Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein



Presidents are obliged occasionally to make difficult choices among competing values they brought to the White House. Some of them are rooted in the ideology of their political parties, while others are strongly-felt personal beliefs that shape a president's character and guide his policy choices.

Barack Obama's decision to grant diplomatic recognition to the Castro regime in Cuba is a dramatic case of a Democratic president making a political/strategic choice that's contrary to the liberal leanings of his political party, and his personal preferences.

Many Democrats were stunned by their president's rejection of human rights and democracy as guiding principles in dealing with the repressive Castro government, which has dominated Cuba for over fifty years. How could Obama, they lament, ignore the murders and brutal suppression of opposition groups and continues to impose a Communist economic/political system on its people?

The Washington Post voiced opposition in an editorial titled, "The Repression Continues." It argued that "if support for the Cuban people and American values is supposed to be the point of this process, it's off to a very poor start." (Jan. 2) The New York Times titled its report, "Test of U.S. Shift on Cuba is Whether Human Rights Improve." (Jan. 5)

Many Republicans oppose the president's unilateral action, but for a different reason. Why, they argue, should the United States reward a regime that confiscated American property after Fidel Castro seized control in 1960 and forced tens of thousands to flee the island, many of them settling in Florida? These conservatives remind audiences that Castro permitted the Soviet Union secretly to build missile bases on the island in 1962 and precipitated the Cuban Missile Crisis. That brought the United States to the brink of war with the Soviet Union during John Kennedy's administration.

Why did Obama take this unilateral action on Cuba, which runs counter to his pledges to promote political freedom, human rights, and democracy abroad?

One factor is Obama's campaign statements in 2008 that he wanted dialogue with countries that were hostile to the United States to see if negotiations were preferable to continued confrontation and potential hostilities. His decision to open discussions with Iran over its nuclear program is an example; and his early efforts to reach an accommodation with Russia's Vladimir Putin is another. Opening relations with Cuba, favored my most Latin American countries, is a third.

A domestic political calculation could be that a new generation of Cuban-Americans are more interested in opening trade relations and expanding family ties with Cuba than in continuing a cold war with the Castros. Democrats may hope that young Cuban-American voters will applaud the president's action and support Democratic candidates in 2016.

Those who support the president argue that opening diplomatic relations and reducing economic sanctions will bring political change in Cuba and this will give its people freedoms they've not had for over fifty years. Republicans are quick to point out that U.S. opening of diplomatic ties with China and Vietnam didn't bring political freedom to their peoples, despite the economic gains they've made.

Perhaps the primary benefit of Obama's decision may be strategic, to prevent an impoverished Cuba from again becoming the prey of a hostile power and raising a security threat to this country. Russia under Vladimir Putin might be bold enough to try. China might be tempted to pour economic aid into the country to obtain political benefits.

Conservatives who applaud Obama for choosing strategic considerations over human rights cite the case of Egypt, where the Pentagon continues to send military assistance even though the military ousted a civilian government and ended human rights. President Nixon made a similar calculation in 1972 when he opened ties with Communist China, even though it refused to grant human rights.

Obama's toughest problem may be convincing liberal Democrats that his decision on Cuba is wise, even though the Castro government is unwilling to ease tight political controls. This is the debate Congress should now have: Whether human rights and democratic government should trump strategic considerations in foreign policy. Obama seems to have decided that in his final years in office, the country's security overshadows Ideological considerations in foreign policy.

File last modified on Thursday, 15-JAN-2014 9:35 AM EST

Feedback to Author