Kerry and Hagel Offer Obama a Way Forward on Cuba

FILE - This Dec. 3, 2012 file photo shows Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., at a news conference on
FILE - This Dec. 3, 2012 file photo shows Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. The top contenders for the “big three” jobs in President Barack Obama’s Cabinet are white men, raising fresh concerns among Democratic women about diversity in the president’s inner-circle. Their long-simmering worries were rekindled after Susan Rice withdrew under pressure from consideration as the next secretary of state. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Days ago, the future of Cuba policy in President Obama's second term seemed predictable.

In his first term, Cuba and Latin America never rose on his priority list. At her confirmation hearings, Hillary Clinton promised the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that she and the president were prepared to "seize the opportunities in Latin America," but they never did.

After repealing all restrictions on travel by Cuban Americans, opening categories of People-to-People travel, and restarting migration talks, progress on engagement was thwarted by the imprisonment of Alan Gross and the administration's reluctance to negotiate directly with Cuba for his release.

The prospective appointment of Susan Rice as Secretary of State -- she once told the United Nations that U.S. sanctions did not cause deprivation among the Cuban people -- seemed a signal of continuity. But, her candidacy was devoured by opponents on issues ranging from the tragedy in Benghazi to the contents of her investment portfolio, and she never arrived at the point of being nominated or given close to a fair hearing.

On the heels of her misfortune, things could get interesting. If the speculation now is accurate, President Obama may appoint Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as Secretary of State and former Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. By doing so, the president would bring into his security cabinet two seasoned figures with long histories as Cuba policy reformers and simultaneously place the Foreign Relations Committee in the hands of some of the coldest of the Cold Warriors in Congress.

Kerry, a steadfast opponent of U.S. intervention in Latin America since his election in 1984, has been consistently smart on Cuba. He supported travel rights not just for Cuban Americans but for all Americans. He would not give the Obama administration a blank check to run the USAID regime change programs in Cuba and held up funding when he could. He was a reliable skeptic of the millions spent on the anti-Cuba broadcast propaganda arms -- Radio and TV Martí -- and of the consultants and bureaucrats who create the programming that most Cubans don't see, hear, or care much about.

Chuck Hagel served two terms in the Senate and called our policy toward Cuba "senseless." When former President Jimmy Carter visited the island in 2002, he was the only Member of Congress Carter considered to ask to join his delegation, but Hagel stayed in Washington for a Senate debate on trade. Earlier, Hagel cosponsored legislation to open the Cuban market further for sales of food and medicine and repeal restrictions on travel.

If these two men are nominated and confirmed, this doesn't mean President Obama will elevate Cuba as a foreign policy priority. But it does mean that seasoned figures who urged the country to dump its Cold War baggage and normalize relations would be at the table when critical strategic decisions are made.

However, if Kerry is chosen, he will most likely be sworn in as a witness by Senator Bob Menendez, the presumptive chairman of a vastly changed Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Menendez, a Democrat but a dissenter on liberalization, promised to filibuster "any bill that in any way lifts or lessens the travel ban on Cuba." He joined forces with Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) in a failed effort to stop the Obama people-to-people travel reforms in 2011. He threatened the budget of the OAS after it opened the door to Cuba rejoining its membership. He even told the New York Times he would prefer to leave Alan Gross in prison, because "I'm not into negotiating for someone who is clearly a hostage of the Cuban regime."

Gone from the ranks of Republicans will be Senator Richard Lugar, a forward-leaning statesman whose report, "Changing Cuba Policy - In the United States National Interest," is still filled with useful policy ideas that were offered to the Obama team, many never adopted, when it was published in 2009. Instead, Kerry would be staring up at the scowling faces of Senators like John McCain and Marco Rubio, who could try and use the hearing to create a record against reform. So long as Kerry has sound instructions from the top, he will do what is needed to avoid being boxed in.

This shouldn't be hard. In an election that took place some five weeks ago, President Obama faced an opponent, endorsed by Florida's Cuban American delegation in Congress, and they could not deliver the Cuban vote, Miami-Dade, or the state, much less the country, to Governor Romney. Politically, Mr. Obama owes the hardliners nothing, and can use his second term to establish a legacy on Cuba. Should he have ears to hear it, he could have Secretaries of State and Defense to advise him on how it could be done.