American Retreat

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The year 2014 has been marked by so many reversals to U.S. interests around the globe that it comes as little surprise that December should bring additional retreats. It is nonetheless stunning that so many American principles could be surrendered in just the few hours that passed between President Barack Obama’s Dec. 17 announcement of his prisoner swap with the government of Cuba and Sony Pictures Entertainment's decision to pull "The Interview" in response to North Korea's threats.

The most basic American principle compromised by Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba is our commitment to standing with the men and women around the world who struggle to be free. Obama has offered the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raul, what the Washington Post editorial board has called an “undeserved bailout,” in exchange for no liberalization at home, in a year in which Havanahas jailed political dissidents at a higher rate than the recent past, including more than 100 just a week ago on International Human Rights Day.

As Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said in response to the president’s announcement, this opening rewards the Castro brothers’ “brutal behavior.” Or as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., wrote, “Mr. Obama’s new Cuba policy is a victory for oppressive governments the world over and will have real, negative consequences for the American people.”

The immediate danger that Obama’s shift poses to the American people is a result of a second principle that he has undermined. Although the White House insists that the United States did not trade three Cuban spies for the release of Alan Gross – who was arrested in Cuba as a contractor to the U.S. Agency for International Development – it is evident that the United States has again cut a deal to secure the release of an American hostage.

The president’s action may prove to be an invitation to other rogues to seize American hostages as bargaining chips. And because Obama paired the prisoner swap with his decision to normalize relations with Cuba, he has created the impression that the Castro brothers achieved the collapse of a decades-long American policy simply through their brutal detention of one American.

The manner in which the president reversed course on Cuba also challenges a principle of America’s federal system of government, in which the Congress and presidents have together established American policy toward the island, including through the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 and the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996. The administration’s unilateral action will certainlyexacerbate concerns from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific, as the world wonders whether Obama will continue to ignore Congress’ role in foreign policy.

Just hours after the president compromised all these principles of American policy, the West Coast made its own contribution to the United States’ retreat when Sony Pictures announced that it would capitulate to the demands of the “Guardians of Peace” hackers and cancel the release of “The Interview.” (On Friday, the FBI confirmed that the North Korean government was responsible for the Sony attack.)

In the weeks leading up to Sony Pictures’ decision, the American press has been titillated by the North Korean hackers' trove of scandalous leaks, which ranged from revelations that a Sony executive and a producer made racist jokes about Obama to the latest James Bond film script. Obscured by the frenzied media coverage was the fact that the United States was decidedly losing its first cyber war.

By the time that North Korea threatened 9/11-style attacks against any theaters that premiered the film, a number of theater chains decided not to show the film, leading Sony Pictures to pull it altogether. North Korea has chalked up victory in this war, while the United States has lost, and all Americans' freedom of expression has been undermined.

The Obama administration has now concluded that North Korea is behind the Sony Pictures hack, but is now debating how to respond. One modest suggestion – in light of Pyongyang’s latest terror threat against the American homeland, continued violence against its own people and its neighbors and ongoing military cooperation with other rogue states like Cuba – re-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism.

America’s retreat from its principles this week may just be the closing chapter of the annus horribilis that visited the world in 2014. Little will likely be done in the closing days of the year to reassure America’s friends that Washington still knows the difference between them and our enemies or to respond meaningfully to Pyongyang’s triumph over our own freedoms at home. That task will await Americans, the president and the new Congress in 2015. 


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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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