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President Barack Obama’s pick for the No. 2 job in the State Department repeatedly refused on Wednesday to rule out unilateral action by the White House to ease U.S. pressure on Cuba.
But the official, Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken, emphasized that the government in Havana would first have to make progress on democratic reforms and free imprisoned U.S. aid worker Alan Gross. The comments came during Blinken's confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“Do you anticipate, during the rest of the president’s term, that there will be any unilateral change” to sanctions on Cuba absent democratic reforms, asked Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, whose parents emigrated from Cuba to the U.S.
“Anything that might be done on Cuba will have to be consistent with the law,” Blinken replied. He added, “Anything that in the future might be done on Cuba would be done in full consultation” with Congress.
Rubio tried again, noting “chatter” that Obama could try to change relations with Cuba unilaterally before leaving the White House in January 2017.
“The president has views on how to try to move, help move Cuba in a democratic direction, to help support people moving in that direction, and, you know, if he has an opportunity I’m sure that’s something he would want to pursue,” Blinken said. “But it depends on Cuba and the actions that they take.”
And recently Cuba’s government has taken “actions in exactly the wrong direction,” he added, noting that Havana was “unjustly imprisoning” Gross.
Rubio came back for a third try: “The thing that concerns me is that I haven’t heard you say point blank that, absent democratic openings, we’re not going to see actions on the part of this administration to weaken the current embargo and sanctions against Cuba.”
Again Blinken deflected the question, though he agreed Cuba would need to take steps before there could be changes. “At least in my judgment, unless Cuba is able to demonstrate that it is taking meaningful steps to move forward, I don’t see how you move forward in the relationship,” Blinken said.
Advocates of changing Washington’s policy toward Cuba cheered when Obama declared at a November 2013 fundraiser in Florida that the United States had to be “creative” and “thoughtful” about fostering change on the island, “and we have to continue to update our policies.”
“The notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today, in the age of the Internet and Google and world travel, doesn't make sense,” Obama said at the time.
But Obama’s last notable unilateral move on Cuba came in January 2011, when he eased restrictions on travel to and from the island. And top administration officials say nothing will happen while Cuba continues to hold Gross, who was sentenced in 2011 to 15 years in prison in connection with an effort to create a communications network outside government control.
Obama’s options for unilateral action are relatively limited. Lifting the embargo of more than five decades imposed after Fidel Castro’s revolution and subsequent turn toward the Soviet Union requires congressional action. But advisers have suggested much more modest steps, like increasing cultural exchanges, further easing travel or dropping Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. In foreign policy circles, speculation has run rampant that Obama is looking at steps he could take in his final two years in office to overhaul U.S.-Cuba relations.
In the hearing, Blinken also indicated that the White House could live with Congress attaching a time limit and restrictions on mass deployment of ground forces to legislation formally approving Obama’s military operations against the so-called Islamic State. Obama has said he wants lawmakers to approve an authorization for use of military force (AUMF) but has not explicitly specified what kinds of restrictions he would accept.
The committee chairman, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who has criticized the administration for not seeking congressional authorization sooner, said an AUMF should be limited to those “fighting for, or on behalf of” the Islamic State, “should be limited to three years or some other reasonable time frame; [and] should foreclose the possibility of a large-scale, enduring ground combat mission that we saw in Iraq from 2003 to 2011.”
Asked whether Obama could accept those limits, Blinken replied that “those would seem to me to form a good basis for a conversation on developing a new AUMF.”
Blinken also played down hopes that the United States and its partners would reach a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran by a mutually agreed Nov. 24 deadline.
“It's going to be difficult to get to where we want to go. It's not impossible,” he said. “But it is literally a minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour thing. I was getting emails before coming here. As we speak, I can't tell you what to expect.”
Blinken further suggested that Obama might drop his objections to arming Ukraine’s government in the face of Russia’s incursion and support for rebels in the country’s eastern areas.
“The question of defensive lethal assistance has never been off the table. It remains on the table. It's something that we're looking at, and, indeed, the vice president will be in Ukraine in the next few days, and I'm sure that will be a topic of discussion,” he said.
At times, Blinken became a target for Senate frustration with the Obama administration.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Md.) declared that the White House had made a “mistake” by not sending Congress specific AUMF language.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) scolded Blinken for saying the White House had “engaged, as you know, with you” on the AUMF.
Corker cut him off: “You have not engaged with me. That is totally untrue.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was even blunter. After Blinken described the administration as working with Congress, the former presidential candidate shot back: “You have not worked with me on anything.”