WASHINGTON — In taking executive action to change U.S. policy toward Cuba, President Obama has now brought his domestic policy toolbox to one of the nation’s oldest foreign policy problems.
Obama is not the first president to make foreign policy accomplishments the focus of the twilight years of his presidency. And arguably, Cuba was the easiest problem to resolve in a global map that includes North Korea, Iran, Russia, Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Though legally a state sponsor of terrorism — a status Obama now seeks to change — there are no weapons of mass destruction in Cuba. President Kennedy made sure of that. Most Americans now alive weren’t even born during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
Though repressive and authoritarian, the Castro brothers’ brand of Latin-accented Marxism seems as much of an anachronism as the Cold War in an age of Islamic terrorism. As a senior administration official told reporters Wednesday, ” If there is any U.S. foreign policy that’s past its expiration date, it’s Cuban policy.”
Obama’s action on Cuba is as historic as it is sweeping. In a little more than two years, the secret negotiations that that led to today’s events will be boxed up and sent to the Obama Presidential Library in a box labeled “Legacy.”
Is this Obama’s Berlin Wall?
No, Cuba is not East Germany. The communist regime in Havana may soften, but not disappear. It’s a rapprochement, not a reunification.
And Obama did not stand in the Plaza de la Revolución and demand that Castro tear down any walls, literal or metaphorical. Instead it reflected an distinctly Obama approach to diplomacy — speak softly and carry a big … cigar?
But it’s hard not to hear echoes of the Cold War in Obama’s historic move toward “openness” in Cuba.
Polish Pope John Paul II joined with President Reagan to bring down the Iron Curtain. Latin American Pope Francis gave President Obama the impetus — and, yes, the political cover — to make the exchange of prisoners that made all the other policy changes possible. Spies were exchanged.
Perestroika, former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of economic reforms, helped bring down the Soviet Bloc and end the Cold War. Obama hopes to accomplish the same thing in reverse — to use “commercial diplomacy” to bring about a new era of economic and political reformismo.
“This is fundamentally about freedom and openness and also expresses my belief in the power of people-to-people engagement,” Obama said in a televised noontime speech. “With the changes I’m announcing today, it will be easier for Americans to travel to Cuba and Americans will be able to use American credit and debit cards on the island.”
PHOTOS: Cuba through the years
“Nobody represents America’s values better than the American people,” he said. “And I believe this contact will ultimately do more to empower the Cuban people. I also believe that more resources should be able to reach the Cuban people.”
Obama’s approach to Cuba also reflects the same confidence in the power of executive action that he’s brought to immigration, health care and the environment.
The embargo remains the law of the land. That means, for example, that only Congress can lift the travel ban.
But as part of Obama’s executive action, the Treasury Department has signaled its intention to grant licenses for any kind of travel allowed under the law: family visits, government business, educational purposes, religious trips, cultural performances, humanitarian activities and export-import business. It’s hard to imagine a tourist who can’t figure out a way to build a sightseeing schedule around one of those legally sanctioned activities.
For congressional Republicans still angry about Obama’s executive action changing the way immigration laws are enforced, the new Cuba policy will further poison the well. It won’t help that Cuban President Raul Castro, in his own televised address, urged Obama to use executive action to lift a partial blockade of the island that he calls “criminal.”
There will be obstacles to Obama’s Cuban policy. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the Cuban-American in line to head the subcommittee on Western Hemisphere relations, wondered aloud Wednesday how Obama planned to open an embassy in Havana without any money from Congress. He accused Obama of “a desperate attempt by the president to burnish his legacy at the Cuban peoples’ expense.”
For Rubio — and for Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton and other 2016 presidential hopefuls — Cuban policy now takes renewed importance. Anti-Castro Cuban-Americans are a significant constituency in a state that boasts 29 electoral votes and on whose hanging chads elections have determined at least one past president.
This is not Nixon going to China, or Reagan going to the wall.
This is Obama being Obama. He’s the same president abroad as he is at home.
Follow @gregorykorte on Twitter.
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