[inset_left]Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue RegimesBy Michael RubinEncounter Books, 426 pagesNew York, 2014[/inset_left]
Just a few months ago, Secretary of State John Kerry was praising “our Russian partners” for their role in making a second “Geneva peace conference” on Syria possible. Having spent more time with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, than with any other colleague, Kerry promoted the illusion that Russia and the United States were teaming up to resolve a number of issues, including the Syrian war and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
And then, all of a sudden, we had Russia flexing its muscles in Ukraine by breaking the sacrosanct rule that said European borders could not be changed by force. Lavrov and his boss, President Vladimir Putin, were violating not only the emblematic Helsinki accords of 1975 but also a set of treaties that guarantee Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity. In a military–political blitzkrieg, Putin annexed the Crimean Peninsula in less than a week. In other words, Russia had gone rogue.
But what is a rogue state? According to Michael Rubin’s new and extensively researched book, a rogue state is one that ignores international law and accepted norms of behavior whenever and wherever it serves its policy objectives. A rogue state may make promises, sign treaties and join international organizations, but will always reason like a lone wolf that abides by no rules—even while extending the hand of friendship with extra warmth while holding a knife at the ready behind its back. “Rogues are proactive rather that reactive,” Rubin writes. “They simply do not accept international norms.” Thus, in dealing with them, “limiting strategy to the normal tools of diplomacy will fail.”
Rubin, a former Pentagon official, argues that rogue states are able to act roguishly because those capable of reining them in succumb to the temptation of securing a settlement through diplomacy. Even before he was elected president, Barack Obama insisted that the US “talk to its enemies.” In the case of the Islamic Republic of Iran, he offered “a hand of friendship” and proposed a one-on-one meeting with then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Implicitly, he blamed previous US administrations for three decades of tension in its relations with Iran.
However, Obama is not alone in the belief that he could do better than his predecessors. Rubin writes: “[Former US president Jimmy] Carter never gave up hope that he might broker peace.” That was because he had “uncritical trust in his own power of persuasion” and believed that “if past diplomacy had failed, it had to be the fault of his predecessors not of America’s adversaries.” Rubin shows how successive administrations refuse to learn from the experience of their predecessors.
Take Syria, for example. Sometime in 1970, and for reasons that remain a mystery, the US State Department adopted the shibboleth that in the Middle East there could be no war without Egypt and no peace without Syria. Thus, an annual “summit” of the US president and the Syrian despot Hafez Al-Assad became part of US diplomatic ritual. For almost three decades, Damascus became the most popular destination for US secretaries of state. George Shultz went there six times and James Baker doubled that number. Warren Christopher more than doubled that again by traveling to Damascus 29 times. Interestingly, no one took a moment to assess the results of so much attention being paid to a tin-pot tyrant. Every new secretary of state taking the road to Damascus claimed he was having success where others had failed.
Measuring success in Dancing with the Devil is in itself an exercise in obfuscation. Among the claims made to justify wooing rogues is that “jaw-jaw is better than war-war.” Here, the trick is to narrow down all options to just two: talking to the enemy or invading his territory. Often the trick works because most people don’t have the time or the information to realize that war is not the only alternative to sterile negotiations. The rogue-wooers also claim that talking helps with “confidence building” or the establishment of “parameters for future engagement.” They claim that “modest progress” has been made or “constructive dialogue” is under way and that “encouraging signs” could be detected. When none of those claims sound convincing, the rogue-wooer asserts that things might have been worse without engagement.
The rogue states have one crucial advantage over their democratic adversaries, including the United States. Rogue leaders have much longer tenures than their democratic adversaries. Iranian “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei has been a central player in the power structure in Tehran since 1979 and has dealt with six US presidents. President Hassan Rouhani has been a key figure in the Khomeinist security services since 1980, long before Obama was old enough to nurture political dreams. The Kim dynasty in Pyongyang has been in charge of North Korea’s destiny for more than six decades. The Assad clique has dominated Syria since 1970. Even Putin is now in his third decade in power, first as prime minister and then as president of Russia.
