America's flawed Cuba policy: Bey and Jay edition

Last week, Beyonce and Jay-Z, the royal couple of American pop music, made a surprise visit to Cuba to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary. Strolling through the streets of Havana, the celebrities were greeted by huge crowds, and Cuban authorities reportedly scrambled to have the necessary security in place for their visit. Setting aside the delicious irony that two of the wealthiest entertainers alive received a rapturous welcome from the citizens of one of the few remaining communist countries, the trip raises the question: Doesn't the United States have an embargo in place against Cuba?

Officially, Americans remain barred from traveling to Cuba. But the myriad exceptions to that policy pave the way for determined travelers to visit the island nation. As my colleague Uri Friedman has explained, a prospective tourist only needs to find a government-approved "purpose" -- the categories here include family ties, religious trips, non-commercial business activities, cultural activities, education, journalism, and diplomatic missions -- in order to gain travel approval. With a little creativity, you can find a workaround to the travel ban.

Bey and Jay seem to have done exactly that. According to a Reuters report citing sources inside the Treasury Department (the agency responsible for approving Cuba visits), the couple's trip was approved as a "people-to-people" cultural visit that included meetings with local artists and a stroll through Old Havana with one of the city's foremost architects, Miguel Coyula. While in Cuba, the couple also visited an art school, dined at some of Havana's top restaurants, and went to a couple clubs, some of which featured live music. Sounds like a great Caribbean vacation "cultural visit."

Republican members of Congress with ties to Florida's hard-line Cuban-American  community are now howling about the visit. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, said that she found it "very disconcerting that these two mega stars would go down to Cuba and vacation as if they were in a tropical paradise and not say one word about the brutality their hosts display against all pro democracy activists." And Sen. Marco Rubio weighed in to complain that the kinds of cultural-exchange programs under which the couple's trip was allegedly sanctioned "have been abused by tourists."

And doesn't Rubio have a point here? In 2011, the Obama administration announced a liberalization of the rules governing travel to Cuba, but the White House has taken no other meaningful action to reform the Cold War-era policies that govern U.S. relations with the island.

And yet when Rep. Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney's running mate and an initial opponent of the embargo, tried to exploit Obama's opening toward Cuba by calling the policy "appeasement" of the Cuban regime, the Obama campaign fired back with a defensive statement. Obama, a campaign official told the New York Times, "has repeatedly renewed the trade embargo with Cuba, pressured the Castro regime to give its people more of a say in their own future, and supported democracy movements on the island." The result is a kind of now-you-see-it-now-you-don't rapprochement with the Cuban regime.

It all underscores the silliness of U.S. policy toward Cuba: The superstar who sang at Obama's inauguration can gladly traipse down to Cuba for a "cultural visit." But God forbid the White House acknowledge or try to reform a failed policy.

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10 years after Saddam, is Iraq a U.S. ally?

Is Iraq a U.S. ally? Judging by his Washington Post op-ed this morning, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seems to think so:

Iraq is not a protectorate of the United States; it is a sovereign partner. Partners do not always agree, but they consider and respect each other's views. In that spirit, we ask the United States to consider Iraq's views on challenging issues, especially those of regional importance....

The United States has not "lost" Iraq. Instead, in Iraq, the United States has found a partner for our shared strategic concerns and our common efforts on energy, economics and the promotion of peace and democracy.

Maliki paints a particularly rosy picture of U.S.-Iraqi relations, touting the potential for investment, the growth of oil production, and the country's democratization and upcoming elections. But do any experts actually believe this?

On the 10-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion last month, Post reporter Ernesto Londoño wrote that "the country is neither the failed state that seemed all but inevitable during the darkest days of the war nor the model democracy that the Americans set out to build.... The nation is no longer defined or notably influenced by its relationship with the United States." That dynamic was on display on March 24, when Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly had a frustrating discussion with Maliki about the flow of arms from Iran to Syria through Iraqi airspace -- the latest evidence of a persistent decline in U.S. influence in Iraq, as Baghdad has drifted closer to the policies of neighboring Iran.

But does that mean Iraq is not the "sovereign partner" of the United States that Maliki describes? The assessments are mixed. Speaking with Maliki as U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq in December 2011, President Obama declared, "Our strong presence in the Middle East endures, and the United States will never waiver in the defense of our allies, our partners, and our interests."

But a year and a half later, Iraq historian Toby Dodge sees the country backsliding into autocracy under Maliki. Liberal interventionist war advocate Kanan Makiya points to Iraq's leadership as a stumbling block, saying in a recent profile in the Boston Globe that the "Iraqi leadership proved itself capricious, greedy, selfish -- it was a failure on the part of the elites." In the New York Times, Ramzy Mardini of the Iraq Inistitute for Strategic Studies assessed the situation bluntly: "A decade since the occupation of Iraq began, Baghdad still cannot be considered an ally of the United States.... An alliance today is beyond anyone's reach."

Others are more optimistic. Former CIA director James Woolsey, for instance, told the Daily Beast, "There is much more Iranian influence than I would like to see. I don't know that it is hopeless." Former Undersecretary of Defense Dov Zakheim sees the ouster of the Hussein regime and the government that has followed as "marginally a good thing, but nowhere near as good as what we thought." Writing in Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat today, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz suggests that "it is remarkable that Iraq has done as well as it has thus far" and encourages continued engagement, noting that "it is not too late for the US and Europe and the GCC countries to engage with Iraq to help steer it on a course toward inclusive and accountable governance."

And he may be on to something. Today, for the second time in two days, Iraqi officials forced an inspection in Baghdad of an Iranian plane bound for Syria. But despite estimates that Iran is transporting as much as five tons of munitions per Syria-bound flight, Iraqi officials said they only found humanitarian supplies.