‘The idea that it never hurts to talk is wrong,” Michael Rubin writes in his new book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes. “Poorly planned dialogue can exact a high cost, and even the most skilled diplomats will fail when their governments do not demonstrate strength and leverage,” he continues. “Ronald Reagan entered into negotiation with the Soviet Union only after a substantial military buildup,” Rubin emphasizes, adding: “Unilateral concessions may win Western hearts and minds, but few rogues are the products of Western culture. In dealings with Iran, North Korea, the Taliban, Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority, concessions eroded the façade of strength needed to effect a successful outcome.” Rubin, a longtime contributor to National Review Online, discusses the book with Kathryn Jean Lopez.
MICHAEL RUBIN: The purpose of the book isn’t to castigate diplomacy, but rather to look at a subset of diplomacy involving rogue regimes and terrorist groups, groups that don’t accept the rules of diplomacy as the international community understands it. Certainly, Americans can debate our own strategy — that’s healthy and welcome — but what the book also tried to do is shed light on the discussions about strategy that occur within the leadership of adversaries like Iran, the Taliban, Hamas, and North Korea.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Is there a danger that the title of your book is a little strong? After all, these diplomatic matters are largely prudential questions people of good will can disagree with strategically, aren’t they?
LOPEZ: “American statesmen once took pride in the fact that the United States did not negotiate with terrorists. Over the last quarter-century, that principle has become more the exception than the rule.” Would you simply turn back the clock?
RUBIN: Well, let’s at least be clear about where we want to set the clock. We clearly don’t negotiate with al-Qaeda, and few policymakers believe we should be sitting down with Hezbollah or Hamas either. What we need to be conscious of, however, is how those terror groups perceive the United States when and if we do meet with them. At the same time, if we didn’t negotiate with terrorists in the past but do now, we should at least assess what that negotiation has gotten us, versus what it has cost us.
LOPEZ: How is engaging rogue regimes the shortest path to war? Surely this isn’t always the case.
RUBIN: Again, let’s be clear that there is a difference between an enemy and a rogue regime. For the purposes of the book, I accepted the definition put forward by National Security Adviser Tony Lake during the Clinton administration. The problem with rogues is that they don’t subscribe to diplomatic norms. The White House might see talks as a means to conflict resolution, but do the folks surrounding the Supreme Leader in Tehran, the Dear Leader in Pyongyang, or the Muslim Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide feel the same way?
Multiculturalism doesn’t simply mean being able to walk into a sushi joint and order a mojito, but that people from different cultures can think in fundamentally different ways. If the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps sees an outstretched hand not as an opportunity for peace, but rather as a sign of weakness to exploit, then that can undercut stability.
Likewise, if we loosen sanctions or suspend planning for worst-case scenarios, we give our opponents an advantage when a crisis actually does come, and it invariably will.
LOPEZ: How can we ever get anywhere in the world without dialogue?
RUBIN: Again, the problem isn’t dialogue but how to set the right circumstances. Ronald Reagan didn’t just sit down one day with Mikhail Gorbachev and give diplomacy a shot. Rather, it was the culmination of a long process that involved rhetoric, a military buildup in Europe, and a coordinated economic policy.
Likewise, the George W. Bush administration’s dialogue with Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi did not come in isolation, but alongside a determination to take action against Iraq and only after Qaddafi came to realize that Bush’s redlines were not simply rhetorical.
LOPEZ: How can “poorly planned dialogue . . . exact a high cost”?
RUBIN: Here are just two examples, of many listed in the book. First, take Iran: Between 2000 and 2005, European Union trade with Tehran more than doubled as diplomats sought to encourage Iranian president Mohammad Khatami’s “Dialogue among Civilizations.” The Iranians took about 70 percent of that hard-currency windfall and invested it in ballistic missiles and a covert nuclear program.
Or the Taliban: Between 1995 and 2000, diplomats and senior Clinton-administration officials negotiated with the Taliban and swore they were on the verge of getting the Taliban to close terror-training camps and extradite bin Laden. The Taliban used the talks as a diversion, and we paid the price on 9/11.