America's Cuba policy has long been an open joke in international circles. Seldom has a country pursued such a futile policy for so long while clearly recognizing its senselessness. It's probably the foremost example of how American domestic politics can take its foreign policy hostage, leaving everyone a loser.
On Wednesday, President Barack Obama took bold action to put an end to this farce. Over half a century of a counterproductive sanctions and isolation policy is coming to an end.
But Cuba is only one of many examples of domestic politics rendering American foreign policy dysfunctional. Nor is it a unique case of how sanctions and isolation tend to be counterproductive.
Almost everything the president said about the failure of America's Cuba policy could be said of our policy on Iran (although Obama is thankfully also changing this policy).
The administration's shift on Cuba is a reflection that isolation and sanctions has had the opposite of their intended effect. As Obama said today, "I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result." Despite half a century of severed ties, Castro is still in charge and communism is still firmly in place. Rather than stick to failed policies, opening up Cuba to the outside world holds the possibility of empowering a Cuban middle class and shifting the country in a more democratic direction. According to an administration official, "all of this is seen as a way of promoting change in Cuba because everything we have done in the past has demonstrably failed."
Similarly, in Iran, America's policy of isolation has intensified over the years, but the Ayatollahs and the Islamic Republic have remained firmly in place. As proponents of democratic reform and human rights defenders have continuously attested, sanctions have led to the intensification of the security environment in Iran and limited opportunities for change. While we could potentially continue on the same course for decades to come, there is little reason to expect that another 35 years of isolation would cause the Ayatollahs to surrender.
Obama's shift toward engagement with Iran has already borne fruit, with the success of the interim nuclear deal signed last November. If engagement is further strengthened, our ability to deal with and influence Iran will grow accordingly. Currently, requests for the Iranian government to respect its people or release imprisoned Americans often fall on deaf ears. However, with a new relationship and enhanced ties, it will be more difficult for Iran to ignore American requests. As Obama said, "sanctions have impaired our ability to promote positive change in Cuba."
He might as well have said Iran.
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The Obama administration also acknowledged the toll of sanctions on the Cuban people. According to the White House, "we should not allow U.S. sanctions to add to the burden of Cuban citizens we seek to help." The same holds true on Iran. Sanctions have hurt the Iranian people far more than the Iranian government -- or its nuclear program. As sanctions have intensified, Iranians have had to deal with rising unemployment and food prices and the increased scarcity of medicine and other humanitarian goods that are supposed to be exempt from sanctions.
The administration also showed some realism by acknowledging the foolhardiness of trying to promote regime change. According to the White House:
It does not serve America's interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse. We know from hard-learned experience that it is better to encourage and support reform than to impose policies that will render a country a failed state.
The notion that we should encourage reform through engagement, rather than by trying to topple revolutionary regimes like Cuba or Iran, is often treated as naiveté in Washington policy circles and on Capitol Hill. Powerful domestic constituencies have been working against such a shift toward each country, with a great deal of success, for many years.
But as the reverberations of each nation's revolution recede, the failure of policies that originated in the tumultuous past become increasingly stark. We shouldn't be afraid to shed such policies when it becomes clear that it would suit our interest.
Americans should be encouraged that Obama is bold enough to chart a new course. Clearly, the nuclear negotiations are complicated and it is not as simple as making a decision to restore ties.
The steps announced toward Cuba, however, also involved careful negotiations toward a deal that served each side's mutual interests. And Obama had to maneuver a very treacherous domestic political landscape with powerful special interests pushing for the status quo. The atmosphere on Capitol Hill is as poisonous on Cuba as it is on Iran. But just as Obama has shown that he can break the deadlock on Cuba, he can also bend Congress on Iran.
As Obama said on Wednesday, "Today America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past, so as to reach for a better future for the Cuban people, for the American people, for our entire hemisphere and for the world."
Let's hope President Obama will make a similar speech on Iran in the coming weeks.