Friday, December 13, 2013

“Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Hitler”

Once again, that is what Senator McCain said after the six-second encounter between the President of the United States and the President of Cuba.  Also this: “Why should you shake hands with somebody who’s keeping Americans in prison?  I mean, what’s the point?”

What indeed is the point, when you could travel to such a person’s country (photo above) to talk with him directly, speak gently and diplomatically afterward, oppose cutting more than $1 billion in annual military aid to the government holding 16 Americans while only considering cutting it in the future, and then ultimately acquiesce in sending an additional $5 million in taxpayer money to that government to get the Americans out?

That’s what Senator McCain did after 16 Americans working for government-sponsored institutes (including one he chairs, the International Republican Institute) and other organizations were arrested by the Egyptian government in 2011 when it got fed up with their political work there.

And he complains about a handshake!

I don’t want to dwell on the handshake episode and I certainly don’t want to pick on a leader of my beloved Republican party, although if you go straight to Munich in 1938 to find an analogy for a six-second greeting at a funeral, it’s not a good sign.

Senator McCain has given us a fine example of the nonsense purveyed for so long by both Democrats and Republicans when it comes to policy toward Cuba.  The practices and principles that apply everywhere else are thrown out the window, and we use others that have got us nowhere for 50 years.  But who’s counting?

In the case discussed above, the Egyptian government arrested personnel from organizations that operated openly in Egypt, trying to help democratic development.  McCain’s organization, the International Republican Institute, had submitted registration papers to the Cairo government five years earlier.

Far from punishing Egypt or touching the military aid money, Senator McCain flew to Cairo to engage in direct dialogue with Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Muslim Brotherhood leaders (whom he praised for their “constructive role”), and others.  He left the diplomatic bargaining to the executive branch.  Eventually, the U.S. government paid about $5 million for the Americans’ release.

There are many differences between the Americans arrested in Egypt (one the son of then-transportation secretary Ray LaHood, a Republican) and Alan Gross, the USAID contractor now serving the fifth year of a 15-year sentence in Cuba.  But what matters is what they have in common: they are Americans who faced the prospect of rotting in a foreign jail after getting in trouble carrying out U.S. government programs.

We paid money to get those Americans out of Egypt.  No one liked the payment, but I don’t recall any criticism of it.  It served a greater good.

When it comes to Alan Gross, Senator McCain drags out hoary 1938 analogies, acts as if our manhood is at stake if we negotiate, and urges the President merely to demand Gross’ unconditional release. 

Such an approach would have kept McCain’s people in jail in Cairo, and it is keeping Alan Gross in Havana today.

God help Mr. Gross and his family if President Obama continues to be swayed by such arguments.

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