Here are four reasons why President Barack Obama’s decision last week to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba was a good idea.
1) The US attempt to bring down the Castro regime by isolating the country economically and diplomatically is now 54 years old, and it still hasn’t worked. To go on doing the same thing and expect a different result next time is a clear indication of stupidity, and possibly of insanity.
2) President Obama, as a “lame duck” president with only two years to go, has nothing to lose by re-opening the American embassy in Havana and loosening travel restrictions on American citizens. He gets credit for being both bold and sensible, and he can do it by executive decision without having to go through Congress.
3) A quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, there is ample popular support in the United States for ending the long and absurd anti-Communist crusade against Cuba. According to an Atlantic Council poll early this year, 56 percent of Americans now back a more direct US engagement with the Castro regime, or even full normalisation of relations. Among Hispanic-Americans, the number rises to 63 percent.
4) Even in Florida, where the Cuban-American population is concentrated, the heat has gone out of the issue. The aging leaders of the community, who arrived as refugees from Cuba half a century ago, still resist closer US relations with Cuba, but the US-born generation wants to end the war. The same Atlantic Council poll showed that 79 percent of voters of Cuban descent in Florida supported increased engagement or normalisation.
Unfortunately, there are also two powerful reasons why Obama’s good idea is not really going to change things much.
1) The Republican Party now controls both Houses of Congress, and the embargo cannot be ended except by Congressional consent. That will not be forthcoming.
2) The brothers Castro are still in control of Cuba, and even if they were both swept away by some random illness, the only slightly younger Communist Party leadership will not make the kind of concessions that could force the Republican leadership to change its position. In terms of maintaining the status quo, the US Republicans and the Cuban Communists are “objective allies”.
It makes political sense for Republicans to oppose Obama’s initiative: they have no interest in allowing him a victory that they have it within their power to thwart. Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida vowed that he would do “everything in my power” to keep the embargo in place – and also threatened to block the confirmation of a US ambassador to Cuba and prevent funding for construction of a US embassy in Havana.
If this sounds petty, well, yes it is. But considering the attitude of Congressional Republicans towards the Obama administration over the past six years, massive obstructionism towards any future policy of Obama’s seems virtually guaranteed. The embargo will remain.
As for President Raul Castro – elder brother Fidel, now officially retired, seems largely out of play – he has no intention of presiding over the end of Communism in Cuba.
Cuba’s economy is in terrible shape, and it has recently been made much worse by the steep decline of the Venezuelan economy due to the collapse of the oil price. Given how dependent Cuba has become on the generosity of the leftist Venezuelan regime, you might think that Castro would now be seeking economic salvation in the form of an improvement in US-Cuban relations. You would be wrong.
I have visited Cuba about every five years for the past three decades, usually as a journalist, but once, in the early 90s, I took my entire family, including a baby and my elderly parents-in-law, so they could see what the last remaining Communist regime outside Asia looked like. The Soviet Union had just collapsed, ending the generous Soviet subsidies that had kept the Cuban regime afloat for decades.
The place was a terrible mess, and people were truly desperate. There were early teen-age prostitutes of both sexes working the streets, and my parents-in-law got mugged twice in one week in central Havana. On the second occasion, the senior officer at the local police station held my father-in-law (the victim) hostage, allegedly as a “witness” in need of medical attention, until I bribed him $100 to let him go.
Cuba has been through worse economic crises than the current difficulties, and the regime survived. It did so because, unlike the European Communist regimes that fell in similar circumstances, nationalism works for the Cuban regime, not against it. Maybe some serious change will eventually come out of this initiative, but certainly not before the end of 2016.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9. (“It makes…Havana”)
When somebody says it is time to move on, it means there is something deeply embarrassing that they don’t want to discuss in public. President Barack Obama said that about the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, published on Tuesday, about the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of torture in the years after 9/11.
He put the best face on it after Senator Dianne Feinstein’s committee released the 528-page report anyway, talking about how “part of what sets us (Americans) apart is that when we do something wrong, we acknowledge it.” But as recently as Friday US Secretary of State John Kerry urged Feinstein not to release the report now on the grounds that the “timing” was wrong. When would it be right, then?
Feinstein ignored him because she knew (as did he) that if the report was not put out now, it never would be. Next month a new Congress will take office, and the majority on the new Senate Intelligence Committee will be Republicans. They would certainly make sure that it never sees the light of day.
But there is one Republican Senator, at least, who thinks differently. John McCain, who ran against Obama in the 2008 presidential election, said bluntly that torture “rarely yields credible information….What might come as a surprise, not just to our enemies, but to many Americans, is how little these practices did to aid our efforts to bring 9/11 culprits to justice and to find and prevent terrorist attacks today and tomorrow.”
McCain was severely tortured himself while a prisoner-of-war in North Vietnam in 1968, and eventually made an anti-American propaganda “confession”. As he later said: “I had learned what we all learned over there: Every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine.” But then, he knows more about this subject than any other American politician, and probably more than any CIA torturer. They were never at the receiving end.
