Growing up with roots in Africa, Indonesia and the heartland of America, Barack Obama was raised to take a broader view of what it means to be American—and what our role should be beyond our borders. Critics have used his multicultural heritage as fodder since his early days in office. And while his inner circle contends that there’s no such thing as an Obama Doctrine, the president has certainly taken his personal legacy and parlayed it into a unique world view.
There is not a doubt that having spent time outside of the United States when I was a kid gives me an appreciation of how big the world is, how complicated it is, the degree to which people around the world appreciate America and what it’s done but also see some of the unintended consequences of our actions, in ways we don’t always see.
He does fashion himself a citizen of the world. We’re a more closely connected planet and it’s clear that people want America to lead. They just want us to lead in a little bit more responsible, respectful way.
He has a worldview that few leaders have ever had. In many ways, I think back to the founders and the early presidents, people who spent lots of time abroad, thinking about philosophy and thinking about and engaging with other parts of the world. His childhood and his natural curiosity gives him that kind of perspective. A lot of Americans see this as a negative or have used it to question him.
They forget that those people…Hamilton and Jefferson and Adams and others…spent a lot of time thinking about and engaging and traveling abroad. They were deep intellectuals. If we believe in the majesty of the founders, why don’t we respect those same qualities in the 44th President of the United States?
What’s important to understand is that President Obama has a very well-defined world view. If you look at the things he has done as president, they very much reflect the priorities he brought into office. He came into office knowing he wanted to pursue diplomacy with Iran. He came into office knowing he wanted to change Cuba policy. He came into office knowing that he wanted to try to shape an international climate agreement.
We don’t speak in terms of an Obama doctrine. It’s overly simplistic. There’s no one size fits all, cookie cutter view that one can apply to the complex world in which we’re living.
He wasn’t infected by all the barnacles of conventional wisdom around foreign policy. He’s willing to step back and look at the world the way it is, so obviously trying to pivot and spend more time on Asia, to have a real focus on Africa. [But] he started with core principles: Number one is to keep the American people safe.
One of the most important lines in the 2009 Inaugural Address was when the president said, “If you unclench your fist, we will extend our hand.” It’s a very controversial line. That has been his fundamental approach, laid down in 2007, [about] how he would interact with the world, what kind of a global leader he would be. And even with that, people were taken aback when we engaged in discussions with Iran, when we announced the start of a diplomatic path with Cuba.
He restored a sense of diplomacy as an important tool in American foreign policy. It had been degraded in the previous eight years. A reflection of that was the agreement with Iran, which pulled them back from the abyss. They were two months from developing nuclear weapons, which would have precipitated a war.
When I came into office, America had lower rankings in terms of world esteem than any time in recent memory. I think we were just about on par with the Russians and had fallen behind the Chinese in terms of world public opinion. And over the course of eight years, we’ve reversed that…to the point where around the globe people clearly view us as not only the most powerful country on earth and the most economically successful on earth but opinions about America have gone up just about everywhere.
He challenged the conventional way of thinking in both parties. Don’t forget, he was criticized by his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and vice president, Joe Biden, for saying he’d be willing to engage in diplomacy with Iran and North Korea. And he’s walked the walk there and that takes a lot of strength. I think this is where the outsider in him is one of the reasons he was able to do that.
We allowed ourselves to look for the opportunities in the world. So that allowed us to focus on Asia, to focus on climate change, to pursue a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue. It allowed us to focus on Latin America through the Cuba opening. That fundamental effort to address the threat of terrorism without having it be the sole driver of American foreign policy, while looking for these opportunities in the world—that has been the real shift.
I think foreign policy has been redefined in the context of personal diplomacy, economic diplomacy, a more reasoned and, I think, humbled diplomacy that’s prepared to listen to people and build coalitions to get things done and not necessarily respond in a knee jerk pugilistic way, but rather to try to bring people to the table and negotiate.
He’s also been more willing to challenge long-standing taboos. We can have an opening to Burma. We can have outreach to Cuba. We can have a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue. That forced us to touch a lot of third rails in the foreign policy establishment but frankly, that’s where our best successes have come.
