Politics & Policy

How to Handle a Tyrant

Obama's outreach to illiberal regimes has backfired.

‘To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

These words, spoken by President Obama in his inaugural address, marked the beginning of what has been a concerted effort to reach out to tyrants from Pyongyang to Tehran. A dozen missile launches, a nuclear detonation, a rigged election, and countless crackdowns on individual liberties later, it is safe to say this effort has had the opposite of its intended effect.

The architects of Obama’s outreach strategy had what they believed was a compelling theory. According to them, North Korean and Iranian provocations in recent years have been due at least in part to the bellicose rhetoric and interventionist foreign policy of the Bush administration. These regimes might act more reasonably if they could be made to understand that the United States means them no harm and seeks from them nothing more than peaceful coexistence. Add to that some incentives — like economic aid or diplomatic recognition — and the leaders of these countries might forsake entirely their troublemaking inclinations and evolve, over time, into productive members of the international community.

But the last few months have shattered those expectations. North Korea has spiraled out of control, completing a successful nuclear test last month, firing a rocket over Japan, and sentencing two U.S. journalists to twelve years in a hard-labor camp. And the Iranian government has presided over a sham election followed by a clampdown on civil society so swift and severe that even Roger Cohen, for whom engagement with the Iranian government has become a personal obsession, was moved to admit that he had “erred in underestimating the brutality and cynicism of a regime that understands the uses of ruthlessness.” Indeed.

Sadly, these developments are as tragic as they were predictable. The Kim Jong Ils and Mahmoud Ahmadinejads of the world want power — power at all costs, to bully their neighbors and perpetuate their rule. Nuclear weapons enhance their power internationally. Oppression enhances their power domestically. A conciliatory policy on the part of the United States only emboldens these leaders, signaling to them that they can pursue their power-aggrandizing designs without fear of meaningful consequences.

A more appropriate strategy would center around turning this calculus on its head. The United States must tailor its policies to convince North Korea and Iran that developing nuclear weapons and stifling dissent actually weakens them. Obama might explain that a nuclear North Korea would leave the United States no choice but to support the nuclearization of Japan and South Korea, both countries that North Korea sees as hostile rivals. This would actually tip the regional balance of power in favor of the United States and its allies, constraining North Korea’s options.

Similarly, with Iran, Obama should make clear that arbitrary crackdowns on civil society will make the United States more vocal in its criticism of human-rights abuses and more determined to provide assistance to opposition groups. Such assistance would not backfire, as some have claimed — especially in light of the popularity Obama presently enjoys, including in Iran — but would strengthen the opposition’s resolve.

The point of all this is for the North Korean and Iranian regimes to understand that their egregious conduct makes them more vulnerable to threats both global and local, and will only hasten their unraveling.

That is why the events taking place in Iran right now present such an interesting opportunity for the United States. The protests, which have gathered additional momentum in recent days, pose a very real threat to the legitimacy and authority of the Iranian regime. They supply concrete evidence that quashing dissent will result in tyrannical regimes’ losing power rather than consolidating it. The United States should develop and advance this narrative, so that it may serve to deter future acts of despotism not just by the Iranian government, but also by other tyrannical regimes that are watching very closely how Iran’s “Green Revolution” is unfolding.

In the early days of his presidency, Obama often chastised the Bush administration for having inflexibly pursued a foreign policy based on ideology, not facts. Now Obama must prove that he himself is not so rigid. Engagement with Pyongyang and Tehran is not working, and won’t no matter how hard Obama tries. It is time for him to change course.

Alexander Benard, a New York attorney, has worked at the Department of Defense and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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