Senator Rand Paul has an op-ed in Time magazine making the case for normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba as Barack Obama has proposed. It’s a reasonable objective for U.S. policy and there’s a good case to be made that the embargo on Cuba is anachronistic.
But Paul doesn’t make that case.
Instead, he offers comforting bromides about the wonders of engagement and relies on examples that suggest he may not have been paying much attention to national security over the past three decades. It’s worth taking the time to read the entire piece, particularly as Paul considers presenting himself as a candidate for the presidency in 2016.
“Doug Bandow, of the CATO Institute, writes that proponents of the embargo have it all wrong when they make the fear-mongering claim that diplomacy with Cuba will make America less safe. Bandow argues that ‘America has engaged in years of on-and-off discussions with North Korea’s Kim dynasty stretching back to the Clinton administration. Under President Obama Washington has been negotiating with Iran’s government for months: most people recognize that a diplomatic settlement, no matter how difficult to achieve, would be better than war.”
It’s a striking claim. Paul cites the examples of Iran and North Korea to make his point that diplomacy doesn’t make the United States less safe. But U.S. diplomacy in those places has failed repeatedly and left us unquestionably less safe. On Iran, the U.S. reengagement began under George W. Bush, and despite our willing diplomacy the Iranian regime: accelerated its nuclear weapons program; expanded its support for regional terrorist groups; harbored senior al Qaeda figures and their families; and funded, trained, and equipped jihadists responsible for the deaths of hundreds of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In North Korea, despite our on-and-off discussions “stretching back to the Clinton administration,” the unstable, belligerent regime in North Korea became a nuclear power. Soon after, North Korea was caught, red-handed, sharing nuclear technology with Syria, a rogue state that like North Korea was listed on the U.S. State Department’s list of state sponsors of terror.
These are Rand Paul’s examples of good diplomacy.
And is it really the case that a diplomatic settlement is always better than war? What if the United States had considered a preemptive strike on North Korean nuclear facilities rather than endless and counterproductive diplomacy? That’s a hypothetical, of course, and we don’t know what would have happened. But we know that North Korea is a nuclear power – in spite of near-constant engagement.
Under the “Agreed Framework” deal in 1994, celebrated at the time as a diplomatic breakthrough, North Korea announced it would remain a signatory to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and promised it would not develop nuclear weapons. But the North Koreans continued their uranium enrichment program and took other steps toward becoming a nuclear power. The concessions and increased aid from the U.S. did little to slow them down and the existence of the feel-good agreement created a false sense of security, at least in some places, about North Korea’s intentions. The ill-fated Six Party talks had the same effect.
In 2007, Israeli intelligence learned that North Korea was helping Syria build a plutonium reactor in a nuclear compound in the Syrian Desert. The Israelis took out the facility in a preemptive strike – an act of war. By most accounts, the Syrian-North Korean efforts were in the early stages and would have taken years to complete, but the prospect of Bashar Assad with nuclear weapons is not an attractive one.
Syria offers a strong counterexample to the Paul-Obama assumptions about the benefits of U.S. engagement. In the early years of the Obama administration, the president and his top advisers urged a new approach to Syria. Bashar Assad, they argued, is a “reformer,” and with the right set of “smart power” inducements, would be a force for good in the region. On January 25, 2011, the administration sought to enhance diplomatic relations with Syria by returning a U.S. ambassador to Damascus. The argument then is the same one they use now: stronger U.S. diplomacy will provide the U.S. greater influence over the Syrian regime and increase the prospects for fundamental change. With hundreds of thousands of Syrians killed by the regime since then, nobody makes that case any more.