We are more engaged in more places simultaneously on more issues of consequence with more positive outcomes than at any time in American history…We’ve seen the Iran agreement. We’ve seen the Paris agreement on climate change. We’ve seen Cuba policy change. We’ve seen chemical weapons be taken out of Syria. We’ve literally defeated a terrible potential global disease in Ebola, where we brought people to the table and beat all the predictions of millions of people dying. There are many, many ways in which our engagement around the world has allowed President Obama to redefine America.
I look at the foreign policy of an FDR but also a Dwight Eisenhower, a Harry Truman or a JFK. but also a George H. W. Bush. What I’ve seen is that where we combine our idealism, our belief in core values and human rights and democracy and human dignity, when we combine that with some hard-headed realism about where we can make a difference and where we can’t, and we don’t overextend ourselves, and we have some realistic notions about how even a great super power like ours can move events in far-off lands. That’s when our foreign policy works best.
He’s a figure who evokes so much hope and expectation around the world. There are speeches he gives that get almost no attention here that last forever in these places. I remember we gave a speech in Ghana in his first year about what Africa needs to do. There’s not a time when I meet with young African leaders that they quote lines back to me from that speech. They literally study it.
His approach on global development, his outreach to countries…in Africa with the Young African Leaders Initiative, with the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative—these are profoundly important initiatives, which are having a huge impact on young people’s potential to affect their governments, their countries, and be able to play a role in the future. In many ways, his younger leaders initiatives around the world may be one of the most powerful pieces of his legacy.
Look at the president’s poll numbers outside of the U.S.—in most countries, they’re stratospheric.
The love that he gets around the world, I'm struck by the fact that it is unconditional. They just seem to love him. At home, it’s much more complicated.
It’s a pet peeve of mine, but there’s this kind of meme here that we’re less respected in the world, or something. There’s nothing that demonstrates that. Every public opinion poll, every world leader interaction, every crowd that amasses in the countries he visits, says exactly the opposite. That’s going to go away when Barack Obama is not president anymore. And we’re going to miss that.
A New Beginning. That’s the title of Barack Obama’s now famous speech at Egypt’s Cairo University on June 4, 2009. And indeed, the words uttered by an American president with the middle name Hussein and Muslim relatives in his father’s family marked an abrupt shift in tone toward the Middle East and the Muslim world.
President Obama’s speech in Cairo was a complete re-envisioning of the United States’ perception of the Arab and Muslim world and our relationship to it. He talked about our interest in a Muslim world that was prosperous, that was growing, that was increasingly democratic, that utilized technology, that educated its women, that envisioned a role for all members of society. It was a revolutionary concept.
We decided to go to Cairo because it was the most difficult possible place to give that speech. There was actually some discussion of going to Indonesia because it’s a modern pluralistic Muslim country. It’s a democracy and that could show how we believe that Islam is compatible with modernity. But we felt that for [the speech] to be credible we needed to go right into the heart of the region where all these challenges were boiling.
We were working on it in the motorcade to the meeting with President Mubarak in Egypt; we didn't send the final speech until about an hour before. You want to make sure you’re striking the right balance, particularly where we’re both challenging the
audience but also challenging ourselves and our own assumptions.
As U.N. Ambassador, I hosted the Arab and Muslim ambassadors in our residence [in New York City] to watch that speech and it was an unusual event by any stretch. At that time, the United States was viewed with great suspicion, if not hostility, throughout much of the Arab world. And it was incredible to watch them watch the speech with rapt attention. And the ambassador of one country that I won’t name, which was and is hostile to the United States, came up to me and whispered in my ear, “Thank God for your president”, which was rather stunning. It’s not Iran, by the way. It was indicative of the world’s eagerness to embrace a new form of American leadership and this president, in particular.
There was a great hope in the Arab community about what [the speech] would mean and what would result. And obviously, the Middle East is much messier than people at the time had hoped it would be.
He wanted to set a new tone…about the United States not being at war with Islam, not being incompatible with the Muslim world. Some people criticized the speech because it raised expectations and we haven't fulfilled those expectations; there are still all these problems in the Middle East. Where I think it holds up, though, is we have stayed true to the objectives we set in that speech: This is what President Obama stands for, this is what informs his world view and these are the objectives that he’s trying to pursue as president.
