Here is some of what we know about the disorderly, nuclear-armed state of Pakistan: We know that the world’s most notorious terrorist, Osama bin Laden, found refuge there for several years. We know that bin Laden’s organization, al-Qaeda, has moved its headquarters to Pakistan’s sovereign territory.
We know that Lashkar-e-Taiba, the terrorist group that was responsible for devastating attacks in Mumbai in 2008, maintains a 200-acre campus near Lahore. And we know that Pakistan’s intelligence agency has given direct support to terrorist groups, including Lashkar and the Haqqani Network, which is responsible for the deaths of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
Pakistan, it seems, would be a natural candidate for inclusion on the “state sponsors of terrorism” list that the U.S. State Department produces each year.
But it isn’t on the list.
Here is some of what we know about Cuba. Cuba is an impoverished autocracy. Its superannuated leaders are gradually opening their country’s economy. Cuba is reducing the size of its military, it has condemned al-Qaeda and it poses no national-security threat to the U.S. No serious intelligence analyst believes that Cuba is still funding or arming foreign insurgencies.
But Cuba is on the list. So what, exactly, has it done to merit inclusion?
Criticism Equals Terrorism
According to the State Department’s 2010 report on state sponsors of terrorism, “Cuba continued to denounce U.S. counterterrorism efforts throughout the world, portraying them as a pretext to extend U.S. influence and power.”
Cuba is a sponsor of terrorism, in other words, because it is critical of America’s war on terrorism. By this definition, many of America’s elected officials are sponsors of terrorism.
The report goes on, “Cuba has been used as a transit point by third-country nationals looking to enter illegally into the United States.” By this definition, Canada is also a sponsor of terrorism.
And what are the Cubans doing about this problem? “The Government of Cuba is aware of the border integrity and transnational security concerns posed by such transit and investigated third country migrant smuggling and related criminal activities.”
Oh, and by the way, the Cubans also “allowed representatives of the Transportation Security Administration to conduct a series of airport security visits throughout the island.” A very clever cooptation by a terrorist state, apparently.
The department’s 2009 report acknowledged that Cuba “publicly condemned acts of terrorism by al-Qa’ida and its affiliates,” but still made the point that the government in Havana was “critical of the U.S. approach to combating international terrorism.”
And it detailed another of Cuba’s treacheries: “The government of Cuba has long assisted members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army of Colombia (ELN), and Spain’s Basque Homeland and Freedom Organization (ETA), some having arrived in Cuba in connection with peace negotiations with the governments of Colombia and Spain.”
I asked Julia E. Sweig, the Latin America expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, what to make of this claim. She said, “Cuba hosted peace talks at the request of a succession of Colombian governments. But Norway hosted the PLO during the run-up to the Oslo peace process. Did this make Norway a state sponsor of terror?”
Cuba is a one-party state, of course, and its people deserve to be free. Just last week, Cuba hosted the president of a terrorist state, Iran. This is perfidious, but it doesn’t make Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism.
The State Department’s list has consequences. Harsh sanctions automatically accompany the designation of a country as a sponsor of terrorism. And it is used as a guide by U.S. allies when they formulate foreign policy.
In total, there are four countries listed. Syria and Iran are two. This makes sense to me. But the final country is Sudan. Here is what the State Department’s most recent report on Sudan says about its dastardly activities: “Sudan remained a cooperative partner in global counterterrorism efforts against al-Qa’ida (AQ) in 2010.”
Come again? Sudan cooperates in American anti-terrorism activities? The report goes on, “During the past year, the Government of Sudan worked actively to counter AQ operations that posed a potential threat to U.S. interests and personnel in Sudan. Sudanese officials have indicated that they viewed continued cooperation with the United States as important and recognized the potential benefits of U.S. training and information-sharing.”
Sudan isn’t ruled by good or generous people, and its government violates the rights of its citizens in diverse ways, but how could it be a state sponsor of terrorism when the State Department labels it an ally in fighting terrorists?
President Barack Obama’s administration is aware of the flaws in this list. One senior administration official acknowledged to me that some of its features are absurd. But he argued that including a country draws attention to its wrongdoing and makes other nations think twice about doing business with it.
In reality, though, the list is hopelessly corrupted by politics. If it was an exercise in analytical honesty, Cuba would be the first country removed. But no administration would risk the wrath of the Cuba lobby in Washington by doing so. This is to our detriment, as much as it is to Cuba’s.
So why have a list at all? I wouldn’t argue for Pakistan’s inclusion, even though elements of the Pakistani government support terrorism, because the U.S. shouldn’t handcuff itself in dealing with complicated and dangerous countries. If the list is to remain, it should at least be renamed: The State Department’s List of Countries That, for One Reason or Another, We Have Decided to Despise.
It’s a mouthful, but at least it reflects reality.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)