Obama's Warm Greeting of Castro Sends the Wrong Signal and Dispirits Dissidents

At the memorial service for Nelson Mandela yesterday, President Barack Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raúl Castro and exchanged a few words, and this has caused somewhat of a stir in the media. Sometimes a presidential handshake is just a handshake, but sometimes it is more than that. If the recipient of the handshake is a member of a dynastic tyranny that has been oppressing an entire nation for 54 years, then it is not just a handshake.

Moreover, Obama's handshakes are not just handshakes anymore because he has made a bit of news in the way he greets foreign leaders with his apparent bowing to some (here and here) and his encounter with Hugo Chávez at the United Nations, which some considered overly friendly and jovial given Chávez's invective against the United States. The repeated instances of these rather theatrical greetings provoke speculation. And now that he is keeping his campaign pledge to reach out to our enemies and try to talk them into being peaceful supporters of good order in the world, it is fair to ask what he intends with these greetings when he encounters these types of leaders personally. Is it a signal that he is opening the United States up to them? It is supposed to mean he intends on initiating a new era in U.S. relations with a given country?

It is certainly fair to say, as some in the media have in defending the president, that the president of the United States cannot bypass Castro on his way to his seat, greeting everyone but Castro. It would be rude, detract from the decorum of the ceremony, and make himself the object of attention rather than the great man who has departed this world. But I don't think this is the reason Obama greeted Castro. First, he has little to fear from the media criticizing him for not showing much warmth for Castro; they have a habit of going out of their way to protect him. And after all, a little while later Obama was seen taking a "selfie" with the British and Danish prime ministers. Decorum was not at the top of the list of concerns apparently.

So we are not out of line in closely examining this event and trying to interpret what the president might be telling the world. Watching the footage, I see the president bound up the steps and go straight to Raul Castro and appear to very intentionally greet him (again with somewhat of a bow, though Castro is considerably shorter than the president). It is not a polite but quick handshake; rather, they exchange words, twice it seems. That is, the president appears to initiate the greeting and is speaking to Castro as he approaches him. As they are clasping hands for a few seconds, Castro responds, then the president speaks again, and then Castro once more. Finally, the president moves on to the Brazilian president.

So, we can ask, why didn't the president, if decorum required a handshake, simply make it quick and offer little or no talk at all? He could have made rather a show of grasping lightly and quickly the bloodied hand of a dictator and then moving on with some flair to President Dilma Rousseff. That would have prevented anyone from saying he was rude while at the same time sending a signal that the leader of the United States doesn't have any warm words and embraces for those who torture, kill, and abuse their citizens for political reasons.

It is fair to suggest that Obama wanted Castro, the world, and both Democrats and Republicans back home who don't share his rosy view of the potential for a thaw in U.S. relations with the Castros to know that the president is going to change U.S. posture and treat Castro like he has treated Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. If this is so, and it is a legitimate speculation, then we are probably in for a new round of cozying up to tyrants, this time in Cuba, while the dissidents in the jails and their families who go without food rations or government services continue to suffer. To their misery is now added insult at the hands of the leader who should be their greatest champion. Should we expect in the not too distant future an invitation to tea at the White House for Kim Jong Un?

Some insist that the president's line in his speech about those who don't practice Mandela's famous tolerance for his critics is evidence that the president was telling off Castro and other dictators. I can't buy it. I'm glad he said that, of course, but it would have been much more effective if he'd not shown such deference and warmth toward someone so deserving of that rebuke. The sting of the rebuke is made weaker by the gesture. Yes, gestures mean a lot. A phone call to the leader of a threshold nuclear power followed by a total reversal of U.S. opposition to a nuclear-armed Iran does not show America's resolve toward its enemies, nor does it comfort the victims of those enemies. And it certainly doesn't comfort allies such as the Saudis and the Israelis to name only a few.

Obama is convinced that his personality along with his strategy of reaching out will change the hearts and minds of brutal dictators who have gotten power and kept it by killing and oppressing whomever they have to. He is wrong, as Rouhani, Kim, Mohamed Morsy, and Bashar al-Assad have demonstrated, and now probably Castro will have a chance to prove it too.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Weekend in Bali -- Celebrating a WTO Deal

Dan Drezner gets enthused about the last-minute trade pact struck over the weekend in Bali, Indonesia, between World Trade Organization negotiators -- and rightly so. The WTO has been pushing toward a deal since the "Doha Development Agenda" launched in 2001.