This is something we have struggled with in Western society for a long time: making sure that we’re eliminating any barriers between the Middle East and Europe and the United States. So I thought his outreach was entirely appropriate. Having said that…it’s easy to give a speech. It’s harder to follow through. To the president’s credit, I think he worked hard on the follow through. I'm not sure it was reciprocated
on the other end.
In December of 2010, a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire in front of a government building, after being slapped by a policewoman who’d taken away his cart. With the help of social media, his act set off a raft of protests throughout Tunisia in the days that followed, leading to the president there stepping down. Soon after, a wave of popular uprisings and government upheavals spread across the Middle East that became known as the Arab Spring. But the promise of a democratic revolution in the region was not to be.
The biggest disappointment in our foreign policy is what happened to the Arab Spring. The president was not overly optimistic about it. His posture to the Arab Spring was not just guided by ideals, it was also guided by the sense that the established order was broken. [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak was not going to be able to stay in power. People were never going to go home. They were going to stay in the streets. And so what we had defined as stability in the Middle East wasn't an option anymore. There wasn't an option to just say, “We’re going to ban Mubarak and keep the lid on this thing.” The lid was boiling over.
There is a generational change that’s been taking place in the Middle East and parts of North Africa and South Asia and within the Muslim world more broadly. For some time to come, we’re going to see a tiny, but not insignificant fraction of the Muslim population that can be radicalized…And…there are going to be states that are fragile because of sectarian divisions in the region. Those dangers are going to continue. Finding a way to fight against those forces and protect ourselves in a way that doesn’t alienate allies, or the Muslim world…or erode our civil liberties at home—I hope is my legacy. That the way we do [those things] reflects our core values. And we’re still going to have more work to do.
I was traveling to Myanmar in 2013, and these are people who are just beginning to wrestle with this massive transition. And they have a multi-ethnic society. And they were trying to pursue national reconciliation with armed ethnic groups. I went to the peace center where the negotiations were taking place. And they had the Cairo speech translated into all the different languages in Myanmar. The guy there who was in charge of the peace negotiations said, “We’re not studying this because we want to know what your Middle East policy is, we’re studying it because we see it as a good example of trying to bring about reconciliation.” So it gives me some hope that people receive the words of President Obama around the world in very different ways. And you can't possibly measure the impact of a speech like that because it plays out not just during his presidency but in all these other individual
lives, all these other contexts around the world.
THE IRAQ AND AFGHAN WARS
Faced with two major wars at the start of his administration—one in Iraq, the other in Afghanistan—the president was determined to ratchet down our military involvement in the Middle East. That was easier said than done.
When we came into office, we had 180,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. We needed to draw back that resource allocation and go after terrorism in a way that was not going to completely dominate American foreign policy.
In 2009, we had just started to get our footing in Iraq. But Afghanistan was in dire straits because we had not committed a sufficient number of troops to Afghanistan. So he has two major wars going on, in addition to…the growing spread of Al-Qaeda.
The president has to make decisions about, okay, how much of…this precious resource of U.S. men and women in the armed forces…should I invest for how long here in Iraq, here in Afghanistan, here in Eastern Europe…here in Asia, to ensure the peaceful rise of the Chinese to protect our allies in Korea? That’s a uniquely presidential decision. It’s not a decision the commander in Iraq should be allowed to make because he only sees that piece of the puzzle.
He made a decision to pull American troops out of Iraq. The military, frankly, was not comfortable with that solution. But he felt obliged because he had made a promise during the campaign to make that happen.
The president came to office with the Iraq experience fresh in America’s memory. He grew up in the wake of the Vietnam experience, which is fresh for a whole generation. Both of those have had a profound impact on President Obama in a way that made him want to think very carefully about where and how you commit American forces. There’s been maybe on occasion or two an excessive level of caution, some would argue. But all in all, I think he has felt that there are better ways…to have an influence.
One of the most important things we’ve accomplished is reaffirming the importance of civil-military relations in the conduct of national security policy.
The great thing about the president and his relationship with the military is we in the military had an opportunity to come forward and make our case. And we did that many times. Then it is finally up to the elected officials to make the decision. We will argue a point all the way up until a decision is made, then once that decision is made, we salute smartly and move out. So when the president made the decision to withdraw troops in Iraq, I'm not sure those of us in the military thought it was the best decision. But we understood the decision.
