Saturday, October 27, 2007

That Old Time Religion

NYT Editorial

President Bush was back in campaign mode this week, resurrecting two tried-and-true red-meat issues to rally the cadres in his dispirited Republican Party — fervent supporters of missile defense and of squeezing Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Seven years in the White House have done nothing to change his views. Campaigning now for his legacy, he is still wrong on both issues.

Mr. Bush has brought his 1960s Cuba policy into the Internet age by allowing private organizations to send computers to Cuban youths — if the government does not control their use. That is unlikely. And he proposed an international fund to provide grants, loans and debt relief to the Cuban government — but only after it allows free speech and open elections. Until then, Mr. Bush will cling stubbornly to the half-century-old economic embargo that has failed to unseat Mr. Castro while giving him an ever ready excuse for his government’s economic failings and repression.

No one knows what will happen when Mr. Castro, who is ailing, dies. The United States is denying itself any chance to help influence Cuba’s future by sticking to the failed policies of the past. Its overriding interest should be in a peaceful transition to the democratic and economically dynamic society that Cubans have dreamed of for decades.

Easing the embargo could strengthen Cuba’s battered middle class and help it play a more active role in whatever comes next. Mr. Bush’s call for the Cuban people to rise up is more likely to persuade the government’s supporters — the only ones with guns — to hang on even more stubbornly or brutally.

Mr. Bush’s blind faith in missile defense is equally disquieting. The president has already wasted billions on a small and unproven system in Alaska. Now he wants to build one in Europe to guard against a possible attack on American allies by Iran.

Those allies are far less certain that Iran poses a near-term ballistic missile threat, and far less eager than Mr. Bush to anger the Russians, who fiercely oppose the system. Moscow, as ever, is being disingenuous. But Mr. Bush should be looking for ways to persuade Russia to increase pressure on Iran rather than giving it more excuses not to.

Mr. Bush and his cadre may be stuck in the past. But Congress does not have to be. It should restrain even more than it has Mr. Bush’s exorbitant missile defense spending.

Congress and the Democratic candidates for president should also find a way to challenge Mr. Bush’s Cuba policies. The issue has not gotten much attention in the campaign, although Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico has said he would reassess the trade embargo in exchange for the release of all political prisoners and “positive steps” toward democratic freedoms. Given Florida’s electoral clout, bold initiatives may be too much to expect in an election year — except that Mr. Castro’s health may not wait. The White House may thrive on red meat; the voters shouldn’t have to.

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