Our "Cuba" Policy Has Failed... Even in Syria

Wed Aug. 2, 2006 6:30 PM EDT

Now that Fidel Castro's wavering health has brought the issue of America's Cuba policy to the public stage once again, the parallels with other areas of U.S. foreign policy are more obvious than ever. Consider this analysis published today in The Miami Herald, under the heading, "U.S. Isolation Policy Leaves Few Options:"

[Some] Cuba analysts say the U.S. policy of aggressively isolating Castro through economic sanctions means Washington will be forced to play a secondary role in a post-Castro period…. Under the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, the U.S. government cannot lift many of the sanctions against Cuba without congressional approval until Havana declares its intention to hold free elections and release political prisoners, among other conditions.

'"Our strategy is to enter the game in the ninth inning and to tell the Cubans they are on their own until then,'' said Phil Peters, a Cuba expert with the conservative Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va., think tank.

Now consider what Thomas Friedman said earlier that morning on NPR. "If you're not going to go to war but you really need [a given country's cooperation], and you're just going to adopt this aggressive verbal stance and some economic sanctions, then you have the worst of all worlds." Sound familiar? But Friedman wasn't talking about Cuba—he was talking about Syria. The result of such a policy, he continued, is that now "you have a hostile Syria but it's not afraid of you and therefore you have no real leverage, and that seems to me to be the penumbra that we're in right now vis-à-vis Syria. And I don't see it serving anyone right now."

Cuba is no Syria, obviously, but it is also no closer to democracy than it was when we first imposed sanctions back in 1960. And there are other important similarities: the U.S. government has castigated and disengaged with both countries largely at the behest of a single, well-organized lobby in Washington, despite no evidence that either policy has produced the desired results.

As Flynt Leverett, a former CIA official and author of Inheriting Syria, told a Brookings Institute audience last year, "I think there is a better way to achieve American policy objectives… It's not rocket science. It's sticks and carrots. In a previous era, we used to call it diplomacy." Of course, he didn't mean "Cuban diplomacy."