You can’t fix it all, but it also means you don’t get overextended the way we did in Vietnam or the way we did, unfortunately, in Iraq. It means that we’re not sending young men and women into wars we can’t win. And when we do send them into war, they’ve got a strategy…and they’ve got the resources and public support to sustain the effort.
We have tried to manage the threat of terrorism and the challenges emanating from the Middle East without being consumed by them.
As of July 2016, there were 8,400 American troops in Afghanistan; more than Obama had originally planned to keep there.
Over his eight years, he had an opportunity to see how the decision in Iraq could potentially affect Afghanistan…and now he’s made the decision to continue to leave a certain number of troops in Afghanistan for the long haul. I think that’s absolutely the right decision. But this is a part of a president learning. And again, he is a very quick study. So instead of just immediately deciding that in 2010 or 2011, we were also going to pull all of our troops out of Afghanistan, he listened to the military. We had an opportunity to talk through our arguments on why leaving a certain level of force structure was important.
And I think this is the nature of any presidency: You learn on the job as you go along. And the strength of this president is realizing that just because you made a promise, once you get into office and you get more facts around a particular problem, if you have to change your mind for the good of the American people, then you need to do that and you need to own that decision.
A raging civil war. A “red line” drawn in the sand, in the form of Obama’s famous 2012 remarks regarding Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s willingness to use chemical weapons against a civilian population. Tens of thousands of Syrians slaughtered or forced to flee, without home or country. And in the White House, a president weighing the pros and cons of military action.
Syria has been one of the toughest issues of my presidency. There has not been a resolution that even comes close to being satisfying. And because I’ve spent a huge amount of time on it, we’ve tried a lot of things and nothing has worked the way I would have liked, it haunts me.
I had been for military action in Syria for a while because I felt like we have to do something about this. And what we found was, number one, our allies were not with us.
In late summer 2013, Barack Obama, after declaring that he had the authority to bomb Syria for its use of chemical weapons, decides to seek Congressional support for a military strike.
In certain circles of power, as a result of his going to Congress to seek their permission to do the bombing of Syria around the chemical weapons, there is a sense among some, erroneously I think, that he backed off the decision that he made. In fact, he made the decision to strike but then felt…he had to go to Congress to honor the tradition of democracy that the American people would speak through the Congress.
Congress was not going to support this. They were sending him letters saying You cannot do this without congressional authorization. And the tone of these letters was disturbing because it was almost suggesting that if he did, it would be extra-constitutional and we might have a constitutional crisis. We had no international legal basis for the action. We tried to find one and we couldn't.
After calling off a planned military strike, Obama faces widespread criticism for his handling of the Syria situation.
We have been absolutely crucified by many people in Washington, many people in the international community. If he had gone through with it, we wouldn't have had the support of Congress. We wouldn't have had the support of the international community.
One of the things you learn about being president is that not everything gets solved. What I have, I believe, avoided, are decisions that would have made the situation worse. It’s hard to imagine something worse than a child being killed by a barrel bomb or millions of people being displaced. But, in fact, what you’ve seen in Syria is a convergence of some of the worst trends in the Middle East: deep sectarianism, proxy battles by various regional powers, an autocrat, a dictator in Assad who is willing to kill his own people in order to cling to power, the emergence of radical elements, Jihadists who are as much if not more hostile to us than Assad is. And in that stew, we’ve tried to minimize the humanitarian consequences and bring about some sort of political settlement.
There are still many people today representing foreign countries who will say that was the moment where we knew the president wasn't strong. I think the exact opposite
The president realized, If I go down this path, I will be isolated internationally, I will not have any congressional support at home. And I don’t have a military option that works. So let’s hit the pause button. He brought a group of us into the Oval Office and said, “I have an idea.” He’d been chewing on it. And he walked through the logic. He said, “Look, number one, I came into office saying we shouldn't use military force unless it’s authorized by Congress and under international law. I believe that to be true. And this would be a pretty major use of military force outside of those bounds.”
In national security issues, you have to be strong. The leaders outside the United States appreciate that strength. That’s why I think he has done so well in the counterterrorism side. He has been, at least in my dealings with him, very decisive, very engaged personally and we have done a lot of great things that the American public and the world at large will never know. So on the counterterrorism side I will tell you things have been very strong.
