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Friday, May 2, 2008

Cuba Libre?

Why do Americans have such a soft spot for Cuba? Why does this Caribbean island seem so special, so alluring…almost obsessive? Why, in other words, has tiny Cuba mattered so much?

It is a curious question. That Fidel Castro facilitated what nearly became an all-out hot war between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1962 is not the only reason. That incident was merely symptomatic of a perverse relationship. Where else could such a crisis happen but in Cuba? (If it had happened in, instead of over, Berlin, the Americans would have been the ones who had to back down.) Where else could a Jesuit lawyer rule over twelve million people for over fifty years but ninety miles off the United States coast?

Cuba has enticed the United States for much longer than the past half-century. It has brought out the best and the worst of the American character. It was the so-called war for Cuban independence in 1898 that brought the United States its first overseas colonies, and gave it the veneer of a serious naval power, which is what counted back then. Henry James was not the only one who warned that empire may have civilized the British but would only demoralize the Americans.

The Cubans have paid a high price for it. Yet, finally, it seems they may be nearing the end of a long anti-American era. Cubans are awakening to the consumer culture: they may buy computers and many other kinds of hitherto banned appliances, including cellphones; they may own cars, earn profits off their crops, even enter the sanctified ground of tourist hotels. Under their new president, brother Raul, Cubans finally are beginning to taste what the modern world calls freedom.

None of this should surprise us. Several years ago Fidel Castro asked a visiting Chilean, “how did Pinochet do it?” By that he meant, how do I cede power while still holding on to it? Castro’s enemies long ago convinced their supporters in the United States that the old revolutionary wanted to die with his boots on, that he could (and probably would) provoke one crisis after another until his wretched soul left this earth.

Perhaps they may still be proved right. On the other hand, we know that Castro has long admired his fellow Galician, Francisco Franco, who died peacefully in his bed while his country “in transition” carried on much as before. Franco was a lucky man, and had a king (and the United States, indirectly) to serve as his handmaid. Castro is not so fortunate; he had counted on the Catholic Church to play that role, but it seemed that the last pope proved just too popular. Fidel was upstaged. Again, he retreated.

Alas, it seems that poor, undistinguished Raul now must be Cuba’s King Juan Carlos. Fidel meanwhile is doing is best to imitate Deng Xiaoping, lingering on for as long as he can. A remarkable tactician, even in his dotage, he may pull it off. Or he may not. For once, it may be the Cuban people who decide the fate of their island.


Monday, April 28, 2008


Talleyrand knows a thing or two about restorations. Still, he has been surprised to hear that term used repeatedly during the past five years by various officials of the previous Democratic administration in the United States. For there to be a restoration, there has to have been an intervening revolution. It is hard to see one in effect, despite so much rhetoric of Machtpolitik in the air after 2001. As pleasing as that was to Talleyrand’s ears, there is little to suggest that a clean break has been made back to the nineteenth century. The red skein of legalism-moralism still prevails in most councils of state, including those ruling at Washington. 

Rather than a restoration, we have the familiar revolving door. This time around, the door is a divided one. The perennial Secretary of State-in-waiting, Mr. Richard Holbrooke, has reportedly sided with Mrs. Clinton. What if she loses to Mr. Obama? Are there any embassies big enough for him? Perhaps there is only Tokyo, which he was slated to get before going to Germany in 1993. It is hard to make too much mischief in Tokyo.

We recall that Mr. Holbrooke was passed over for the job of Secretary before, and he is unlikely to let that happen again, even if it means switching sides. How strongly the passions of restoration run.

Mr. Obama’s most visible foreign policy advisers are Anthony Lake and Gregory Craig, both veterans of the Clinton administration. Either presumably would want to take over the State Department, although one suspects that Lake would prefer the Pentagon and Craig the National Security Council. Another leading candidate for State is Dr. Joe Nye. He too has cast his lot with Mr. Obama. The latter may feel pressure to choose a stronger personality—a Joe Biden or a Bill Richardson—but Talleyrand fears that his instinct, like that of his role model, Mr. John Kennedy, is to be his own foreign minister.

Mrs. Clinton, we daresay, is a different kind of manager. She does not seem to mind strong personalities so long as they do not compete with her for mastery of her favorite issues. International diplomacy does not seem to be one of them. A Biden or a Holbrooke would probably suit her fine in Foggy Bottom, with Ashton Carter or someone similar at Defense. The wild card is held by Al Gore’s former top lieutenants—Leon Fuerth, Graham Allison, et al. They cannot be expected to sit on the sidelines.

Talleyrand’s crystal ball would be under less strain if there was some indication that Mr. McCain and his Forward School had a clear restoration plan of their own in mind. Do they aim to bring back the era of Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Luce, Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan? Will they invent their own Pacific Century and a new “global equilibrium”? Their ranks are probably just as divided. That does not bode well for a restoration; but it does for more of the same.


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