Even McCain, however, confined himself to saying that torture was not a useful instrument of American policy. He avoided talking about the more important fact that it is also a grave crime under international law, because that would mean admitting that senior officials in former president George W Bush’s Republican administrations who authorised the torture in 2002-06 – possibly even including Bush himself – should face prosecution.
Almost every senior American politician will avoid talking about that. The debate in the United States will be between those who insist that the waterboarding, regular beatings, “stress positions”, ice baths, sleep deprivation, “rectal feeding”, and other torture techniques used on captives in the CIA’s “black sites” yielded useful information and saved American lives, and those who say that it was all pointless and useless.
The Senate committee’s report provides fuel for this debate, examining twenty cases of counterterrorism “successes” achieved by torture that the CIA has used to justify its actions. Even now, CIA Director John Brennan defends the torture, claiming that “the intelligence gained from the programme was critical to our understanding of al-Qaeda.” But the committee concludes that not one case produced unique or otherwise unavailable intelligence.
But this is all beside the point. The law doesn’t say that torture is a crime unless it produces useful intelligence, any more than it says that murder is a crime unless it is profitable. It simply says that torture is a crime, always and in any circumstances. As it should.
The American Civil Liberties Union, to its credit, says that the attorney general should appoint a special prosecutor to conduct “an independent and complete investigation of Bush administration officials who created, approved, carried out and covered up the torture programme….In our system, no one should be above the law, yet only a handful of mainly low-level personnel have been criminally prosecuted for abuse. That is a scandal.”
But the discussion about punishing the people who committed these crimes will mostly be conducted outside the United States, and it won’t be conducted by governments. The several dozen American allies that were accomplices in the CIA’s “Rendition, Detention and Interrogation” programme, have all exercised their right to have information about their collaboration removed from the report.
The debate will therefore have to take place in the media and in the international organisations. United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism Ben Emmerson, for example, said in Geneva that senior officials from the Bush administration who planned and sanctioned these crimes must be prosecuted, as well as CIA and US government officials responsible for torture such as waterboarding.
“As a matter of international law,” Emmerson said, “the US is legally obliged to bring those responsible to justice.” Well, yes, but you would be wise not to hold your breath while waiting for this to happen. So far, only one former CIA official, John Kyriakou, has been jailed in connection with the torture programme – and he was prosecuted for confirming to reporters that the CIA was waterboarding prisoners.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. (“The Senate…intelligence”; and “The American…scandal”)
When news got out that US President Barack Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping had reached an agreement on climate change, the American blogosphere lit up with negative comments. “The problem is, Obama probably means it,” wrote Jazz Shaw of the major conservative political blog Hot Air, “while China is almost certainly just yanking the world’s collective chain yet again with a bit of lip service as they seek better trade arrangements.”
But Jazz Shaw has got it exactly backwards. It’s the United States that cannot be trusted to keep its commitments, because the American political system is mired in a perpetual civil war and at the moment it is the climate-change deniers who have the upper hand. Whereas the Chinese will probably keep their word, because there are no denialists in China and the government is genuinely terrified of climate change.
The Obama-Xi deal is not wonderful, but it is the first step in the right direction that the world’s two biggest emitters of carbon dioxide have taken together. Obama promised that the US will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to at least 26 percent below the 2005 level by 2025. Xi promised more vaguely that China’s emission would peak by 2030 or earlier (and, by implication, then start to decline).
That looks a bit lopsided, of course, but any deal that takes account of current realities is bound to look like that. China is still a poor country, and it is racing to grow its economy fast enough to preserve political stability. That means it has to generate a lot more energy fast.
China is installing a great deal of clean power (around half the world’s new solar energy plants last year, for example), but just to keep the lights on it has to go on building lots of fossil-fuel plants as well – and most of them burn the dirtiest fuel, coal. Official policy is driving the number of new coal-fired plants down, however, which is one reason why Xi thinks he can keep his promise that emissions will stop growing by 2030.
Obama, by contrast, presides over an economy that is already very rich. The average American citizen still consumes twice as much energy as the average Chinese, but total US energy consumption stopped rising years ago. Making 26 percent cuts in American energy use over the next ten years is not a huge challenge; it only requires a reduction of about 2.6 percent a year.
So the American and Chinese commitments in the new deal, while asymmetrical, are not unequal in terms of the political and economic burdens they impose. The real difference lies in the likelihood that the two sides will stick to the deal over the next 10-15 years as they have promised. China probably will. The United States probably won’t.
The Chinese regime knows what global warming will do to the country if it is not contained. A study commissioned by the World Bank about a decade ago, but never published (quite likely at China’s insistence), concluded that if average global temperature rises by 2 degrees C, China will lose about 38 percent of its food production.
As in all predictions of this sort, that number may be wrong by five or even ten percentage points, but that doesn’t really matter. Even a 28 percent loss of food production would mean semi-permanent famine in China. The regime would not survive that, and much of the growth that has been achieved by great sacrifice in the past three decades would be lost.
Beijing takes climate change VERY seriously. Even though the regime must also keep the economic growth going if it wishes to survive, it knows that it must start making real concessions on emissions in order to facilitate a global deal.