Unfortunately, on some of the larger issues, like pulling out of Iraq, or…not striking Syria when he indicated he was going to strike Syria, I think this is where the leaders begin to doubt his strength. On the broader military side, I can understand
some concerns from world leaders.
He did not see how this military action could work. And we said after Iraq, we’re not going to get into military engagements without knowing how it ends. And this was completely open-ended. We’d have no idea how this would end. You know, we’d bomb them and try to see what happened. That weighed on him, as well. He said at a certain point we have to stop getting into wars in the Middle East that we haven't thought through. Because it’s going to be all-consuming, because there’s going to be another Syria. And if the country can't reach a consensus about it, if Congress can't authorize it, it puts the president in a terrible position to essentially be fighting war after war after war…without legitimacy.
On September 14, 2013, the U.S. and Russia broker a deal to destroy Syria’s stash of chemical weapons.
Everybody thought it would be a great diplomatic coup to get the Syrians to acknowledge the fact of its chemical weapons. But we didn’t think that was enough. We wanted the Syrians to acknowledge and to get rid of their chemical weapons. That was accomplished without a shot being fired.
We were able to reach this diplomatic agreement to get the chemical weapons out, which is one of the most underappreciated things the president has done. Because if there were chemical weapon stocks in Syria today with ISIL [an off shoot of Al Quaeda, also known as the Islamic State] and Al-Nusra [the Syrian branch of Al Quaeda], those could ultimately pose a great threat to us.
There would've been chemical weapons that could be in the hands of ISIL. And imagine how bad that would've been.
There was no military option that worked. You can't destroy chemical weapons with airstrikes because then you blow up the chemical stocks. Even if you took out Assad, it’s not as if the country is going to get back together again. There’s still going to be a war. People are still going to be suffering. There are still going to be refugees. We could take out Assad tomorrow. And then who’s going to go in and stabilize the place? [The president] saw if we followed that path, it’s the only thing he would've done in his second term as president. He would have been consumed by Syria like George Bush was consumed by Iraq, without a plan for success.
The critics…almost invariably get real quiet when you ask them, “Well, what exactly should I have done?” And the truth of the matter is that in a country like Syria, with a leader as vicious and violent as Assad, supported by Russia, by Iran, this idea that on the cheap, we could have simply provided some arms to an opposition and that would have been sufficient is completely inaccurate. In fact, we did provide support for the modern opposition and it did not curb the violence.
In the meantime, we managed to get all of the chemical weapons out of Syria and it obviated the need to do what would have been one or two days of bombing. But it wouldn’t have removed any of the chemical weapons. Instead, we got all of them out but people didn’t notice that. They simply noticed that instead of dropping the bombs on that particular weekend, he went to congress and therefore they drew the conclusion that he somehow backed away and that has haunted some of the perceptions of the president.
That leaves the option of our willingness to engage in another military intervention in Syria at a time when we are still militarily involved in Iraq, still militarily involved in Afghanistan, when we had just spent over a trillion dollars on a decade of war and still see the consequences in millions of our veterans coming home, tens of thousands of them significantly wounded.
And what I can say is that I’m haunted by what is happening there. I’m not haunted by the decision not to take military action in Syria. I’m not haunted by the fact that we significantly diminished the capacity of the Syrian regime to engage in chemical warfare. And I do not regret doing everything we can to try to broker some sort of cessation of hostilities and, ultimately, some sort of political transition there. That was the very narrow path available to us.
After decades of sanctions against Iran, President Obama decided to take a different approach to a state widely considered to be rogue: diplomacy. His aim? To strip this key player in the Middle East of the ability to make nuclear weapons. It was the deal nobody thought would happen.
Our strong view was that Iran is going to, in all likelihood, remain a bad actor. It’s a state sponsor of terrorism. It destabilizes its neighbors. It has dangerous designs on Israel. But if it doesn’t have a nuclear weapon or nuclear weapons capacity, it’s far less threatening than if it does. Very simple concept.
Following an earlier interim agreement with Iran in 2013, on July 14, 2015, Iran and the United States, along with China, France, Germany, Russia and the UK, struck a deal that put the brakes on Iran’s nuclear program, stepping up monitoring of that country, and easing long-standing economic sanctions against Iran.
