Right on Cuba: A nation’s habitual hatred of another can lead it astray from its proper interest

Tourists take a ride in a classic American convertible car with the Cuban national flag painted on the trunk, in Havana, Cuba, Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014. After a half-century of Cold War acrimony, the United States and Cuba abruptly moved on Wednesday to restore diplomatic relations, a historic shift that could revitalize the flow of money and people across the narrow waters that separate the two nations. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)

President Obama was right to commence normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba after more than 50 years of ill-conceived estrangement and sanctions.

The United States had no business ostracizing Cuba in 1960 to punish the anti-democratic, lawless, communist dictatorship of Fidel Castro. We routinely forge alliances with morally wretched nations to advance our perceived national interests. Saudi Arabia and China are emblematic.

It is not the duty of the United States to promote democracy abroad except by example. Sentimental utopians such as Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio or former Gov. Jeb Bush believe we are saddled with a moral imperative to transform Cuba into a thriving democracy. They are both wrong and hypocritical.

Enlightened foreign policy is unstarry-eyed, not visionary. British Foreign Minister Lord Palmerston correctly taught: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

President Jefferson sermonized in his first inaugural address: “Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations — entangling alliances with none, I deem [one of] the essential principles of our government, and consequently [one of] those which ought to shape its administration.”

We had no difficulty establishing amicable relations with Fidel Castro’s predecessor, dictator Fulgencio Batista. He seized power in a 1952 coup to pre-empt presidential elections and enjoyed support from the Cuban Communist Party. Corruption swelled to monumental proportions.

An armed conflict broke out between rebels led by Fidel Castro and the Batista government. At the urging of Cuban president-in-waiting Manuel Urrutia Lleo, the United States terminated arms sales to Batista’s forces in March 1958, which favored Castro’s rebels. The termination was strenuously opposed by U.S. Ambassador Earl T. Smith and prompted U.S. State Department adviser William Wieland to lament, “I know Batista is considered by many as a son of a bitch but American interests come first. At least he was our son of a bitch.”

The 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle was not led by Cuban replicas of George Washington, John Adams or James Madison. They were suboptimal candidates for replacing Castro’s dictatorship with a democratic dispensation featuring a rule of law and separation of powers. The personnel employed in the Watergate burglary were Bay of Pigs veterans linked to the CIA, including E. Howard Hunt, G. Gordon Liddy, James McCord, Bernard Barker, Eugenio Martinez and Frank Sturgis.

Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s Operation Mongoose to assassinate Castro did not pivot on a successor brimming with democratic credentials.

In sum, it is ridiculous for professed conservatives to bemoan that normalizing relations with Cuba under Castro’s dictatorship will prolong the suppression of democracy there. We were rightly complacent with nondemocratic regimes in Cuba from the 1903 Platt Amendment to Castro’s ascendancy in 1959.

Mr. Obama is equally ridiculous in asserting that an opening to Cuba will accelerate the fall of Castro’s brutal tyranny. Normalizing relations with communist China and Vietnam has done nothing to move either nation in a democratic direction. Relaxing sanctions against Myanmar has yielded minimal human rights benefits. Curtailing assistance to Egypt has only strengthened President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s determination to crush all domestic dissent.

Proponents of Cuban sanctions should learn from our own history. King George III’s Intolerable Acts to punish Massachusetts over the Boston Tea Party fueled the American Revolution and independence.

Self-proclaimed Republican conservatives need to renounce the messianic vision of President Wilson to make the world safe for democracy. We should not be issuing other nations periodic report cards like a schoolmarm and flukishly sanction some who receive grades of “C” or less depending on the clout of special interest lobby groups. That haphazard sanctimony and ostracism predictably evokes enmity and frequently boomerangs. It makes domestic opponents of tyrannical regimes appear to be dupes of the CIA and diminishes their ability to effectuate a popular revolution. Cuba and Iran are conspicuous examples.

We need to return to George Washington’s “Farewell Address” as the bible of our foreign relations: “[N]othing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest.”

Bruce Fein is a former associate deputy attorney general and general counsel of the Federal Communications Commission under President Reagan.

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