Bungling Bushies Wrong About Cuba

Despite his blustering and joking during his recent trip across Europe and Russia, George W. Bush surely wonders sometimes why nations otherwise friendly to America are so suspicious of him and his government. It must be frustrating that millions of people abroad (and more than a few at home, despite “patriotic” strictures against dissent) question not only his policies, but his intentions. There he is, trying his best to lead a worldwide struggle against terrorists and evildoers-and yet too often when he hopes to inspire commitment, he provokes worry instead.

The obvious contradiction lies between the American President’s multilateral aspirations and his unilateral impulses-and between policies that promote the enduring interests of the United States and those that serve only the immediate interests of Mr. Bush and his political clan. There could be no better example of those irritating conflicts than the latest installment in the endless soap opera of Cuban-American relations.

The most troubling aspect of that episode wasn’t the scornful response of the White House to Jimmy Carter’s remarkable visit or Fidel Castro’s unprecedented welcome. After all, nobody expected the Bush administration to revise our pointless, punitive policies toward Havana simply because they have failed to achieve any of their objectives for 40 years.

No, the disturbing moment came just before Mr. Carter’s trip, when a top State Department official duplicitously spoke of “terrorism” and “weapons of mass destruction” to help justify the same old stupid policies. We now know for certain that there was absolutely no basis for those alarmist words.

Alert readers will recall that on May 6, as the former President packed his straw hat, Under Secretary of State John Bolton appeared at the Heritage Foundation in Washington to deliver a speech entitled “Beyond the Axis of Evil.” There he shrilly warned against the new “threat” of germ warfare supposedly fermenting in the biomedical laboratories of Cuba. For those who may not be aware of Mr. Bolton and his brief, he is an emissary of the Jesse Helms ministry of foreign affairs, posted at the State Department by the White House to thwart any excessive moderation by the Secretary of State (who did not select him for his job).

In this instance, Mr. Bolton’s purpose was to undercut an expanding consensus on Cuban policy that ranges from The Wall Street Journal to The Nation magazine, from conservative Republicans in Texas and Arizona to liberal Democrats in Massachusetts and California. Unable to argue that the present sanctions accomplish anything for the Cuban people, and aware that Cuba’s courageous dissidents are seeking change in both Washington and Havana, Mr. Bolton attempted to play upon the fears aroused by last year’s terrorist assaults, particularly those deadly and still-unsolved anthrax attacks.

The news-making revelation in Mr. Bolton’s speech was the following sentence: “The United States believes that Cuba has at least a limited offensive biological-warfare research and development effort.” That was more explicit and categorical than previous statements by U.S. officials, although they have occasionally mentioned the “potential” for such mischief in Havana’s thriving biomedical industry, which exports vaccines and medicines all over the world. He provided no evidence to support his accusation, and it seems fair to say that there probably is none.

Mr. Castro denied the charges vehemently, as might be expected, but it isn’t necessary to accept his word on this point. On May 23, the Cuban dictator’s denial was bolstered by Major General Gary Speer of the U.S. Army. He is the general staff officer overseeing all American forces in the Southern Command, which encompasses Latin America and the Caribbean. In an interview published by The Miami Herald, General Speer said he knew of no evidence to support the Bolton charges.

With amusing candor, the general admitted that after he learned about Mr. Bolton’s inflammatory remarks from “news reports,” he made his own inquiries to the Southern Command’s intelligence directorate in Doral, Fla. He thought he had better look into the matter: “I called my J-2, the intelligence officer, and said, ‘What’s the deal?’”

No deal at all, apparently. Speaking in the most diplomatic terms, the general suggested that the under secretary’s speech might have been misunderstood. “I think what Mr. Bolton said in his statement, it kind of got reported as an accusation that the Cubans were … that we had evidence that they were actually producing bio-weapons. And I’m not sure that’s the case.” In other words, the general is quite sure that it isn’t the case.

Perhaps the general was relieved to learn that those charges had been fabricated. Or perhaps he was dismayed when he realized that the international credibility of the United States had been diminished again, for reasons that had nothing to do with combating terror or protecting the American people.