Must-Read: The Perils of Secret Diplomacy

Monday, June 6, 2016
Don't miss this week's cover story in The Weekly Standard, "The Perils of Secret Diplomacy: From Nixon to Obama," by Dr. Ray Takeyh.

Below is an excerpt:

Secret diplomacy has a special place in the annals of American history. Henry Kissinger’s furtive trip to China has been acclaimed as the quintessence of diplomacy. The Obama administration, steeped in its own brand of realism, is another devotee of secret talks, meeting with Iranian officials in Oman and Cuban functionaries in less-exotic Canada. Richard Nixon and Barack Obama are probably the two presidents with the greatest affinity for surreptitious maneuverings. Such practitioners of clandestine diplomacy believe that revolutionaries are, behind the curtains, just waiting to offer concessions: Once ensconced in hideaways with their American counterparts, the revolutionaries' essential pragmatism will reveal itself. The actual track record for such secret talks, however, shows that the revolutionaries inevitably gain the high ground. Washington ends up abandoning its sensible red lines and often betraying its longstanding allies [...]

 If there are some vague strategic arguments to be made on behalf of the administration’s nuclear diplomacy, there are no such justifications for the opening to Cuba—other than the traditional progressive attraction to Fidel Castro. Obama often speaks about transcending the rot of history, yet his Cuba policy is all too reminiscent of the 1960s New Left’s infatuation with Castro. The irony is that despite all its economic problems, Cuba’s Communists did not really want the normalization and Obama emissaries had to do all the pleading. The talks again had to be secret since the only thing the White House was asking of Cuba was to accept its argument that American policy has been a mistake. Raul Castro, clearly the more cunning of the two brothers, finally yielded to American entreaties and Obama was granted his visit to Havana.

 The historic visit began inauspiciously: Obama was met at the airport by the relatively junior Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez rather than the actual head of state. In his address, Obama declared, “I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas.” The president may have been so willing but Fidel was not prepared to abandon his enmities. Not only did he refuse to see Obama but declared, “We don’t need the empire to give us anything.” Obama capped off his visit by accompanying Raul to a baseball game and doing the wave just after Brussels had been struck by terrorist attacks.

Since the signing of the JCPOA [with Iran] and the normalization of relations with Cuba, both dictatorships have become more repressive. Iran continues to abuse its citizens while enabling Bashar al-Assad’s killing machine in Syria and menacing Israel with its sponsorship of terrorist groups. The Islamic Republic is second only to China in executions, while Cuba has arrested 5,351 dissidents so far this year. Soon American commerce will flow to the island, allowing the Castro brothers a means of sustaining one of the last outposts of Communist rule. But just as the JCPOA was not about arms control, the opening to Cuba was not about fostering democratic change. It was just a left-wing dream—acting on its long-held resentment against America’s Cold War in the Third World—come to fruition.

 It was not unwise for Nixon to reach out to the most populous country in the world; it was unwise to do so without demanding any Chinese reciprocity. An agreement was a sensible approach to Iran’s nuclear imbroglio; an accord that did not impose durable limits on that program is not astute arms control. A Cuba that adhered to global human-rights conventions and liberalized its political system should have been welcomed back into the community of nations; a Castro-led tyranny should not have been offered the same dispensation. Too often, secret diplomacy has served as a platform for America to concede its just standards and propitiate dictators with scant interest in changing their ways.