President Obama’s handshake with Cuba’s dictator, Raúl Castro, was a slap in the face to those Cubans who are thrown into prison, beaten up in the streets, or otherwise oppressed because they dare to express their opposition to Communism. It was, however, classic Obama, in keeping with his pretensions to be a follower of the school of realpolitik and with his keen reading of domestic politics.
The first part is well known. Ask any dissident anywhere — China, Iran, the former Soviet Union, Cuba — and they will tell you what comfort they got when the West, especially America, spoke up for them and publicly shamed their tormentors.
Mr. Obama, however, has always had little use for these pesky little dissidents. He has always preferred to speak “adult to adult” with the heads of countries, whether they were democratically elected or got their position Mao-style, behind the barrel of a gun. Freedom lovers are too emotional.
This has been the hallmark of Mr. Obama’s presidency from the beginning. He was in office just a few months when pro-democracy demonstrators took to the streets in Tehran, eliciting nothing but yawns from the White House and the State Department. Sitting down with the ayatollahs, as they’re doing now, is more their style. It is the same with Ukraine today, where pro-Western protesters are meeting icy glares from an administration still seeking “reset” with Moscow.
Many critics say Mr. Obama is by nature mistrustful of foreign supporters of Western-style democracy because he is himself mistrustful of it. He missed the Bandung Generation by two generations, but that’s where his heart really is.
But in fairness, there have been both Republican and Democratic adherents of the realpolitik school who prefer to deal with the despots who have power over the dissidents without it. The Democrats had their Zbigniew Brzezinski; the GOP has had Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft.
But what about the Cuban-American vote in Florida — allies of dissidents, with real power? Mr. Obama has shown himself to be equally calculating in this regard. Besides the fact that he will no longer face reelection himself, Cubans are no longer the dominant force in the politics of the Sunshine State that they once were. In the key swing state, they may soon be overshadowed by Puerto Ricans moving into central Florida from their economically bereft island and from the Northeast.
President Obama also knows that the situation is changing even among Cuban Americans. Many of the Cubans emigrating to the United States since President Clinton cut a deal with dictator Fidel Castro in 1994 (before he passed on power to little brother Raúl) have a different outlook. Many are selected to come here for economic reasons, not because they oppose Communist oppression.
In the long term, however, Mr. Obama is not being as clever as he thinks. Americans, rightly, have never taken to the realpolitik school, foreign or domestic, and demand virtues and morals from their leaders. One of our most Machiavellian leaders, Richard Nixon, did not fare well.
As for foreign dissidents, they never forget who stood with them. Natan Sharansky, who was thrown into the Soviet Gulag for many years, wrote vividly about once getting such backing:
It was the great brilliant moment when we learned that Ronald Reagan had proclaimed the Soviet Union an Evil Empire before the entire world. . . . This was the moment. It was the brightest, most glorious day. Finally a spade had been called a spade. Finally, Orwell’s Newspeak was dead. . . . It was one of the most important, freedom-affirming declarations, and we all instantly knew it. For us, that was the moment that really marked the end for them, and the beginning for us. The lie had been exposed and could never, ever be untold now. This was the end of Lenin’s “Great October Bolshevik Revolution” and the beginning of a new revolution, a freedom revolution — Reagan’s Revolution.
It is doubtful that the Ladies in White and all the other Cuban dissidents who are now being shown the video of Obama’s obliging handshake by taunting, sadistic jailers will ever proclaim an Obama Revolution.
- Mike Gonzalez is the vice president for communications at the Heritage Foundation.
Originally appeared in National Review Online.