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Why Fear Castro?

April 27, 2000

Bill Clinton’s puzzling eagerness to accommodate Fidel Castro in the matter of Elián Gonzalez is reminiscent of Franklin Roosevelt’s fawning on Joseph Stalin during World War II. The stakes are vastly different — a six-year-old boy as opposed to the fate of a continent — but there are interesting parallels as well as contrasts.

Roosevelt saw Stalin, one of history’s supreme tyrants, as an enlightened ruler who could be trusted to dominate Europe humanely after the war. He affectionately called him “Uncle Joe” and avoided stressing any issue that might antagonize him. Far from seeing the Soviet Union as a barbaric empire opposed to everything America represented, he saw it as America’s partner in ensuring a lasting global peace — unlike the British Empire, which he regarded as a reactionary relic.

At the Tehran Conference of 1943 and the Yalta Conference of 1945, Roosevelt overrode and humiliated the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, in order to curry favor with Stalin. He accepted Stalin’s word that Poland, under Soviet supervision, would enjoy free democratic elections. Churchill bore plenty of blame for the Allies’ disgraceful and disastrous partnership with Stalin, but he had enough sense to be terrified of Soviet hegemony in Europe; Roosevelt ridiculed and ignored his anxieties.

[Breaker quote: 
Clinton's strange deference]Roosevelt was surrounded by Soviet agents, including Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, and others, possibly including his chief confidant, Harry Hopkins, but he was no Communist himself. He was merely a self-deluded autocrat who saw Stalin as a kindred spirit, a well- meaning and reliable ally. Whatever Stalin wanted, he felt, was reasonable enough. Above all, he strove to avoid antagonizing the Soviet tyrant, who intimidated him in their personal encounters. He really thought that if he could charm Stalin and earn his affection, all would be well. In the words of one observer at the time, Roosevelt was “in a state of infatuated hallucination regarding the virgin purity of Marshal Stalin’s motives.”

For his part, Stalin was more hard-headed in his negotiations. He never allowed personal warmth (if he had any) to influence his decisions. He didn’t want friendship. He wanted Europe. And thanks to Roosevelt, he got an enormous share of it. Churchill’s desperate attempts to hold the Soviets back came far too late. Roosevelt’s sudden death in April 1945 providentially saved Western Europe.

Bill Clinton, like Roosevelt, is no Communist, merely a politician of considerable skill and considerable cynicism. Also like Roosevelt, he has proved himself a master of amassing executive power beyond all constitutional bounds.

Castro no longer poses any threat to the United States or any other country — certainly nothing like that of the enormous Soviet Empire under Stalin. But he seems to have a strange power to intimidate Clinton. Weak as he is, he won’t concede an inch. He insists that Cuba owns all rights to Elián Gonzalez — without any prattle about “father’s rights.”

Some veteran Clinton-watchers think that he can menace Clinton with the kind of refugee influx that helped defeat Clinton in his 1980 reelection bid as governor of Arkansas; or at least that Clinton fears a repetition of that episode. That seems far-fetched. Clinton’s political career is nearly over, and nothing Castro does could much affect the fate of Clinton’s protégé, Al Gore, this year.

Others think Clinton merely craves normal relations with Cuba and doesn’t want to anger Castro further. But he is cunning enough to see that Castro needs him far more than he needs Castro, though you’d never know it by watching the two men.

Whatever the reason, Clinton doesn’t dare antagonize Castro. He doesn’t mention “freedom” or “Communism,” doesn’t contrast American liberty with Cuban totalitarianism, doesn’t challenge Castro’s right to the moral high ground in the dispute over the little boy. As head of the world’s most powerful government, he behaves as if he were dealing from weakness, as eager to appease Castro as if his own fate were in Castro’s hands.

But in contrast to Roosevelt’s fulsome idealization of Stalin, Clinton doesn’t praise Castro. He simply acts as if the Cuban dictator weren’t there, even as he labors to enact Castro’s will.

Why? Does Castro have something on Clinton? Is our president being blackmailed? Or is it simply a matter of Clinton’s profound crassness? There is more to this situation than meets the eye.

Joseph Sobran

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