WASHINGTON (AP) – President Barack Obama has been criticised as cautious on foreign policy, but the secret negotiations on Cuba suggest willingness for bold and risky action, if he can keep tight control and rely on a few close aides.
It’s a pattern Obama followed during clandestine talks with Iran that led to an interim nuclear deal and in under-the-radar discussions with China on a climate change agreement announced last month.
Such diplomatic breakthroughs have buoyed Obama and may help counter charges that his responses to other international matters, including the rise of Islamic State militants and Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, are weak and ineffective.
“Around the world, America is leading,” Obama said Friday in a year-end news conference. The president cited the announcement that he was normalising diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than five decades of Cold War acrimony with the communist island nation and “turning a new page in our relationship with the Cuban people.”
The secret talks with Cuba, like the negotiations with Iran and China, were carried out by a small number of officials who slipped in and out of Washington.
The Iran talks were handled by State Department officials William Burns and Jake Sullivan, who have since left the administration. The point person on China was White House counselor John Podesta. Leading the Cuba mission from the White House were deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes and senior Latin America adviser Ricardo Zuniga, who met with Cuban officials nine times in Canada and at the Vatican.
In each instance, the advisers’ close proximity to the president was intended to send a message to their counterparts that they were negotiating with Obama’s full authority.
The overtures to Iran and Cuba were gambles for Obama. The US was negotiating with two countries with whom it had not had diplomatic relations in decades. Leaks about the talks could have undermined what little trust there was on either side.
In opening a direct channel with Iran, Obama also risked angering Israel, which sees the Islamic Republic and its pursuit of a nuclear weapon as an existential threat. In shifting course on Cuba, the president risked antagonising congressional Republicans and a few Democrats, though his new position largely puts the US in line with how the rest of the world deals with the small island just 90 miles (145 kilometres) off US shores.