A Dictator’s Best Friend

Column: Obama rescues tyrants from Havana to Damascus

December 19, 2014

"It’s a sad day for freedom," Marco Rubio told Bret Baier after President Obama announced he would normalize relations with Cuba. Not a sad day, senator: a sad year.

If there was a theme to 2014, it was Obama’s persistence in bailing out dictators and theocrats from political scrapes and economic hardships, his tenacity in pursuit of engagement with America’s adversaries no matter the cost to our strength, principles, credibility, or alliances.

In this president the thugs in Havana and Caracas, Damascus and Tehran, Moscow and Naypyidaw and Beijing have no better friend. For these bullies, these evildoers, these millenarians and sectarians, Barack Obama is more than a dupe. He is an insurance policy.

Cuba is but the latest example of this president’s failing to exercise leverage in the pursuit of American strength and security and prestige. Here are the Castro brothers, decrepit and spent, their revolution a joke, their economy in peril thanks to the collapse in oil prices brought on by a strong dollar and increased U.S. supply.

The China option—foreign direct investment from America—is Raul and Fidel’s only play to sustain power over the society they have impoverished. And Obama says yes, yes to everything: an embassy, an ambassador, diplomatic relations, travel and exchange, status among nations, removal from the list of state sponsors of terror, and a serious opportunity to lessen the embargo that has kept the dictators caged for decades.

In return, the Castro brothers give up … well, what? Alan Gross, a political prisoner and persecuted religious minority who shouldn’t have been imprisoned in the first place? A second man who has been in captivity for decades? Thin gruel.

No promise of elections, no declaration of religious freedom, no demilitarization, no opening up of Cuban prisons to international inspection. Not even a pledge that salaries from U.S. companies operating in Cuba at indentured-servitude rates—the minimum wage is $19 a month—will be paid directly to employees rather than passed through the bloated, corrupt, suffocating state.

This isn’t giving away the store. This is giving away the shopping mall, town center, enterprise zone. And it is entirely in character with President Obama’s foreign policy.

In the late summer of 2013 Bashar Assad was caught using chemical weapons against his own people. The president and his secretary of state decried this violation of international norms and pledged, in televised addresses, to punish the Syrian tyrant for wanton slaughter and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The application of deadly force against Assad’s air force and military installations would cripple the regime and hasten the end of a civil war that has taken the lives of some 200,000 Syrians. But suddenly Obama reversed course. He signed on to a Russian proposal to prevent a military strike in exchange for Assad’s "giving up" his barbaric tools.

Today Bashar Assad remains in power, his opposition is divided, he has entered into an alliance of convenience with the medieval Islamic State that governs from Raqaa to Mosul. The weapons? Earlier this month the U.S. government—Barack Obama’s government—accused Syria of ongoing "systematic use" of chemical arms. I repeat: ongoing.

Not only has Obama failed to achieve his stated aims of removing Assad and ending the WMD threat. The situation is more dangerous than it was a year ago because the Islamic State’s menagerie of Saddam loyalists and itinerant holy warriors is securing ground from which to launch attacks on targets throughout the world. Baathist dictators, chemical agents, refugees, Islamic armies are the consequence of this president’s curious mixture of false promises and aggrieved passivity.

Barack Obama threw the Castros a lifeline, rescued Assad. But these monsters are not even the most dangerous of the despots he has enabled. An Iranian nuke would change the strategic equation of the Middle East and thus the world. Not only would Israel be threatened, so would America because of Iran’s past use of terrorist proxies and increasingly sophisticated missile tech. And the threat would increase as Sunni and Turkic nations developed or bought WMD to deter the Persian hegemon.

By the end of last year the economic sanctions passed by Congress over the Obama administration’s objections, as well as the shale energy revolution, had brought the Iranian economy to the brink of collapse. The moment had arrived to rally the West. Demonstrate a credible threat of force—perhaps by crippling Assad’s air defenses—and force the Iranians into a defensive posture.

What did Obama do? He agreed to lift sanctions on Iran, infusing the theocratic economy with billions of dollars, in exchange for entering direct negotiations and a few paltry concessions. The centrifuges kept spinning, Iran cheated on the terms of this incredibly generous interim agreement, Iranian missile development, international terrorism, support for radical Islam, and human rights abuses went on.

Obama said U.S. advocates of sanctions were warmongers. His underlings called Israel’s prime minister a chickenshit. And when the interim deal reached its expiration date, when Iran’s undeterred commitment to achieving nuclear status was obvious to all, when the ayatollah was tweeting his plan to eliminate Israel from the earth, Obama extended the deal and economic relief just so he would not be exposed as a failure.

Not even Iran, however, has invaded its neighbors as unabashedly and aggressively as Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which in less than eight years has annexed parts of Georgia and a critical region of Ukraine. Some 4,300 people have been killed since Putin’s undeclared invasion of eastern Ukraine last spring, not counting the hundreds who died when a pro-Russian missile battery destroyed a civilian airliner.

Obama’s response has been limited to sanctions on Putin and his inner circle. He has not provided the heavy arms necessary to roll back Russian advances in the east, nor has he launched a new Marshall Plan to sustain the economy of free Ukraine until Putin’s illegal war comes to an end. Obama’s idea of military aid is to send MREs.

This week Putin reached an impasse. Changes in the global economy—a strengthening America, plunging commodity prices, spooked foreign investors–have provoked the worst crisis in Russia since the late 1990s. The sanctions Obama has already agreed to will worsen the pain.

This is a point of maximum leverage. A public and generous commitment of financial and military aid to Ukraine, an assertion of U.S. military and ideological might, could expel the Russians from the east and inspire the democratic opposition in Moscow. What will Obama do?

Two words: Blow it. The president has agreed to sign a tough sanctions bill passed unanimously by Congress only because it contains loopholes that will allow him to shirk its harshest and most effective provisions. I do not hear him calling for increased hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, including on federal lands, I have missed his pledge to restore America’s military and rebuild a force to deter the bear, I am betting he won’t expand natural gas exports, or increase the number of military advisers in Kiev, or expel Russia from the G8. Opportunity missed.

Like the Castros, Assad, and the mullahs, Putin is in danger, his grip tenuous, his options narrowing. Lucky for him, lucky for the other bad guys, Putin can count on the American president to bail him out. Forget about standing up for a U.S.-led international order: Obama won’t even respond to North Korea’s act of war against the United States, its cyber-attack on a U.S. film studio that succeeded in limiting free speech from thousands of miles away. And Obama says he’s against bullying!

"Think where man’s glory most begins and ends," wrote Yeats, "And say my glory was I had such friends." Dictators don’t have many friends. But they have Barack Obama.