When we began the negotiation Iran had enough nuclear enriched material to be able to make 10 to 12 bombs. Today they don’t. It’s gone.…It’s made the world safer. Simple facts: They have a limit of only 300 kilograms of enriched material, which is not enough to make a bomb under any circumstance. They had some 12,000 previously, enough for 10, 12 bombs. They are limited now for 15 years in the amount of enriching they can do. They can’t enrich beyond 3.67 percent and we have a way of measuring that every single day. You can’t make a bomb with 3.67 percent.
The deal was on life support constantly—there were many times we thought it was going to die. One of the underappreciated things the president did is he really went to bat at home to give himself the space to get the deal. After the interim agreement, which froze the Iranian program and gave us the space to negotiate, there was a congressional effort [for a] new sanctions bill [against Iran]. Every year or two, they pass one of these things. And the president said, “I'll veto that.” Then he went to the Democratic Caucus and he made an impassioned case. And he beat back that effort. That was critical because when [congress] saw that he was willing to fight for this nuclear deal, they realized they couldn't just do business as usual because the sanctions would upend the negotiation.
Why was it greeted with such skepticism? My view is that many who claim to be most worried about a nuclear-armed Iran, it turns out, were even more worried about an Iran that could, as a result of giving up its nuclear weapons ambitions, achieve economic recovery [and] a degree of acceptance as a non-pariah state in the international arena. In fact, some states, some partners had more of an interest in an Iran that was kept under the heel of our boot than an Iran that doesn’t have a nuclear weapon.
We’re safer because Iran cannot rush headlong and break out suddenly to get a bomb. If they tried, we’d know instantly because of the verification measures that have been put in place and…we would have time to respond. Moreover, they had a plutonium reactor. That is gone and they’ve taken the core of that reactor out and visibly poured concrete in it and destroyed it so it cannot be used again. We also have television cameras watching the production of their centrifuges, which are used to enrich the uranium. Then there’s 25 years of tracking every ounce of uranium that is produced in the country. So we will know how much uranium is going in, how much is going out, what they’re doing with it, and we have a lifetime ability to challenge them to allow us to inspect any facility if we suspect that it needs to be inspected. So we have this enormous process built in. Before, we didn’t know what [Iran] was doing. It’s the transparency and accountability we’ve created that protects the world.
I remember, late in the negotiations, sitting around a table in the Situation Room and Ernie Moniz [nuclear physicist and Secretary of Energy] and John Kerry are on a video screen. And we are literally [going into] such great detail about the configuration of Iranian centrifuges and the purpose of their water reactor and dealing with the disposal of their stockpile. And I remember being struck by how remarkable it was. Two years into this process and the President of the United States is so saturated in this material that he’s sitting there talking to a nuclear physicist, Ernie Moniz, about something we never could have understood as English two years before. It drove home to me that this has been a long slog, and it required, literally, the President of the United States to have a sufficient understanding of these issues that he could decide, Okay, you can make this concession, but you must [insist] that they concede something to us. You [can] figure out the tradeoffs, working through these issues over and over and over again.
If we roll back on this agreement we will be inviting conflict. There will be no return to the negotiating table, not easily, for sure. No one should fool themselves into believing that if you break this agreement, the world is going to be safer. Because the countries that joined us in putting the sanctions in place will not join us again if we blow our credibility, and we’re the ones responsible for breaking the deal. Moreover, Iran…joined this agreement based on a set of requirements that we agreed to live up to. If we’re not living up to them, why on earth would they come back to the table to renegotiate with an administration that’s unwilling to live up to it? So, we’re in a very dangerous place if this agreement were to start to come apart. Anybody who starts to break it apart needs to think seriously about the implications because then there’s going to be a clamor for people to bomb or go to war or stop them from enriching [uranium] because we broke the agreement. So, it’s a very, very dangerous place to go.
A war with Iran is a big piece of business. This is a capable country that would hit back and they'd hit back in Israel, they'd hit back here, they'd hit back in a lot of places. And talk about something that would dominate our foreign policy. And the reason [the agreement] was important is it avoided a war, and nuclear proliferation. It’s as simple as that.
I think the Iran deal was an amazing accomplishment. If [it] had failed, we’d probably be in another Middle Eastern war for eight, 10, 12 years. Think about the effect on our economy, on those lives, on the rest of the world. That’s what this was about. And the president was bound and determined to see if diplomacy would work, and it did.
