Damned If You Do
Diplomatic dangers and cautions


LOPEZ: Does engagement with rogue regimes help or hurt persecuted religious minorities?

RUBIN: It hurts. No doubt about it. Religious minorities are often the canary in the coal mine. We like to convince ourselves that diplomacy changes rogues. But the continued persecution of religious minorities is the best evidence that rogues haven’t changed, not matter how much we like to pretend they have.

LOPEZ: How does ideology matter in diplomatic engagement?

RUBIN: We need to recognize that some of our adversaries think differently and have different values. It should scare the heck out of us that we don’t know whether the Islamic Revolutionary Guardsmen who would have custody over a potential Iranian nuclear bomb believe the radical religious theories voiced by their leaders.

The issue of ideology really comes into play in how we address terrorism. There are two basic schools of thought: that terrorism is rooted in grievance and that it is rooted in ideology. If you believe in the grievance school — as President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry do — then you design policies to address that grievance and believe that terrorism will disappear. That’s why Obama and Kerry see the Israel-Palestine conflict as the key issue. But Islamist terrorism began well before Israel’s founding; the predecessor of the DIA identified it as a growing problem in 1946 because of Muslim Brotherhood violence. Recognizing that some (not all) terrorists are motivated by ideology scares diplomats because it means diplomacy won’t work, and that more military solutions are needed.

LOPEZ: If the Palestinian leaders are the “devil” in your categorization, surely Israel isn’t saintly in the fight for whose home is where in the Middle East?

RUBIN: Palestinian leaders are not the devil and the Israelis certainly aren’t saintly. I characterized the PLO as a rogue until 1993, when they came in from the cold. But Hamas is rogue: They refuse to accept all previous agreements that the Palestinian Authority signed with Israel and so undercut the basic assumptions of diplomacy.

LOPEZ: How can the U.S. help persecuted Christians in Egypt? In Syria? In North Korea? In Nigeria? (To name a few.)

RUBIN: Frankly, I think preserving religious liberty should be a core principle guiding U.S. foreign policy. Those countries that respect religious liberty tend to be countries with whom we can deal in a much more normal fashion that we do with rogues. We shouldn’t sweep the problem under the carpet and treat it as an impediment to diplomacy. We need to gear our diplomacy to the reality of these countries rather than the image that some dictators try to cultivate.

LOPEZ: “While it has become the mantra of diplomats that wars end with talks,” you write, “the reality of the Taliban is that talks lead to war. The Clinton administration’s Taliban outreach enabled al-Qaeda to maintain its safe haven long enough to plan and carry out a strike against the United States in September 2001. That the Obama administration now repeats Clinton’s strategy does not bode well.” How is the story of U.S. engagement with Afghanistan going to end? Iraq?

RUBIN: The problem isn’t engagement with Afghanistan, but rather engagement with the Taliban. Afghans have never lost a war; they just defect to the winning side. At best, we’re going to have a low-grade civil war in Afghanistan. What I fear is a cataclysmic collapse of the Afghan state within months of the money running out.

LOPEZ: Why is U.S. policy toward Iran so important to get right? What are we getting wrong right now? What message are we sending to the likes of North Korea with it?

RUBIN: The time to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear-weapons capability is rapidly running out. Once Iran does get the capability, it could become a nuclear power in just a few weeks should it make the decision to do so.

One of the revelations involved in the book research was just how the Iranians have used North Korea’s “success” in negotiations with the United States as a model for their own negotiation strategy.

Tags: Diplomatic dangers and cautions


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