Marco Rubio couldn’t have asked for a better foil than a president in the White House who eagerly shakes the hand of a Castro in the pursuit of a “legacy issue.” When he launches his presidential campaign on Monday, it’s fair to expect the Florida senator to dwell on the matter of Obama’s crass disrespect for the oppressed Cuban people. The president has said he wants to break the “shackles” that constrain his freedom of action overseas. The “shackles” he derides were those foreign policy precepts that once rendered America the shining city on a hill, a beacon of freedom, and a champion of fundamental human aspiration for the better part of a century.
If he is so inclined, Rubio might also make note of the fact that Raul Castro doesn’t seem interested in playing the docile and repentant dictator in order to help Obama recast the communists in Havana as responsible international actors. In what CNN’s Jim Acosta called “a borderline rant,” Castro’s speech at the Summit of the Americas was apparently loaded with a fair amount of good, old-fashioned America bashing.
“Castro, in a meandering, nearly hour-long speech to the Summit of the Americas, ran through an exhaustive history of perceived Cuban grievances against the U.S. dating back more than a century—a vivid display of how raw passions remain over American attempts to undermine Cuba’s government,” Time Magazine reported.
Eventually, Castro said he had become “emotional” and apologized to Obama personally “because he had no responsibility for this.” What Castro refers to as “this” is, in fact, 200 years of American policy toward the Western Hemisphere – a source of much consternation for the revolutionary left. “In my opinion, President Obama is an honest man,” Castro glowed.
Having successfully courted the communist dictator, Obama and Castro proceeded to have what the administration apparently considered a historic, if not fruitful, bilateral meeting. “In a later news conference, Obama said that he was ‘optimistic that we’ll continue to make progress, and that this can indeed be a turning point,’” a Washington Post dispatch read.
A realist might look upon Obama’s approach to thawing relations with Cuba and smile. The United States has long regarded this region as pivotal, and Washington has warily eyed Beijing’s efforts to supplant U.S. influence in South and Central America and the Caribbean for years. But Cuba has counted itself a member of any foreign camp dedicated to balancing against U.S. power for decades, and the United States has somehow soldiered on without the complicity of a placid regime in Havana.
What’s more, Obama’s decision to literally extend a hand of friendship toward a Castro represents the abandonment of decades of cherished Democratic foreign affairs doctrine. One of the precious few lasting achievements secured by Jimmy Carter’s administration was to ensure that the concept of human rights served a pillar of U.S. foreign policy. In principle if not always in practice, respect for human rights became the sine qua non for friendly bilateral relations with the United States after 1977. That has remained the case through both Democratic and Republican administrations ever since. Many on the left would argue that this focus forced more than a handful of repressive regimes to extend to their domestic dissident elements the deference they needed in order to ultimately topple the governments they opposed.
By contrast, Obama has stood by and watched as the world’s most brutal regimes oversaw the reclamation of their power.
Obama turned a blind eye toward the crushing of the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009, and today strengthens the Mullah’s domestic authority by inking dubious deals with Tehran that will allegedly yield great rewards for the Islamic Republic’s ruling class. In Iran, Obama is rightly seen as no friend to the friendless, and he has greatly strengthened the hand of the system’s stakeholders.
The same could be said of Venezuela, where bloody anti-government riots broke out in 2014 and were subsequently crushed by Caracas. Though the global left and Nicolas Maduro’s government saw the riots as an extension of America’s desire to oust his regime from power, Obama made no statements to that effect at the rebellion’s zenith. Only over a year after the fighting in the streets had been quelled did the administration name a handful of Maduro regime officials as threats to American national security in order to target them with sanctions.
Perhaps the president wanted to avoid a repeat of his galling refusal to follow up on his 2011 insistence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go. That feel-good statement was not met with action. Quite the contrary; the president stood back and allowed the regime to slaughter hundreds of thousands of innocents with conventional and chemical weapons before tepidly committing to take action. But even that reluctant acknowledgment of the president’s responsibility to posterity was not met with engagement. Only when the situation became untenable, the terrorist threat to Western security grew imminent, and the attacks on human decency in the Middle East became truly unprecedented did the United States finally begin to address them.
In Moscow, where Obama’s pledge to have more flexibility with the Putin regime in his second term was taken quite literally, the Soviet approach to information management and the suppression of domestic criticism is back in vogue. Journalists who dare to censure the regime again fear for their lives and livelihoods. The institutions of civil society that the Clinton administration invested time and energy, not to mention millions of dollars, trying to build up are now being eagerly destroyed by a Russia that sees more value in repression and revanchism than openness.
Once an administration success story, a modest loosening of restrictions on freedoms in Burma has been completely reversed by the military junta in Naypyidaw. In January, Human Rights Watch called on the government to “stop arresting peaceful protesters and immediately and unconditionally free those imprisoned.” It is a call you will not here echoed in Washington too loudly, lest the political class recall that the crowning achievement of Hillary Clinton’s tenure as America’s chief diplomat was to secure the illusory opening of Burma and to finally guarantee Aung San Suu Kyi’s pathway to power.
In China, an economic powerhouse that nevertheless remains a one-party communist autocracy, America has tacitly consented to supporting the regime’s increased interest in total command and control. A series of moves to roll back nascent freedoms of speech, religion, and expression in China in 2014 following the rise of President Xi Jinping has led many to wonder if information technology and free trade truly have the power to compel openness in closed societies. “China’s repression of political activists, writers, independent journalists, artists and religious groups who potentially challenge the party’s monopoly of power has intensified since Xi took office nearly two years ago,” The Guardian’s Simon Tisdall reported in December.
Even within the NATO alliance, repression is on the rise. In Turkey, the secularism Kemal Ataturk regarded as a basic value has been de-emphasized. As Ankara has grown friendlier toward Islamism, so has it embraced anti-democratic policies toward journalists and regime critics alike. “We feel the pressure every day,” one unnamed Turkish journalist told Haaretz in December. “We go over our articles with extreme care and remove anything that could give Erdogan’s dogs a pretext for going after us.” The U.S. has joined other United Nations member in expressing concern over Turkey’s authoritarian drift, but human rights groups have called Obama’s silence on this matter “deafening.”
In fact, about the only nation in which Obama pursued what he claimed was a purely humanitarian foreign policy was his decision to lead from behind while Europe toppled Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya. There, the West’s attempt to stave off a humanitarian crisis yielded an even greater one. Not only is Libya a failed state today, but it serves as an incubator for fundamentalist Islamic terror groups.
Obama surely hopes historians will define his legacy as one of nobly sloughing off the burdens of the past, and opening America up to a brave new dawn in which multilateral talk shops become powerful forces for good. But Obama confuses the people of the world for their governments – a distinction that his Democratic predecessors understood and frequently made. While Obama pursues what he considers a pragmatic approach to international relations, the tide of freedoms that characterized the end of the last century is waning. When the need to protect Obama’s image for the sake of the left’s sense of self-validation subsides, it will become clear that the president’s true legacy was one of accommodation toward international community’s most repressive elements purely for the sake of convenience and fleeting domestic political gain.