Vas Bien, Fidel

fidelAmerican satirist Mort Sahl once said, “If you maintain a consistent political position long enough, you’ll eventually be accused of treason.”  Nothing demonstrates this more completely than the life and death of Fidel Castro.  Once the darling of the political left, Fidel, dashing revolutionary, somehow, somewhere, turned into Castro, a particularly dickie brand of dictator, universally admonished.  Obviously, our times they are a’changin’, but unlike other relics of the 1960s, Castro didn’t change with them.  He might have been the last — and possibly the greatest — Cold War warrior, but here, in the 21st century there’s no room for Fidel because all we want to see is Castro.  How the mighty have fallen.

The truth is Fidel was not an economist, a philosopher or a social engineer.  He was a politician — an excellent politician.  He stayed in power longer than any other leader in the 20th century.  He outlasted Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev and Yeltsin.  He survived the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War and refused to take part in the surrender.  He out-maneuvered 10 American presidents bent on his destruction until finally, admitting defeat, Barack Obama journeyed to Castro’s capital, Havana, to say all is forgiven.  Like him or not, Fidel was good at what he did.  And what he did was power and this is how he did it.

It’s quite complicated, but here’s the decaffeinated version.

When Fidel took power in Cuba in 1959, he had one simple choice.  He could become just another petty dictator with a gaudy uniform and a big hat, one of many Caribbean client states in the American empire.  Or, he could become the Numero Uno, head-of-the-class, resident, revolutionary badass of the Soviet empire.  The fact is it wasn’t ideology that motivated Fidel Castro’s decision; it was power.  He knew that, without power, he was just another left-leaning Latino politician.  But he also knew that if he was a bona fide pain in the ass to the U.S. of A., the Soviet Politburo would bend over backwards to keep him in power.  On the other hand, the American Congress might back him for a while, but they were just as likely to throw him under the bus if some other smart Cuban started whispering “democracy” in their ear.  After all, they’d done it before — with a guy called Batista.

Fidel chose badass.

Suddenly, Cuba, a tiny nation whose only claim to fame was the Cha-Cha, the Mambo and Lucille Ball’s husband Desi, was taken seriously in every world capital east (and west) of Washington DC.  When Fidel spoke, people listened.  And, he and his buddy Che became the poster boys for an entire generation of wannabe revolutionaries.  You can still buy the T-shirts, anywhere in the world.  So, call him Fidel or Castro or whatever you like but does anybody remember who was running the show in Guatemala or Honduras or the Dominican Republic in 1959?  I don’t think so.

The State Department: Who’s Running the Show?

I hate to complain, but, seriously, who’s running American foreign policy these days?  Scooby Doo?  It’s common knowledge that Hillary is going home in January to run for president, but as lame ducks go, she’s lamer than most.  And where is the heir apparent?  Nobody’s going to convince me that Susan Rice’s duties at the UN are keeping her from voicing an opinion now and then.  I know she prefers a low profile, but how much time does it take to sit there and get insulted?  It’s becoming obvious to everybody from Beijing to Benghazi that the ship of state down at the State Department doesn’t have a captain — or a first mate, for that matter.

There was a time when American foreign policy was so successful it was universally hated, kinda like the New York Yankees.  It fought a World War, a Cold War, several itty bitty hot ones, managed to keep its friends from killing each other and kept its enemies at bay.  Even in the dark days of Henry the K and Barbara Walters, American diplomacy had a purpose and, like it or not, Pax Americana worked.  Better hurry, boys, ‘cause that boat’s about to sail.

I realize that there’s a new reality in the world.  Omnipotence is not all it’s cracked up to be, and gargantuan power is useless unless you can fake the other guy into thinking you’ll use it.  The problem is nobody’s even worried about the bluff anymore.  To continue the analogy, America is still sitting there with Aces over Kings, but every penny ante wannabe with Jack high is rushing the table to go “All In.”  The rationale is somebody’s going to get an easy pot when the boys and girls from Foggy Bottom fold.

Objectively, I don’t blame the folks from Katphoodistan for challenging American power.  After all, what have they got to lose?  The only thing Obama’s going to launch these days is his teleprompter.  My problem is America is giving away the diplomatic farm.  That’s not a good idea.  As the United States’ most cautious neighbour, I really don’t want a bunch of international adventurers thinking that Barak isn’t keeping his bayonets sharp.  Frankly, anti-Americanism is a low-impact parlour game for the people who believe that without the Great Satan, everybody on earth would suddenly get a rainbow.  Me?  I’m a little bit less Pollyanna than that.  There are bad people in this world, and when push comes to shove, I don’t want to have to prove I can defend myself.  I find it quite a bit more to my taste (as most people west of the Vistula do) to sit on the sidelines and rely on the kids from Kansas and Nebraska to stand up and take the hit.  And that’s the bigger problem.

Power, real power, is not based on what you do; it’s based on what you’re willing to do.  As more and more people think the United States is not willing to do anything to … Oh, I don’t know … make sure a bunch of fascist fundamentalists from the 8th century don’t develop nuclear weapons and turn Tel Aviv into a glow-in-the-dark Mediterranean night light — the more likely it is that somebody’s going to get hurt.  America’s indecision and inability to figure out where its national interest lies is inadvertently telling the world it’s in retreat from the international stage.  More than a few folks out there are willing to take the risk to fill the void. In fact, every time America steps away from its allies (Britain, Israel, South Korea, Japan — and the list goes on) every time American diplomats fear for their safety; every time some pumped-up potentate gets a mixed message about American intentions; those emboldened few lurch us a little closer to somebody doing something stupid.  And I’m not even necessarily talking about the bad guys!  When that happens, as history has shown us, a whole lot of people are going to have to clean up the mess.

America needs to remember that deterrent is not action.  (That’s after the fact.)  Deterrent is reputation and without a reputation, there is no deterrent.