You’ve got to hand it to President Bush and his people. They had a policy toward Cuba, they knew what they wanted to do, and they made nearly every instrument of U.S. policy fit their aims. It may have had a few faults at the level of basic strategy, beginning with its perception of actual political conditions in Cuba, but it was a serious policy and it was well explained.
President Obama, in contrast, took some positive steps but left much of the Bush approach in place, in some cases without really thinking about it. Exhibit one is Alan Gross, who has now been in jail in Cuba for five years.
Mr. Gross, the hapless businessman contracted to work on USAID democracy programs, traveled to Cuba five times during President Obama’s first year to install hard-to-detect satellite Internet systems with WiFi hotspots.
By all accounts, Obama officials were not aware of his activities, U.S. diplomats in Havana were not aware that he was in town, and they appear not to have been aware of his activities when they made their first consular visit. (A new task needs to be added to the presidential transition manual: Day One – After CIA covert action briefing, get briefed on USAID covert operations too.)
In our first post about Mr. Gross here in December 2009 we called him “Mr. Smith.” Since then, his identity became well known, he was tried and convicted, and Cuba’s version eventually came out, summarized at length here. He gave an interview to CNN in 2012 where he explained what he was doing: “I was contracted by a company in Bethesda, Maryland to bring some off-the-shelf equipment to test to see if it worked in Cuba. I decided that I would at the same time try to improve the computer system within the Jewish community.” The Herald provides more detail here, and everything on this blog about him is here.
With other programs backfiring in Cuba, and with Congressional pressure, USAID seems to have gotten out of the covert operations business in Cuba.
The Alan Gross program was a predictable failure, it ended up a complete waste of money except to the Cuban security services who received some nice satellite equipment, and it has cost an American his liberty for the past five years. But to its political supporters it seems a perfect program. Even a catastrophe such as Mr. Gross’ arrest provides a cudgel with which to bash both governments: Cuba’s for arresting him, and the U.S. government for considering any change in our posture toward Cuba as long as he’s in jail.
That sounds harsh, but how else to interpret the calls from Senator Menendez and other for Gross’ unilateral and unconditional release, and nothing else?
A unilateral release would be wonderful. But in the covert operations business that’s a pie-in-the-sky option when an operative gets caught red-handed, regardless of the virtues we ascribe to his activity. The whole point of operating covertly is to carry out activities that you know the local government opposes, and that can get you arrested.
Bargaining becomes a cost of doing business when an operation goes sour – that is, if you have a sense of responsibility to your own operative. This is an alien concept to USAID, which asserts the completely irrelevant point that Mr. Gross is not an intelligence officer, and which believes that its inherent goodness both allows it to engage in covert operations, and to do so in a way where the rules of that game don’t apply.
The United States sent $53 million in food and medicine to Cuba in 1962 to obtain the release of Cuban Americans captured in the Bay of Pigs invasion. No one complained. Since then there have been other exchanges of prisoners with Cuba, all documented in this fine new book by William LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh. In 2012 the United States paid $4.6 million to Egypt, a country that receives $1 billion in U.S. assistance annually, to obtain the release of 16 Americans carrying out U.S. government democracy programs. No one complained; Senator McCain even visited Egypt to participate in the diplomacy. Last May, the Obama Administration obtained the release of an American soldier by freeing five Taliban prisoners. No one complained, except to insist that the freed Taliban would remain off the battlefield.
No one celebrates concessions such as these; some can even be called unjust, but they are a price paid to free people to which the United States has a sense of responsibility. Even superpowers need to cut their losses now and then.
Mr. Gross no longer receives visits from U.S. diplomats. Presumably he got tired of thanking them for the food and magazines, asking what they are doing to get him out, and hearing nothing in return.
If President Obama has a sense of responsibility to this man who carried out a mission on his watch, he needs to bargain. Those who will complain about costly concessions should have thought about that those costs before they sent our foreign assistance agency bumbling into the covert action business.