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Obama’s Cuban Breakthrough

MADRID – Too frequently, leaders become hostages, rather than shapers, of their sociopolitical environment. Too seldom does the world see history-changing steps like Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1972 or Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977.

That is why conflicts like that between Cuba and the United States persist for so long. For more than a half-century, no US president was willing to pay the political price for admitting failure and resuming diplomatic relations with the island. But, as his tenure enters the home stretch, Barack Obama seems to have been released from such constraints.

A US president can challenge political constraints only by taking on powerful lobbies. President Jimmy Carter’s success in mediating the Israeli-Egyptian peace settlement, and his bold call for a “Palestinian homeland” (making him the first US president to do so), had much to do with him being deaf to Jewish voices and organizations. Likewise, President George H.W. Bush could not have dragged the recalcitrant Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to the Madrid Peace Conference in October 1991 had he not been willing to take on what he described as “some powerful political forces” made up of “a thousand lobbyists on the Hill.”

Obama is no stranger to pressure – and opposition – from interest groups. But, with the end of his presidency in view, he finally seems to recognize that securing his legacy requires overcoming not just interest groups, but the structure of interest-group politics in America. He is now at loggerheads with the Republican congressional majority over his landmark climate-change agreement with China and his controversial amnesty plan for illegal immigrants.