WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has been criticized as cautious on foreign policy, but the secret negotiations on Cuba suggest a willingness for bold and risky action, if he can keep tight control and rely on a few close aides.
It's a pattern Obama followed during clandestine talks with Iran that led to an interim nuclear deal and in under-the-radar discussions with China on a climate change agreement announced last month.
Such diplomatic breakthroughs have buoyed Obama and may help counter charges that his responses to other international matters, including the rise of Islamic State militants and Russia's aggression in Ukraine, are weak and ineffective.
"Around the world, America is leading," Obama said Friday in a year-end news conference. The president cited the announcement that he was normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than five decades of Cold War acrimony with the communist island nation and "turning a new page in our relationship with the Cuban people."
The secret talks with Cuba, like the negotiations with Iran and China, were carried out by a small number of officials who slipped in and out of Washington.
The Iran talks were handled by State Department officials William Burns and Jake Sullivan, who have since left the administration. The point person on China was White House counselor John Podesta. Leading the Cuba mission from the White House were deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes and senior Latin America adviser Ricardo Zuniga, who met with Cuban officials nine times in Canada and at the Vatican.
In each instance, the advisers' close proximity to the president was intended to send a message to their counterparts that they were negotiating with Obama's full authority.
The overtures to Iran and Cuba were gambles for Obama. The U.S. was negotiating with two countries with whom it had not had diplomatic relations in decades. Leaks about the talks could have undermined what little trust there was on either side.
In opening a direct channel with Iran, Obama also risked angering Israel, which sees the Islamic Republic and its pursuit of a nuclear weapon as an existential threat. In shifting course on Cuba, the president risked antagonizing congressional Republicans and a few Democrats, though his new position largely puts the U.S. in line with how the rest of the world deals with the small island just 90 miles off U.S. shores.
There are few guarantees that Obama will achieve his goals. The president has given the negotiations over a final nuclear deal with Iran a 50 percent chance of succeeding, and he acknowledged on Friday that substantial political and social change may be slow to come to Cuba.
On other foreign matters, Obama has proved less willing to gamble, especially when potential military options are up for discussion. For example, his policy on Syria's civil war has been seen by critics and allies as slow and indecisive.
The president has faced questions, too, about whether he has acted aggressively enough in helping Ukraine counter Russia; his response so far has relied chiefly on economic penalties. They have contributed to a precipitous fall in Russia's currency, but there is little indication that economic pain is causing Russian President Vladimir Putin to pull back from Ukraine.
"It's great when you can do something with two guys in the White House," said Jon Alterman, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "When you get a higher level of complexity, people are baffled at what the administration is trying to do."
Beyond diplomacy, Obama also has taken risks by approving rescue attempts of hostages in Syria and Yemen, and aggressively used drones and special operations forces against terrorists, including the 2011 raid in Pakistan that led to the death of Osama bin Laden.
Yet Obama sometimes has helped perpetuate the image of a president paralyzed at the prospect of risk. When Obama was asked this year to outline his foreign policy doctrine, he described it a strategy that "avoids errors."
"You hit singles, you hit doubles," Obama said, turning to a baseball analogy. "Every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run."
Some supporters cringed, believing that description misconstrued an appropriately cautious approach in a complicated world.