What does Cuba tell us about Obama and the Middle East?
Guest post by Dr. David Albert, PhD, Austin, TX, professor and foreign policy analyst.
The Jewish community is actively discussing the likelihood of the Obama administration pressing Israel on the peace process. So far, the administration has sent some signals by appointing Mitchell and such, but they haven’t done much to press the new Netanyahu government.
I think their decision to begin a process towards lowering barriers with Cuba is certainly a signal of their approach to foreign policy. It is particularly important, because they are challenging the Cuban American Foundation’s long-standing opposition to an opening to Cuba and the Castros. Their role on Cuba policy is the closest parallel we have to AIPAC’s role on Israel policy. Obama is taking them on. His actions so far are relatively small and basically non-controversial. Even Sen. Mel Martinez is supporting his actions. But they seem to suggest the beginning of a gradual process to overturn a foreign policy taboo. The timing is important, too. Obama took this act in the lead-up to a Latin American trip. This suggests to me that it is possible that Obama may be planning to take some actions to pressure Bibi on the peace process in the lead up to the rumored June Israel trip.
There are some big differences between Israel and Cuba policy. There are significant indications of generational change in the Cuban community on this issue. I see much less of that in the Jewish community. There are significant indications of real change in a positive direction from the Cuban government. Israel has just elected a more recalcitrant government. Also, the Cuban community has long been a Republican stronghold. Obama doesn’t need them to win Florida and doesn’t need Florida to be re-elected. Conversely, the Jewish community is a staunch Democratic group that voted for him overwelmingly (and donated to him in large numbers) and helped him win in several key states. He faces greater political risk challenging AIPAC than he does the Cuban American Lobby. Jimmy Carter and Bush Sr. took significant re-election hits by challenging the Jewish community on the peace process and Obama knows that as well. Obama seems to have some bipartisan support for Sen. Dick Lugar among others for shifting Cuba policy while he is likely to meet stiff resistance from most Republicans and the Christian Zionists to changes in Israel policy. Also, the Cuba policy shift is more of an economic shift and there is support from various farmers and trade lobbysts for changing Cuba policy. There is little in the way of obvious economic lobbies to change US policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I think Cuba offers us an indication that Obama’s instincts are to challenge foreign policy taboos and try to resolve decades old conflicts through diplomacy and compromise. But he will do so cautiously, graudally, and strategically. He will challenge influencial foreign policy interest groups if the political costs are not too high. Of course, we don’t know how far he will go. But clearly, the issues around Mideast policy are more entrenched than those around Cuba.