One of Barack Obama’s goals when he took office in 2008 was to cross a threshold that no other president had crossed by normalizing relations with Cuba. The process took longer than he imagined, but on December 17, 2014, the president and Raúl Castro signed a historic agreement that reversed 50 years of hostility and ushered in a new era between the neighboring countries.
Cuba is a great example of how long it takes to actually achieve change in domestic or foreign policy.
Like the president, I’m of an age where, for virtually our entire lives, we have been living with a policy towards Cuba that hasn’t yielded any success and where it made little sense to persist.…It felt like a no brainer. It was a no brainer. If you think about this, there are plenty of countries in the world with which we have more reason to be in a hostile relationship than with Cuba.
It was just a giant anchor on the United States and Latin America. Everywhere we went, all we heard is how screwed up our Cuba policy is. And it set us back in the whole hemisphere.
It was frankly past time….There’s a long history that involves politics and foreign policy as to why nobody dared deal with the problem, where our policy had abjectly failed for 50 years, but the president felt it was important to try.
Though the president was committed to warming up relations with Cuba, there was a complication that prevented him from moving forward: In December of 2009, Alan Gross, a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) worker there, was arrested and imprisoned. The accusation? Espionage.
Early in the administration, they arrested Alan Gross, this subcontractor for USAID. So we knew we couldn't really make dramatic changes in our Cuba policy as long as there was an American who worked for our government in prison on Cuba. So, for that reason, it got put aside in the first term.
After the reelection, the president had a meeting with us where we literally went around the world. He just got reelected, we had four more years, so we decided to go through the entire world and say, What do we want to do in the second term? Kind of like spinning the globe around. And one of the decisions he made was, “I want to come back to Cuba and I want to try to do something big on Cuba.”
When I was running for office, I’d said I’d be willing to meet with the Castro brothers if it meant we could advance American interests and help the Cuban people. I had interacted with the Cuban American community in places like Florida and I asked them whether they felt that 50 years of embargos and no communication had achieved their goal for freedom in Cuba. As a consequence of those questions, we had started to open up new policy initiatives allowing Cuban American families to visit Cuba more frequently, to send remittances, send money back to the island. After being reelected, we saw an opportunity to begin seeing whether there was a possibility of normalization.
We didn’t think it was going to happen. And this negotiation, which was very, very tightly held, went on for quite a while.
In the spring of 2013, President Obama authorized a series of secret talks with high-level government officials in Cuba, to be held in an out-of-the-way location in Ottawa, Canada. In December of 2013, on the day of Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in South Africa, Barack Obama sent a message to the world by shaking the hand of Raúl Castro, who was also attending.
We heard back from [the Cubans]. They wanted to meet. So we reached out to the Canadians and said, “You can't tell anybody and you can't be in the meetings but could you host these discussions with the Cubans? And they said yes and they were wonderful. They deserve more credit than they’ve gotten. We flew up to Ottawa. The Cubans sent a very credible delegation. We didn't know at the beginning that we were going to get all the way to normalizing relations and establishing embassies. We wanted to just feel this out. [In] the first meeting, there was a lot of history and complaining. I heard about the Bay of Pigs invasion and everything else. And I kept saying, “Look, I wasn't even born when those things happened. I'm here to talk about the future. I'm here because President Obama’s a different kind of president and he’s really serious about trying to pursue this.
We ended up having over a dozen meetings over the course of the next year. And what happened is we built trust and we built a rapport. And we started to find a formulation around an exchange, a spy swap.
The most incredible thing to me about that whole process was that we were able to keep it confidential up until the announcement was made and Alan Gross was on the plane back to the United States, and President Obama and President Castro were able to announce that we were entering a new phase of normalizing the relationship. There are lots of back-stories to that.
We said, “Well, let’s not stop there. Let’s make this a bigger package. Let’s really change this relationship.” The Cubans had been down this road with the United States before and it never really came together. Someone found a reason not to do it. Or the Cubans…did something provocative. But when President Obama traveled to South Africa…Raúl Castro was on the dais as a speaker. The Cubans had supported Mandela when he was in prison and had fought against apartheid. And President Obama was going down the line and he shook Raúl Castro’s hand and this shocked them. And I think it showed them that this guy is willing to do things that he’ll be criticized for back home. He’s willing to cross certain thresholds that no other president had crossed. And the tenor of the discussions changed after that.
