The most revealing sentence in President Obama’s explanation of his radical revision of U.S. Cuba policy last week was his admonition to Americans, and Cubans, that they should not seek the “collapse” of the Castro regime. “Even if that worked,” the president asserted, “we know from hard-earned experience that countries are more likely to enjoy lasting transformation if their people are not subjected to chaos.”
Embedded in that short remark is the essential logic behind Obama’s decision to lift — or seek to lift — all U.S. sanctions on Cuba without requiring the “significant steps towards democracy” he once said would be needed for such a normalization. It is also the organizing principle of much of his foreign policy. If regime collapse is not a desirable outcome in Cuba — or, for that matter, in Syria, Iran and other dictatorships — it follows that the correct policy is U.S. “engagement” or “direct diplomacy” with such regimes, aimed not at overturning them but at gradually nudging them toward more civilized behavior.
The no-chaos rule explains why Obama would have declined to support the 2009 Green Movement in Iran while dispatching letters to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei offering detente. It lies behind his refusal to provide decisive support to Syrian rebels, instead seeking a negotiated solution with the regime of Bashar al-Assad. And it answers those who wonder why he would provide what amounts to a bailout to the Castros just as they were facing the twin threats of losing Venezuelan oil subsidies and mounting popular pressure for basic freedoms.
Obama cited “hard-earned experience” for his nostrum, and he’s certainly had some he can point to: Libya, Iraq or Egypt, where the overthrow of regimes led to counterrevolution or civil war. The president, however, articulated his ideology before he took office — and the failures on his watch stem in part from his own reluctance to vigorously support democratic transitions.
They also don’t negate two historical facts: A large number of successful democracies have grown out of regime collapse; and U.S. “engagement” with Stalinist-style totalitarian regimes, such as Cuba, has never produced such a transition.
Obama’s chaos theory won’t make much sense to former citizens of East Germany, who last month celebrated the 25th anniversary of the sudden collapse of their regime — and the Berlin Wall. Nor to Romanians, who a month later lived through bloody anarchy in the streets of Bucharest and Timisoara as the Stalinist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu imploded — and for the past two decades have built a peaceful and increasingly prosperous democracy.
As a visiting journalist I witnessed the havoc wreaked on Jakarta in 1998 when the Suharto dictatorship abruptly collapsed and mobs looted the capital. Indonesia shortly thereafter became the world’s largest majority Muslim democracy, and it remains so nearly 17 years later.
It’s easy to go on: the Philippines in 1987; Serbia in 2000; Georgia in 2003. People took to the streets; regimes quickly collapsed; “chaos” ensued for a time; and the result was an enduring transition to democracy. U.S. “engagement” with dictatorships, on the other hand, has a much thinner record of results — and none in the former Soviet Bloc.
Authoritarian leaders themselves, from the Castros to Egypt’s generals to China’s first secretaries, routinely offer a version of Obama’s argument — that the alternative to them is chaos — as reason for dodging the liberalizing steps Washington urges. Governments such those in China and Vietnam have proved far more adept than U.S. policymakers anticipated in pocketing the profits of U.S. investment and trade while preventing political liberalization.
Cooperating with such regimes yields other goods, of course. The opening to China has helped produce the largest reduction of poverty in history. Dictatorships in the Middle East offer bases for the U.S. military, not to mention oil supplies. While Cuba has little value in strategic terms, detente with Havana will remove an irritant from U.S. relations with more important countries, like Brazil. And though Obama didn’t say so, a Castro collapse could have unpleasant short-term consequences for the United States, such as a massive flow of refugees.
It’s possible, in short, to articulate a rationale for engaging with regimes like Cuba’s. Contrary to Obama’s rhetoric, however, it is a policy that reduces the possibility of near-term democratization in favor of economic benefits and geopolitical stability. China is a country where the gains from such a strategy outweigh the costs, particularly as U.S. leverage to bring about political change is limited. In Cuba the calculus is different: The economic benefits of engagement are minor, while the possibility that continued sanctions could be used to engineer regime change — or at least meaningful political concessions — is far greater.
Obama, of course, can make the case for appeasing the Castros. But his claim that Cubans should not hope for their collapse as a route to freedom is not only patronizing; it’s wrong.