Xi did not set this target of capping Chinese emissions by 2030 without a great deal of discussion and debate within the regime. Having made the promise, he will keep it. So will his successors, at least so long as the Communist Party goes on ruling China. Whereas Obama will be gone in two years, and cannot bind his successors to keep his promise in any way.
Indeed, even in the past six years he has never got any legislation on climate change through the Republican-dominated House of Representatives. Instead, he had to resort to issuing executive orders through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to make even modest improvements like raising the fuel efficiency of US-made cars.
Now the House has voted to repeal the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, which would strip even that power from him. The new Republican majority in the Senate will probably do the same. Obama could veto such a law, but all the Republicans have to do is attach it to the budget and they would set up a confrontation that would shut the US government down again.
The Chinese know this, of course, but they are so desperate to get matters moving on the climate front that they are willing to take a chance that the deal will survive.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10, 12 and 13. (“Beijing…deal”; and “Indeed…again”)
“We have to recognise that Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it’s not America’s responsibility to make it one,” said President Barack Obama last May. No, it isn’t, and Afghanistan is a strikingly imperfect society in almost every respect: politics, economy, security and human rights. But it isn’t entirely a lost cause, either.
President Hamid Karzai, who was given the job of running Afghanistan after the United States invaded in 2001 and subsequently won two deeply suspect elections in 2004 and 2009, finally left office on Monday, although he didn’t move very far. (His newly built private home backs onto the presidential palace.) On the way out, he took one last opportunity to bite the hand that fed him for so long.
“The war in Afghanistan is to the benefit of foreigners,” he said. “Afghans on both sides are the sacrificial lambs and victims of this war.” The US ambassador, James Cunningham, said that “his remarks, which were uncalled for,…dishonour the huge sacrifices Americans have made here,” but they were, of course, true.
Karzai’s remarks, though undiplomatic, are just common sense. The United States did not invade the country to bring democracy, prosperity and feminism to the long-suffering Afghan people. It did so because some of the senior planners of the 9/11 attacks had been allowed to set up camps there by members of the Taliban regime who shared their religious ideology.
You could argue (and I would) that luring the US military into the quagmire of a long guerilla war in Afghanistan that would drive millions of Muslims into the arms of al-Qaeda was precisely what Osama bin Laden was hoping to achieve with the 9/11 attacks. The United States simply fell into the strategic trap that he laid.
Even so, and despite all the rapidly changing reasons for “staying the course” in Afghanistan that Washington deployed in later years, the original and abiding motive in Washington was the perception, accurate or not, that who rules Afghanistan is a matter of great importance for the national security of the United States.
Over 1,400 American soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan (together with 400 British soldiers, 150 Canadians, and sundry others), and they all basically died for a particular US official vision of how American security might be best be assured. How else could the 13-year US military commitment in Afghanistan possibly be justified to the American people?
As to whether the long occupation was also in Afghanistan’s interest, that depends very much on the stability and success of the two-headed potential monster of a government that is now being created in Kabul.
Karzai has handed over the reins of power to two very different men, after five months of bitter disagreement over which one of them had really won last April’s presidential election. It was not as blatantly rigged as either of the two elections that maintained Karzai in the presidency, but it was still pretty dodgy.
In the first round of voting, when there were eleven candidates, the leader was Abdullah Abdullah, with 45 percent of the vote, and the runner-up was Ashraf Ghani, with only 31 percent. In the second round, Abdullah Abdullah’s vote actually dropped two points to 43 percent, while Ashraf Ghani’s almost doubled to 56 percent. The age of miracles truly is not past.
Even more suspiciously, the number of people voting in some of the districts that supported Ashraf Ghani tripled between the first and second rounds of voting. So Abdullah Abdullah cried foul, and the inauguration of a new president was endlessly postponed while the ballots cast were “audited” by an electoral commission that had been chosen by Hamid Karzai.
There was never going to be a clear answer to the question of who really won the election, and so after months of drift and delay a deal was struck. Ashraf Ghani, a former senior official at the World Bank, will be president. Abdullah Abdullah, a former resistance fighter during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and later foreign minister under Karzai, will nominate a “chief executive officer” who will act more or less as prime minister.
It is, in other words, a traditional Afghan carve-up, with a proportional slice of power for every one of the country’s ethnic groups. Ghani will ensure that Pashtuns get the biggest share of the good jobs, and look after the Uzbeks as well. Abdullah will take care of the Tajiks and Hazaras. But compared to your average Afghan warlord or Taliban fanatic, both men look pretty good.
Indeed, Afghanistan’s government and nascent democratic system might actually survive and prove to be fit for purpose. After three decades of Russian and American occupation, a significant minority of Afghans (certainly several millions) have been exposed to many examples of how post-tribal societies run their affairs.
Afghanistan is still a tribal society, so this carve-up of power on an ethnic basis may be a better option for the country than winner-takes-all politics. And if the United States and its allies do not abruptly cut off the foreign aid that keeps the whole show on the road, post-occupation Afghanistan may at least avoid a rerun of the disastrous civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal and the sudden ending of Soviet subsidies in 1992.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 6. (“Karzai’s…States”)