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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

We tread carefully among tyrants

A newspaper headline with the illustration of President-elect

A newspaper headline with the illustration of President-elect Donald Trump is pictured next to the flag of Taiwan in Taipei on Monday. EPA/RITCHIE B. TONGO Credit: EPA / RITCHIE B. TONGO

Three weeks ago, Fidel Castro’s death was received in many quarters with tears of joy and triumph. Seen in that light, it’s hard not to be frustrated with the hordes of politicos and analysts rushing to the defense of the “One China” policy and castigating President-elect Donald Trump for talking tough to China, and for his willingness to speak to Taiwan.

After all, the theoretically sound logic goes, if we hate dictators and repressive regimes like Castro’s, shouldn’t we also forcefully demand a change of politics and leadership in Communist China? And shouldn’t we do everything possible to bolster the fortunes of Taiwan, which is an admirably free democracy?

It’s tempting to argue exactly that, to demand that the United States take away China’s “most favored nation” trading status and impose sanctions against it. It makes moral sense to shake our collectively clenched fist at a nation that too often runs like a prison and horribly mistreats many of its people.

If the United States is the world’s policeman, then why is it always cracking down on the little human-rights crooks like Cuba but giving the big fish like China a pass? Are we just a corrupt and cowardly cop, on the take from big trading partners with fat wallets, endlessly harassing smaller and less powerful nations for the same sins?

And yeah, we sort of are, but not without good reason.

First, no matter how much we want the United States to promote freedom and human rights throughout the world, that can never top our government’s list of priorities. The first priority has to be the safety and security of American citizens.

We were able to condemn and castigate and even undermine Cuba because it wasn’t powerful enough to stop us, and the Soviet Union proved over time that it did not care enough about our treatment of Cuba to significantly escalate tensions over the issue. The USSR preferred our prosecution of the island 90 miles off the coast of Florida to an open relationship that could have bound Cuba closer to us.

With a nation like China, though, you don’t start a significant fuss unless you are willing to get very serious about it. China is a powerful nation, and one that over the past several millennia has proven a willingness to go to any lengths to maintain its pride and primacy. China does not back down easily, and its leaders have historically been willing to sacrifice millions of lives in conflicts its people have been willing to die for.

So that’s one reason not to treat China like Cuba. But there’s another, more important one: the way we treated Cuba didn’t work. For nearly six decades, our attempts to undermine its economy and governance, and encourage its people to rise up didn’t help a bit.

When President Barack Obama started melting relations and sanctions, Cuba was still as poor and repressed and under the thumb of the Castros as it had been in the early years of Fidel’s rule.

Nor have our direct methods of trying to free oppressed peoples worked. Saddam Hussein was a murderous tyrant, and the United States had an easy time toppling him. But now, 13 years later, it’s hard to argue that the life of the average Iraqi is better than it was under Hussein. Honest observers mostly agree that it’s worse.

So how do we pursue a moral course that will make the world freer while keeping our nation safe? Carefully. Strategically. And sometimes, we don’t. Because it’s too dangerous. And because it doesn’t work.

With Trump’s saber-rattling toward China and his advisers’ seeming readiness to aggressively engage in the Middle East, this team is acting as if the lessons of our history don’t exist.

It’s very frightening. It’s very dangerous. And it simply isn’t smart.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.