The pact that emerged over the weekend covered a sliver of the original ambition. Media sources are running with an estimate of $1 trillion as the value of the deal. That's plausible, but by no means certain. The centerpiece of the accord is an agreement on "trade facilitation" -- making it easier to move goods across borders. Delays in the processing of imports and exports can be as costly as or even more costly than tariffs. The catch is that procedural reforms to expedite trade can be costly. Developing countries have complained in the past about undertaking such reforms without compensation. There will be more questions about details and implementation than there would be with a good old-fashioned tariff cut.

That said, this still qualifies as a Bidenian BFD. The World Trade Organization had not struck a broad, significant agreement since the conclusion of Uruguay Round talks almost two decades ago. That experience has been wildly different from the vision some had held of a quasi-legislative body meeting regularly to craft new trade rules.

One of the early problems that emerged with WTO negotiations was that there were an awful lot of "veto players." In 2003, at what was supposed to be a midterm assessment of the Doha negotiations, the ministerial meeting in Cancún ground to a halt when West African cotton producers demanded recompense for the harm done by cotton subsidies. In 2008, at the last serious effort to conclude the Doha Round, the talks fell apart when India, and then China, demanded a special agricultural safeguard that would have them raise levels of protection. That pattern of some subset of the 159 member countries blocking a deal looked set to repeat late last week, when Cuba demanded action on the U.S. trade embargo.

Roberto Azevedo, the WTO's new director-general, deserves immense credit for crafting a compromise. It is vital for the institution that it be able to function as a negotiating body. U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman suggested at one earlier point that, in the absence of a deal, the WTO would at least be able to serve as an impartial arbiter of disputes. In fact, there are strong reasons to think that this ability would decay in the absence of legislative progress. First, the rules the WTO would be enforcing would start to look time-worn (already two decades old) without new agreements. Second, there is the persistent question of why large, strong countries should ever give in to judgments in favor of small, weak ones. In the absence of any WTO army or marshal service, and with small countries constrained in their ability to retaliate, large countries will only comply if they feel the need to maintain their "good standing" at the organization. They will only feel that way if the WTO proves itself useful as a negotiating body.

So the bargain at Bali preserves the viability of the WTO. If we want to be wildly optimistic, we can envision a series of such deals that, combined, would begin to address the range of issues originally placed on the Doha agenda -- or new issues, such as data privacy. If participants expect a rapid succession of deals, they may be less likely to demand precise balance of gains in each one, which would certainly make them easier to conclude.

Beyond wild optimism, however, lies fantasy. Here we imagine that the Bali deal reveals the magic of trade liberalization and that, as at the end of a cheap musical, former antagonists embrace and join each other in song. This is a slightly exaggerated description of what Drezner describes as "the surprising forward momentum on trade liberalization." He cites the near passage of trade promotion authority (TPA). In fact, a TPA bill has yet to be introduced. There were rumors last week that a deal may be close, but there have been rumors like that since June. One of the distinctive features of the Bali deal is that, according to Office of the United States Trade Representative, it does not need to be submitted to Congress. That makes it vastly easier than TPA, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and the (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) TTIP, on which there are serious fractures in Congress over issues such as intellectual property protection and regulation of labor and the environment.

Agreements are much easier to reach if the participants can just scale back their ambitions and declare victory. It was necessary and important to do that in Bali. WTO deals are designed to be partial, with leftover issues picked up at a later date. Big free trade agreement deals such as the TTIP or the TPP are designed to be one-offs (or at least infrequent); any move to scale back ambition will leave someone feeling seriously jilted.

Fortunately or unfortunately, there is no need to speculate on the "momentum" effects of Bali. U.S. trade negotiators went from Bali to Singapore, where TPP talks were supposed to conclude. On the home front, this week is likely the last for action by both houses of Congress this year. We will soon know the results.

Photo: ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images. Balinese dancers perform a kecak dance on Dec. 5, 2013, during the gala dinner of the WTO's ninth ministerial conference.