December 18, 2014 | Forbes
Historic Day for Washington, Havana…and Pyongyang’s Hackers
On a day when hackers working for North Korea managed to shut down the release of an American movie, on American soil, by threatening terrorist attacks on American theaters, one might have supposed that a televised announcement from President Obama would have been all about measures to deter and punish North Korea. At the very least, Obama might have proposed putting North Korea back on the U.S. list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, from which it was removed in 2008 by the Bush administration in a desperate bid to salvage a rotten nuclear deal.
But no. On Wednesday, when Obama spoke to the nation, he made no mention of North Korea’s ruinous cyber attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment, or the terrorist threats directed by the hackers at American cinemas (“Remember the 11th of September, 2001” they wrote; “If your house is nearby, you’d better leave”).
Instead, Obama announced he was correcting decades of “outdated” and “failed” U.S. policy, by taking steps to recognize Cuba. Following a swap of prisoners, including Cuba’s release of U.S. aid worker Alan Gross — who should never have been jailed by Cuba to begin with — Obama said he will normalize ties with the Castro dictatorship, open an embassy in Havana, send high-ranking officials to Cuba, pursue an end to the U.S. embargo and take Cuba off the list of terror-sponsoring states.
More than half a century after Cuba’s communist revolution, these steps are, as a White House fact sheet notes, “historic.” That does not mean they are steps in the right direction. They are historic concessions to a despotic Castro regime that is no friend to the U.S., and which appears to have conceded nothing in the way of internal reform of its brutal one-party rule, or its allegiances to regimes deeply hostile to the U.S., such as the cyber-thugs of North Korea.
While Obama was delivering his historic announcement in Washington, Cuba’s President Raul Castro, brother of Fidel, was delivering his own statement in Havana. Carried by Cuba’s Granma propaganda agency, the official voice of the central committee of the Communist Party of Cuba, Castro’s statement, in English translation, included a promise to deal with the U.S. “without renouncing any of our principles.”
These would be the Castro principles that have earned Cuba its ranking by Washington-based Freedom House as “Not Free’; a corruption-riddled country in which the Castro-dominated Communist Party bestrides the media, systematically harasses, assaults and imprisons dissidents and “controls all government and most civil institutions.” These would also the be principles that have earned the Castro regime its busy partnerships with such regional thug states as Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, as well as a seat at the table of such aggressive despotisms as Russia, Iran and North Korea.
Just last year, Cuba was caught red-handed in a massive arms-smuggling caper with North Korea, in which a North Korean freighter called the Chong Chon Gang tried to transit the Panama Canal while carrying some 240 tons of weapons from Cuba, hidden under more than 200,000 bags of Cuban sugar. The illicit cargo, loaded secretly in Cuba in violation of United Nations sanctions on North Korea, included such items as surface-to-air missile system components, night vision goggles, ammunition and two disassembled MiG-21 jet fighters.
Cuba’s global allegiances can be broadly gleaned from its voting record in the U.N. General Assembly, where it serves variously as mascot, mentor and mouthpiece for assorted groupings of the world’s worst tyrannies, in opposition to America. According to U.S. State Department data, Cuba’s record of voting with the U.S. on important General Assembly resolutions has declined from a coincidence of 10% during the first two years of the Obama administration, to 0% in 2011, 2012 and 2013. In a General Assembly committee vote last month, in which a huge majority approved a resolution aimed at holding North Korea’s totalitarian leadership responsible for its monstrous human rights abuses, Cuba was one of the 19 countries that voted in North Korea’s favor. Among its comrades in North Korea’s court were Russia, China, Iran, Belarus, Venezuela, Vietnam, Zimbabwe and of course North Korea itself.
There’s an argument to be made that by normalizing ties with Havana and lifting the embargo, the U.S. might pry Cuba’s regime away from these bad influences and help clear the way to democratic rule. That’s the vision Obama offered on Thursday, as he detailed his plans to establish ties with the Castro regime and lift restrictions on the flow of people, money and information between the U.S. and Cuba. His aim, he said, is to “support the Cuban people and promote our values through engagement.”
That might be a more persuasive picture had Obama amassed a record as a stalwart leader of the free world, unlikely to tolerate abuse of this arrangement by the Castro regime. But Obama’s record does not suggest that. On the contrary, he was speaking on a day when under his leadership America’s own freedom was under an extraordinary assault, in which he showed no sign of interest. North Korea was completing its own historic step of censoring free speech on American turf, by way of sabotaging a comic movie, “The Interview,” which mocks North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un.
North Korea managed this feat via the cyber-savaging for weeks of the Hollywood company that made the movie, Sony Pictures Entertainment. Hackers infiltrated Sony’s computer network and leaked its private records in massive data dumps online, while North Korea publicly denied any involvement. Ultimately, the hackers threatened anyone who might dare go near a theater showing “The Interview.”
Only after Sony and assorted American theater chains had been terrorized into scrapping plans for a nation-wide Christmas Day release of “The Interview” did word start leaking out from anonymous Obama administration officials that they had concluded North Korea had ordered the attacks. Apparently they had reached that conclusion at least some days earlier, but done nothing about it. According to The New York Times, anonymous administration officials describe a scene in which “it was not clear how the White House would decide to respond to North Korea.” According to The Wall Street Journal, a debate had been going on within the administration for days over “when and how” to finger North Korea, because it “raises the difficult question of how the U.S. should respond to an aggressive act by a foreign government.”
This is not a scene likely to command the respect of Castro, or any of his despotic global bedfellows. It’s yet another sign of a U.S. administration too often averse to protecting America’s values and interests, bereft in its foreign policy of a sound strategy, confounded by the resulting failures and oddly indifferent to the damage. Almost six years into Obama’s presidency, opportunists around the globe have understood this, and are on the move. Russia had a deep guffaw over the mislabeled “reset” button, humiliated Obama last year over his vanishing “red line” in Syria, and this year invaded Ukraine. The hard won gains in Iraq have been squandered, and the prospects in Afghanistan are grim. The ISIS terrorists, whom Obama dismissed well into their rise as being merely the “JV team,” have been beheading Americans on video and mass-murdering their way toward a caliphate.
The list goes on. Iran has translated an interim agreement for six months at the nuclear bargaining table into a 19-month extravaganza in which it is enjoying substantial relief from sanctions without abandoning its routes to the nuclear bomb. China is building up its military and bullying its neighbors. Libya, inspirational birthplace of the U.S. policy of “leading from behind,” has been left to the mercies of terrorist militias. The Palestinians are enroute via the UN to bypass their promise to negotiate peace in good faith with Israel, which on Obama’s watch has had to fight two hot wars against Hamas terrorist attacks out of Gaza, and faces growing threats from Iran and its Hezbollah terrorist clients in Lebanon. And North Korea, in addition to its expanding cyber ventures, and its weapons trafficking, has expanded its illicit uranium enrichment facilities, reopened its plutonium-producing nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, carried out its third nuclear test last year, and is now threatening to conduct a fourth.
This is the context in which Obama evidently decided on Wednesday that it was a higher priority to announce his embrace of Cuba’s Raul Castro than to forthrightly inform the American people that it was North Korea behind the hack attack on Sony and the terror threats against U.S. movie theaters — or explain what he plans to do about it. In Moscow, Beijing and Tehran, they must be watching in awe. It’s not every day an American president hits a grand slam — for the wrong team.
Ms. Rosett is journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.