President Obama made history recently when he removed Cuba from the list of countries that are sponsors of terrorism, but not for the reason one might think. That is because the list really has more to do with domestic politics and foreign policy objectives that have had little to do with terrorism.
The list was created in 1979 and initially contained four countries - Syria, Libya, Iraq and South Yemen. Today it consists of only three - Syria, Sudan and Iran. Since Syria and Iran continue to support Hezbollah, they are likely to stay on. Sudan has generally been cooperative in counterterrorism efforts, but it is also likely to stay as long as it continues to rain bombs on some of it people and its president is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes.
In getting from the original four countries to the current three, here have been a number of additions to and deletions from the list over the years. Republican presidents have made all the changes except for two cases. President Clinton was the only Democratic president to add a country to the list when he included Sudan in 1993. With the removal of Cuba, Obama made history by becoming the only Democratic president to take one off.
Cuba was put on the list by the Reagan administration in 1982 to win favor with the Cuban exile community. No official explanation was given at the time, but various statements and reports by the administration alleged Cuba was supporting "groups and organizations that use terrorism to undermine existing regimes" in Central and South America. At the end of the Cold War, Fidel Castro announced Cuba would no longer support revolutionary groups and there has been no real evidence of Cuban links to terrorism since that time. But electoral politics in the United States precluded taking action until now. Since Obama does not have to worry about running for office again, he does not have to worry about alienating Cuban Americans in Florida and could afford to take this long overdue step.
At the same time Cuba was added, Iraq was taken off in order to allow American companies to sell arms to that nation. At the time, Iran seemed to have the upper hand in the war between the two countries and Reagan did not want to see Iraq lose. The Reagan administration's efforts to help Iraq kill more Iranians did not end with the delisting. Additional steps were taken including the provision of loans, intelligence by the American government and the selling of components for chemical and biological weapons by American companies. A special emissary of Reagan's was also sent to the region. In a 90-minute conversation with Saddam Hussein the emissary, one Donald Rumsfeld, did not raise the question of the use of chemical weapons even though American intelligence agencies knew they were being used on a daily basis.
Iraq was put back on the list in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush, but not because of terrorism. It was punishment for its invasion of Kuwait. His son removed it again in 2004 following the American invasion of Iraq.
Another country removed from the list by President George W. Bush was North Korea in 2008. The Reagan administration designated North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1988 after its agents blew up a South Korean airliner and because it gave asylum to members of the Japanese Red Army terrorist group.
The question of defining what it means for a country to be a "sponsor" of terrorism has always been elastic. In the case of North Korea, it was more for committing acts of terrorism than it was for harboring terrorists.
The reasons for getting off the list are equally flexible. By the time President George W. Bush removed North Korea, the country had not been involved in terrorism since the bombing of the South Korean airliner twenty years earlier. But the delisting had little to do with terrorism. It was removed because it had agreed to the verification requirements during the talks over its nuclear program. The nuclear agreement eventual fell apart nonetheless and North Korea went on to test its nuclear weapons. The debate continues as to whether the country belongs on the list or not. Some claim North Korea should once again be designated a sponsor of terrorism, but others argue it is not.
North Korea is not the only country to get off the list because of its nuclear program. George W. Bush removed Libya to reward that country for dismantling its nuclear program. At least in the case of Libya, unlike North Korea, the nuclear concessions permanently ended its nuclear aspirations.
Republican presidents have added four countries to the list and taken off four, while Democrats put only one on and took only one off. Given the motivations for such moves, it would be difficult to conclude that the former took the list and the law more seriously than the latter.
The year after Reagan designated Iran a state sponsor of terrorism making the sale of arms to that country illegal, he authorized a plan to allow Israel to sell U.S, made weapons to Iran. The purpose of the sale was to raise money for the Contras, the former members of the Nicaraguan security forces under the dictator Anastasio Somoza.
The Reagan administration also paid millions of dollars to the Argentine military junta to help train the Contras. The Argentines were believe to have just the right experience for the job since they had recently murdered around ten thousand of their countrymen in putting down their terrorist problem. The American aid helped the Contras to wage a campaign of terrorism to undermine the existing regime in Nicaragua.
So if the U.S. Government had taken the list seriously and followed the letter and spirit of the law, the Reagan administration would have added itself to the list. Given the excesses that have been committed in the so-called war on terror, many would argue it still belongs there.