One of my greatest moments of satisfaction in my professional career was the germination and the success of that change in policy and the fact that we were able to do it without it being derailed by becoming public prematurely.
Doing these secret negotiations in Canada was a very strange experience because I’d be out of work for a day or two at a time. And I'd try to think of an excuse and I just couldn't. And you fly commercial to Ottawa and…one time, I ran into someone I knew and he said, “What are you doing in Ottawa?” and I said, “Oh, I'm just up here for some meetings.” I mean, who would really question that?
The Canadians were very efficient. They would meet us at the gate, escort us through security, put us in a car, drive us out to this site that was a little bit outside of Ottawa, not very secretive but out of the way. And then we’d sit there all day and talk to the Cubans. You know, 8, 10, 12 hours.
In the early summer of 2014, after talking with the White House about the situation in Cuba, Pope Francis sent identical letters of appeal to President Obama and Raúl Castro. The intervention of the Vatican, who hosted a key meeting between the negotiating teams that October, turned out to be crucial to the success of the talks.
The other thing we did that was important is we got the Vatican involved. The president was able to tell Pope Francis that we had this channel going, the first foreign leader he told. Pope Francis said, “I'll be helpful in any way that I can.” What he ended up doing is sending a letter to both President Obama and President Castro. It was an identical letter [which] essentially said, “We urge you to resolve this issue of prisoners and advance your bilateral relationship and we’ll be helpful in any way we can.” It was kind of an open offer….We negotiated this whole package to normalize relations, establish embassies, release these prisoners, a number of things. The Vatican essentially served as the witness. We met all day at the Vatican. I think we blew them away. They were shocked….I had to repeat to myself several times: “We are going to normalize relations.” They were very emotional. Then we read aloud these commitments we were making to each other. I remember walking out of that meeting and thinking, “This is done now because nobody back home can turn off a commitment we made to the Pope.” That, to me, was when it felt real.
The last U.S. Commander in Chief to visit Cuba was Calvin Coolidge, in 1928. The next was Barack Obama, who landed in Cuba on March 22, 2016, in an historic visit, accompanied by his wife and daughters, and his mother-in-law, Marian Robinson.
When I walked off that plane, what I felt more than anything was a satisfaction in having seen this through, and an understanding that bringing about change on a big issue like this isn’t just a matter of pronouncement; it’s all the groundwork, all the spadework that was done by tons of staffers and diplomats behind the scenes who never get a lot of attention.
It was very emotional to land in Cuba. What I remember most distinctly about flying to Cuba the first time is that you fly over Miami and you can see Miami—it’s very distinct. And then you fly over the [Florida] Keys. And then you land. Driving in from the airport, it’s this kind of magical unchanged place with classic cars and people walking on the side of the road and it’s Cuba. And it’s this place that has been so close to us and yet so isolated from us for all these years.
The goal now is to use the opening of our diplomatic ties and our growing economic ties to enable Cuba and the Cuban people to be more open to the world, to be more open to the United States. We think that ultimately will result in the kinds of political openings and political freedoms being available to the Cuban people that haven’t been for decades. We continue to view that as critical.
Walking around and talking to people and the sense of hope and excitement that the Cuban people felt about President Obama and his trip and this policy was overwhelming. Every single Cuban knew about this and every single Cuban was excited about it. Some of them had different views of the Castro Government than others. But you just sensed that something had changed that was never going to go back to the way it was.
What was also satisfying was just seeing the reaction of the Cuban people. There wasn’t going to be some immediate overnight transformation. What our change in policy had done was take away an excuse for Cuba not to change and given the Cuban people some sense of possibility, that things weren’t static, that they weren’t going to be forever caught up in this Cold War loop that repeated itself over and over and over again. Seeing the crowds along the streets and interacting with young people and even dissidents who were being treated brutally by the government, but nevertheless felt that this offered the best likelihood of change. That is what made me feel good. And to be able to take my daughters along with me so that they might be able to look back at a time when Cuba changed and relations between our two countries are normalized and know that they witnessed some of that early history. That’s pretty satisfying.