What does Washington want in Cuba? There has to be some workable strategic concept after 40 years of aborted invasion, cloak and dagger encounters in the tropics of three continents, exploding cigars, boycott, and secondary boycott.
But what is it? Is it to erode Castroism while Castro himself lingers on? Or to help cause his ouster by a fed-up populace?
Is it to continue to use the stick of economic deprivation, egging on Cubans' dissatisfaction with the regime? Or is it to use the carrot of freer commerce and personal contact with the outside world to further erode bondage to two generations' worth of failed central planning and iron rule?
The carrot approach is gathering force irrespective of Washington. A lively stream of individual invaders - concert pianists, jazz groups, a Broadway musical, and an MTV filming - is on its way to show the world to Cubans and Cuba to the world. That's useful. But it's not a policy.
Late last year the Clinton administration heard a five-point recommendation from Sen. Christopher Dodd, a Clinton ally, to ease restrictions. The administration also felt pressure from other sectors. Henry Kissinger wanted a commission to study alternatives to boycott. American multinational firms lobbied for a change before global competitors gained an upper hand. And creditor nations sought to resolve Cuba's big debt repayment problem.
Facing such pressures, the White House chose to inch forward. It slightly loosened the embargo - allowing more direct US-Cuba flights, food sales to non-regime buyers, bigger remittances to Cubans from relatives or friends abroad, and a Baltimore Orioles-Cuba exhibition baseball game.
Do these small moves represent a change in the long beard-to-beard confrontation between Uncle Sam and Castro? The answer is probably yes. Eyeing history, Bill Clinton would doubtless like to make Cuba a mini-version of Nixon's reversal of China policy, with the Oriole game as his ping-pong diplomacy wedge.
West German traffic with East Germany helped bring down the Berlin wall. "Doing business" (as Mrs. Thatcher put it) with Gorbachev helped dissolve the Stalin empire. Washington is talking, however haltingly, with Iran and North Korea, in hopes of (a) encouraging Iran's move away from Jacobin extremists and (b) undermining North Korea's Stalinist cult of hereditary dictators-for-life.
The US should consider Cuba a similar case. It must find more ways to allow average Cubans a connection to the world of free individuals. To help them chart their own careers, earn and spend without Big Brother controls, travel and speak without fear. In doing so it can help to make sure that Castroism doesn't survive Fidel and lead to yet a further 40-plus-year dictatorship.