President Obama has made his share — all right, more than his share — of mistakes since taking office (and especially in his second term) but have any of America’s chief executives served their nation error-free?
Making mistakes goes with the office, as it does with almost any job.And, in such a highly visible and important position, a president has to expect to be criticized, very publicly, when he miscalculates the consequences of his decisions.
But doesn’t it seem that Obama is the target of exceptionally frequent and petty criticism? The best recent example is the denunciation — almost all of it from Republicans — that followed his simple and genuinely harmless shaking of hands with Cuban leader Raul Castro when the two crossed paths at the international salute to the late Nelson Mandela in South Africa.
Sen. John McCain, who was Obama’s opponent in the presidential election in 2008, was among those who prominently denounced the innocent handshake. And he wrapped up his critique by reminding his listeners that, in 1939, shortly before Germany invaded Poland, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Hitler. That’s an almost obscene comparison.
There are two points to be made here, and they’re far apart in terms of importance and consequence: First, Obama’s political foes are far too eager to fault this president — even for taking that “selfie” photograph of himself with two other world leaders, for goodness sakes — and, second, that it’s high time the United States took a fresh look at its long-ruptured relationship with Cuba.
Clearly, there’s no reason for Americans to admire either Fidel or Raul Castro and the way they’ve run Cuba since the revolution that sent Fulgencio Batista into exile in Spain.But we shouldn’t forget that, for very good reasons, we didn’t admire Batista, but we at least got along with him.
So offensive were the policies of the Castro government that thousands of Cubans fled to the United States, and a sprawling Cuban-American community emerged in South Florida. That community soon developed a united political voice that had as its principal objective the isolation, if not the downfall, of the Castros. And most Americans, genuinely offended by the behavior of the new Cuban leadership, sympathized with the exiles, many of whom had risked their lives to reach our shores.
All those anti-Castro voters became extremely influential, politically. And it all made sense at the time. So the United States imposed a trade embargo, seeking to punish Cuba and cripple its potential to spread its offensive leftist gospel.
Half a century later, Raul Castro has succeeded his ailing brother but still rules Cuba with an iron fist (despite a few liberalization measures designed to give its economy a shot in the arm), and the Cuban-American community still despises the regime.
But what does the United States gain from perpetuating a trade embargo imposed so many decades ago? Our nation trades with many other nations where the political leadership falls short of America’s own standards. The fact that trade with Cuba is forbidden represents a huge obstacle to any opportunity for the rapprochement that would benefit both sides.
Isn’t it time for an open discussion of the possibility of ending the embargo? A majority of Americans — and especially their elected officials —may conclude that resuming trade with Cuba would have more negatives than positives, but what harm could come from removing the ban against even talking about it?
The answer: No more harm than President Obama’s handshake with Raul Castro.
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