The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What Republican attacks on Obama’s trip to Cuba really tell us

PresidentObama delivered an impassioned appeal for political liberties in Cuba on Tuesday, including freedom of expression and religion. (Video: Reuters)

At least two important things happened today: there was a terrorist attack in Brussels, and President Obama gave an address in Havana, during a trip there than can only be described as historic. To some conservatives, the juxtaposition shows everything that’s wrong with this president: He’s off mending relations with a longtime enemy, while Europeans are killed by terrorists. If only he were strong and manly, the Brussels attack would never have happened.

Ted Cruz quickly wrote his answer to the attack: speak the magical incantation “Radical Islamic Terror” and the problem will be solved. “President Obama looks and sounds so ridiculous making his speech in Cuba, especially in the shadows of Brussels,” tweeted Donald Trump.

The conservatives are right in one way: these two events taking place on the same day do tell us something important about Obama, and about them.

Republicans have a legitimate disagreement with Obama on the subject of Cuba. They believe that even though the embargo has been in place for half a century and the Castros haven’t broken yet, if we just keep on the pressure, maybe for another 50 or 60 years, it’ll work like a charm and freedom will come to the island. Obama doesn’t agree. But the more fundamental difference lies in the way we approach foreign policy in general.

Follow Paul Waldman's opinionsFollow

If you listen to the presidential campaign, you’d think that the only foreign policy questions any president will confront are  whom we might go to war with, when we might go to war, whom we can threaten, and who might try to kill us all anyway. It’s all about threats and dangers. And as far as Republicans in particular are concerned, the most important factor determining the outcome of every foreign policy challenge is whether we’re being sufficiently “strong,” which always means acting as though every threat is a disaster waiting to happen and the answer is to be as belligerent as possible.

Handling threats and dangers is without question an important part of foreign policy. But foreign policy can also be affirmative. And foreign policy is more than figuring out when to start the next Middle East war.

That’s one of the things that comes through vividly in the piece Jeffrey Goldberg recently wrote for The Atlantic based on extensive interviews with Obama about foreign policy. “There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow,” Obama said. “It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions.”

He also noted that at times, making threats seem larger than they are can impede your goals:

“When I came into office, at the first Summit of the Americas that I attended, Hugo Chávez” — the late anti-American Venezuelan dictator — “was still the dominant figure in the conversation,” he said. “We made a very strategic decision early on, which was, rather than blow him up as this 10-foot giant adversary, to right-size the problem and say, ‘We don’t like what’s going on in Venezuela, but it’s not a threat to the United States.’ ”

The result, Obama asserts, is that anti-Americanism in Latin America has diminished over time. But saying that someone who hates America isn’t really a threat drives conservatives batty. That’s true of terrorism, too: Obama’s position is that while the threat is real and significant, it isn’t existential. The Islamic State can kill Americans, which would be terrible and is something we should do everything we can to prevent, but they aren’t going to invade the United States, take control of our territory, and become our new government.

To think that they might will only lead you to make stupid decisions. You may recall that the single most catastrophic mistake in American foreign policy history, the Iraq War, came about because Bush administration officials convinced themselves and then the country that if we didn’t do something right away, Saddam Hussein was going to attack the United States with his bristling arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and we were all going to die. It wasn’t true, and the result was 4,000 dead Americans, a couple of hundred thousand dead Iraqis, a much stronger Iran, and a region thrown into more chaos. Ignoring real threats can lead to calamity, but so can believing that imaginary threats are real.

And so in foreign policy, Obama has spent a good deal of time looking for affirmative things he can do and ways to solve problems without confrontation. He has opened relations with Cuba, made a deal to restrain Iran’s nuclear program, and signed a historic accord on climate change. That isn’t to say that he hasn’t made mistakes, or that some of his initiatives won’t turn out to be unsuccessful.

But Republicans think that every last thing he does is wrong, and the only reason they can offer is that it’s all weak, weak, weak, because much of it doesn’t involve force or the threat of force. Yet as Obama said today in Cuba: “I know the history, but I refuse to be trapped by it.”