The rogues know that their democratic adversaries are only mildly interested in tackling complex issues. US policymakers come and go, write their books, launch a second career in think-tanks or boardrooms and have little or no desire to complicate their lives. Rubin provides the names of many former politicians and diplomats who have recast themselves as freelance peacemakers. Among them are such distinguished figures as Lee Hamilton, Thomas Pickering, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft and Richard Haass. Such individuals are not as harmful as professional appeasers if only because they lack consistency in their analyses. Nevertheless, they help perpetuate the illusion of peace, thereby helping rogues buy time in which to make more mischief.
Because the US cycle of elections does not coincide with the diplomatic cycle, any change of administration or personnel in Washington could mean restarting the “engagement process” from zero. The outgoing officials become critics of the incoming ones, claiming they would have handled the engagement better than their successors. Those who are too old to think of a second career, people like Kerry and US Vice President Joe Biden, favor engagement even if it leads nowhere, in the hope of being cast as peacemakers and ending up with a Nobel Peace Prize.
Rubin writes: “Elite Washington society often treats engagement with rogues as chic and sophisticated.” Anyone who suggests that some rogues will not stop unless they hit something hard is labeled “warmonger” or “cowboy.”
US policymakers and/or implementers know that whatever the outcome of “engagement” with rogues, their personal risks are minimal. The interlocutors on the “rogue” side are in a dramatically different situation. The slightest mistake could mean loss of power, imprisonment, exile and even death.
Promoting engagement with rogues has nurtured a vast appeasement industry keeping thousands of former officials, real or self-styled experts, op-ed crusaders and “Track II” fixers busy.
At the very least, the appeaser is rewarded with visas to visit the rogue state and granted access to powerful figures there. In a growing number of cases, appeasers have also benefited from lucrative business deals and consultancies for those on the lookout for a fast buck. In time, engagement becomes an end in itself, not a means to an end. The rogues welcome engagement because it removes the threat of military action or genuinely hurtful sanctions against them. Kerry’s engagement with Lavrov has enabled the Russians to keep Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in power in Damascus and to launch a new phase in Putin’s plan to at least partially revive the Soviet Empire. Engagement with Iran has enabled the mullahs to continue their nuclear program while Obama acts as chief lobbyist for them to prevent the US Congress from imposing new sanctions.
This is how Hossein Mousavian, a former Khomeinist security official, assesses the outcome of a previous round of negotiations with the US and other Western powers: “During two years of negotiations we made far greater progress [in uranium enrichment] than North Korea.” The technique was simple: Keep talking, but continue doing exactly what you were doing! Abdullah Ramezanzadeh, a spokesman for former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, is more specific: “We had one overt policy: negotiations and confidence building and a covert policy which was the continuation of our [nuclear] activities.”
As part of the appeasement strategy, successive US administrations overlooked crimes committed by rogue states against America. For example, since 1979 the Islamic Republic in Tehran has always held a number of US hostages without losing the sympathy of the appeasement lobby. Today five US citizens are held hostage in Iran. Former US president Bill Clinton chose to ignore the murder of 19 US servicemen by Iranian Hezbollah agents in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, and even apologized for “the wrongs my civilization has done” to Iran. The Kim gang in North Korea has pocketed billions in US aid, supposedly in exchange for stopping its nuclear program, but is busy expanding its deadly arsenal.
North Korea, Iran and Russia are not the only rogues to come under Rubin’s scrutiny. He shows how “engagement” with the Palestine Liberation Organization, Libya and, more recently, the Muslim Brotherhood produced the opposite of the results that the appeasers had promised. In every case, the rogues or their apologists knew how to hoodwink the gullible Americans. Here is Tariq Ramadan, a grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan Al-Banna: “I must speak in a way that is appropriate for the ear hearing me.”
It is not only misguided idealists and opportunists who preach and peddle engagement with rogues. At times, there are US officials who show reluctance to deal as firmly with such rogues as might be desirable. Rubin cites as an example the case of several officials of the Carter administration, among them the analysts Richard Falk and Richard Cottam and National Security Council aide Gary Sick.
Rubin has a sober lesson for anyone who cares to learn it: “The first casualty of engagement with rogues is moral clarity.”