his leadership cadre to blame the United States for their own failings, while still receiving significant economic support from the Soviets. After the Soviets imploded and Russia economically retrenched, the rest of the West bought up the nice resort areas in Cuba and are sending thong clad vacationeers to the country to scare the locals, and provide hard currency [truly nothing is scarier than a Quebecois in a too tight thong]. During the 90s, Cuban policy was not realigned with US policy to China or Vietnam because of domestic political concerns, and Bush has had no interest or incentive to change. This is a multi-generational, bipartisan collective action failure.

However since the United States frequently demonized Castro and not the entire regime support apparatus as the problem in Cuba, his stepping aside in favor of his brother provides a safe and convienent pivot point where it is safe for politicians of either party to advance a more sensible policy regime while also pandering to the Midwestern farmers. I don't think this will happen during this election cycle, but the space has been created for a future pivot.

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