In Iran and Cuba We Reap the Results of Obama’s Weakness

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

Barack Obama undertook two supremely ideological foreign policy moves.

In both cases he seemed largely motivated by myths about American "crimes" in the past, and for that reason failed or refused to bargain hard for American advantage.

Instead, he appeared to see the new negotiations as including a bit of restitution for previous American wrongs.

The more significant case was Iran, where he spoke of the crime of overthrowing the leftist Iranian prime minister, Mohammed Mossadeq, in 1953.

There is good reason to wonder, in fact, whether the United States bears the responsibility for Mossadeq's fate--or indeed whether Mossadeq and the Iranian people get the credit. (After the State Department released a large group of cables about those events in 1953, Reuel Gerecht wrote that “It is hard to read these cables and come to the conclusion that America overthrew Mossadeq.”)

That was not Obama's view, but in fact Obama was never much concerned about the Iranian people, and his human rights efforts in Iran were weak to the point of disappearance-- even, or especially, when the Iranian people rose up against the regime in June 2009.

The other case was Cuba. There, Obama handed valuable gifts of money and legitimacy to the brutal Castro regime.

GettyImages-849240880 A tourist takes a bicycle tour in Havana, on September 5, 2017. Symbol of Cuba's economic crisis, bicycles are gradually coming back into fashion under the impulse of tourists and Cubans often discouraged by the country's poor public transportation system. ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty

As with Iran, there was a peremptory claim that the deal being done would somehow lead to a vast relaxation of the regime's oppression, but as with Iran it was quickly proved false. The new tourist flights, the cruise ship arrivals, the additional commerce, and all the money they brought was swept into the maw of the Castro regime, while the people benefitted not at all by experiencing an ounce of freedom.

Of course Obama might have negotiated for better. He might have agreed to do all he did for Castro providing only that all political prisoners were freed, internet freedom allowed, and so on--but he didn't. He didn't because he was too anxious to move forward, or what he mistakenly saw as forward, in Cuban-American relations.

What he meant of course was Castro-American relations, ridding us of the Cold War relic of our Cuba policy. As for demanding freedom for the Cuban people, well, how old-fashioned.

Today we see the results, in both cases. Iran has received many commercial, political, and diplomatic benefits from the Obama deal, but there is no reform, no change. Internally, repression is at least as bad as ever.

In the region, Iran’s aggression and subversion have increased. And its nuclear ambitions have not been abandoned, or it would not be trying to perfect advanced centrifuges and longer- and longer-range ballistic missiles.

In Cuba, there has similarly been no change in foreign or domestic policy. Cuba continues to be the mainstay of the Maduro dictatorship in Venezuela, and continues to oppress, abuse, and imprison Cubans who seek freedom.

And now, Obama’s gifts are being taken back: the United States is withdrawing most of its embassy staff and has issued a travel warning against visiting Cuba, because of the vicious attacks on American diplomats there. The New York Times reported that

the Trump administration, which has already expelled two Cuban diplomats over the illnesses, is considering further retaliatory steps, according to Congressional staff briefed by administration officials.

And the State Department issued an advisory that Americans should not travel to Cuba. Because some of the attacks occurred in hotels where State Department employees were temporarily staying, officials said they worried that tourists and others could be affected.

The Washington Post said that “Senior State Department officials said U.S. diplomats have been ‘targeted’ for ‘specific attacks,’” not the victims of strange untargeted phenomena.

Rumors in Washington suggest that the health problems of the American diplomats attacked in Cuba are even worse than has yet been reported. Of course the Cuban regime says it knows nothing, but its probity is non-existent and it has a long history of attacking American diplomats.

As Jose Cardenas wrote recently in Foreign Policy,

A 2003 cable from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana reported that “Cuban agents routinely enter U.S. employee residences to search belongings and papers, enter computers and gather other information thought to be useful from an intelligence point of view. Vehicles are also targeted. In many instances, no effort is made to hide the intrusions.”

Not only are vehicles vandalized — tires slashed, parts removed, windshields smashed — but in some instances human excrement is left behind in the diplomats’ homes.

The cable continues, “Electronic surveillance is pervasive, including monitoring of home phone and computer lines. U.S. personnel have had living-room conversations repeated or played back to them by strangers and unknown callers.” In one case, after one family privately discussed their daughter’s susceptibility to mosquito bites, “they returned home to find all of their windows open and the house full of mosquitoes.”

In 2007, the Department’s Inspector General issued a 64-page report asserting that the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana suffered from poor morale as a result of the Cuban government’s deliberate efforts to create hardship and discontent in the lives of the diplomats. “Retaliations have ranged from the petty to the poisoning of family pets."

Obama foreign policy had a gigantic ideological element, and was all too often an effort to right imagined wrongs from the American past. The result of such of policy is victories for enemies like the Islamic Republic and Cuba, and danger for the United States, our allies, and even now our diplomats.

In Cuba and Iran both, it’s a sorry record.

Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.