Cognitive Dissonance in Obama's Cuba Policy

Thursday, February 4, 2016
By Dr. Jose Azel of The University of Miami:

Sour Grapes in Foreign Policy

We get the expression “sour grapes” from Aesop’s fable “The Fox and the Grapes.” In the fable, a fox tries to eat some appetizing high-hanging grapes. When the fox is unable to reach the grapes he does not admit defeat, but rather rationalizes that the grapes are not ripe; thus sour grapes.

Psychologists often use this classic tale to illustrate the concept of cognitive dissonance. When heavily invested in a position and confronted with disconfirming evidence, we go to great lengths to justify our position as did the fox in Aesop’s fable. In short, our tendency is to deny discrepancies between our preexisting beliefs (cognition) and new information.

Cognitive dissonance theory examines our actions when we are confronted with information inconsistent with our prior beliefs. Scholars use this paradigm in international affairs to examine historical failures in leadership resulting in calamitous surprises. Examples are, the German invasion of France bypassing the Maginot line, the Japanese bombardment of Pearl Harbor, and the simultaneous attacks on Israel in the Yom Kippur War.

Cognitive dissonance is also evident in how the Obama administration has handled the stances of Iran and Cuba following major reconciliatory initiatives by the administration. The administration’s expectations have not been met. Yet, in an effort to reduce dissonance, officials downgrade discrepant information.

The Iranian firing of rockets within 1,500 feet of a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Strait of Hormuz, followed by the capture of two U.S. Navy patrol boats and their crew in the Persian Gulf is illustrative. The detention of the U.S sailors came just days before the release of billions in Iranian assets as part of the controversial nuclear deal reached with Tehran.

In violation of international protocols, a video from Iran’s news agency showed the U.S. sailors kneeling on deck, hands clasped behind their heads. The video contrasted sharply with statements from Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Secretary of State John Kerry and the White House. The official statements dealt with the cognitive dissonance of the situation by downgrading the discrepant information and focusing on the release of the crew, rather than on the humiliating context of the capture.

Following the December 17, 2014 announcement by President Obama of his initiative to normalize relations with Castro’s Cuba, the administration has made several unilateral concessions to the Castro regime before and after the reestablishment of diplomatic relations. At every step, the Cuban government has failed to respond in kind to the expectations of the Obama administration. In fact, General Raul Castro has repeatedly insisted that Cuba will not concede anything.

In its cognitive dissonance the administration, instead of reexamining their misconceptions, has sought to reduce dissonance and achieve consonance by doubling down on its losing bet. It has unilaterally proceeded with further giveaways to the regime.

Without even the slightest hint of a concession by Cuba, the administration has given to the Cuban government the license to export Havana Club rum to the U.S. contravening the legal decision that Bacardi Limited is the rightful owner of the license. It also announced new regulations that will benefit the Cuban government by easing restrictions on the financing of Cuba’s imports from the United States.

The announcement employs Orwellian language to discount the fact that Castro’s Cuba exerts totalitarian controls and that the new regulations will enrich, not small Cuban entrepreneurs, but the government’s monopolies. It disingenuously explains that, exports will be permitted to state-owned enterprises if the products meet “the needs of the Cuban people.” An honest approach would be for the administration to acknowledge its misjudgment. The grapes of the Castro regime are not ripe for democratic values.