Politics & Policy

Learning from Setbacks

An excerpt from In My Time.

We accomplished a great deal in our first years in office in slowing the proliferation of nuclear materials and technology. As we dealt with North Korea, particularly throughout 2007 and 2008, the president would sometimes refer to one of those accomplishments — getting the Libyans to turn over their nuclear materials — and say he was looking for the North Koreans to have their “Qaddafi moment.” That is what we all hoped to achieve, and I don’t believe the president himself ever lost sight of that as the objective. But I think Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Assistant Secretary Chris Hill did. For them, the agreement seemed to become the objective, and we ended up with a clear setback in our nonproliferation efforts.

#ad#In early 2001 the president had it exactly right when he decided to set a new course for dealing with North Korea and made other countries, most importantly China, a part of the negotiations. When our diplomats began meeting bilaterally with the North Koreans again, sometimes in contravention of official instructions, China was essentially sidelined, as were our allies the Japanese and the South Koreans. We missed a number of important opportunities to use our leverage to get them to play a more constructive role. There is no question that the challenge of North Korea’s nuclear program was one of the toughest we faced during our time in office. As we worked to meet this challenge, I wish the president had been better served by his State Department team.

The story of our diplomacy with North Korea, particularly in the second term of the Bush presidency, carries with it important lessons for American leaders and diplomats of the future. First is the importance of not losing sight of the objective. In this case, the president had made clear that our goal was getting the North Koreans to give up their nuclear-weapons program. However, as negotiations proceeded, the State Department came to regard getting the North Koreans to agree to something, indeed anything, as the ultimate objective. That mistake led our diplomats to respond to Pyongyang’s intransigence and dishonesty with ever-greater concessions, thereby encouraging duplicity and double-dealing. And in the end it led them to recommend we accept an agreement that didn’t accomplish the president’s goal and even set it back. A good model for future leaders is Ronald Reagan’s approach at the Reykjavik summit with Gorbachev in 1986. He wasn’t so desperate for an agreement that he would take whatever he could get. He would not concede America’s right to missile defense, and when the Soviets refused to grant that point, he ended the talks.

This leads to the second and related lesson. The most effective diplomacy happens when America negotiates from a position of strength. If we remember that our ultimate goal is the substantive one of denuclearization and we are willing to walk away rather than accept a partial, untrue, or damaging agreement, we are in a much stronger position. At the same time, if our adversaries understand we will not compromise on fundamental principles and that we will use military force if necessary, they are much more likely to do business at the negotiating table. That is why I argued that we should have taken action ourselves to destroy the North Korean–built nuclear reactor in the Syrian desert. It would have sent an unmistakable message to the Syrians, the Iranians, and the North Koreans that our words meant something, that we would not tolerate the proliferation of nuclear technology. Such a message might well have encouraged those nations to take advantage of the opportunity to reach a diplomatic agreement rather than risk military action. The effect of U.S. military action was seen clearly, for example, when Moammar Qaddafi watched the United States liberate Iraq and then called to say he’d like to give up his nuclear-weapons program.

#page#The third lesson is that red lines must mean something. In the aftermath of 9/11, President Bush put in place an effective nonproliferation policy that yielded results. We dedicated ourselves to preventing terrorists and terror-sponsoring states from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. When the North Koreans tested a nuclear weapon in October 2006, President Bush warned that we would hold them fully accountable for the consequences of any proliferation, especially to states such as Syria and Iran. Six months later, when we discovered they were proliferating to Syria, we should have held them accountable and did not. The lesson for other rogue nations might unfortunately be that they need not worry about threats from America. When our actions don’t match our rhetoric, diplomacy becomes much more difficult, and ultimately it becomes more likely that terror-sponsoring states will feel they can defy the will of the United States with impunity.

#ad#Fourth, effective diplomacy requires that we think strategically. The president did just this when he insisted in 2001 that we get the Chinese engaged in our efforts to convince the North Koreans to give up their nuclear program. We also brought in the Russians, the Japanese, and the South Koreans. The president saw that North Korea was already so isolated and under such extensive sanctions that the United States alone had little ability to bring significant pressure to bear. However, a multilateral approach that included China might well have the ability to pressure Pyongyang. We lost opportunities to encourage the Chinese to play a more constructive role. In the immediate aftermath of North Korea’s nuclear test in October 2006, for example, the Chinese were upset, particularly because Pyongyang gave them only an hour’s notice of the test. We should have used that moment of leverage to bring our partners in the six-party talks together — with the Chinese in the lead — to put true pressure on the North Koreans. Another moment of maximum leverage was when we discovered the existence of the nuclear reactor that the North Koreans were building in Syria. Again, we should have immediately taken the information to the Chinese and worked together with them to develop a strategic plan to accomplish our objective. Instead, with Assistant Secretary Hill determined to have bilateral discussions with the North, we sidelined the Chinese, ensuring that they would not be as effective a partner for us as they could have been.

Fifth, America’s position in the world is strengthened when we stand with allies. In this instance we failed to do that, instead sidelining two key allies — the Japanese and the South Koreans — in our bilateral dealings with the North. Accepting a fundamentally flawed “agreement” also meant that we turned our back on an issue of critical importance to the Japanese, one that we had committed to helping them resolve: the return of their lost children.

Finally, effective diplomacy requires that our diplomats study and learn from our history. In this case, recent history with North Korea was a pretty effective guide to how they would behave. They signed the Agreed Framework in 1994 during the Clinton administration and immediately began violating its terms, demanding payment and looking for ways to use the negotiations to blackmail the United States. We now know the North was actively working to enrich uranium and proliferating with the Syrians while they were party to the Agreed Framework. They behaved the same way with us and have brought out all their threats and demands again for the Obama administration. They have learned now, through Republican and Democratic administrations, that this is an effective way to operate. It yields concessions from the West while they continue to develop nuclear weapons. I hope a future president and secretary of state will break the cycle. This is particularly important because in the area of nonproliferation, as in so much else, the United States must lead. If we do not hold the line, few others will.

History in a broader sense is also important. In every administration, Republican and Democrat, there is often an inclination on the part of the State Department to make preemptive concessions to bad actors in the hope that their behavior will change. I often wondered what historical lessons or examples my State Department colleagues were drawing on as they advocated such policies. If they had been able to point to something, to say, well, here is where it worked in the past, I might have viewed their efforts differently. Sadly, the history is clear. Policies that ignore or reward dangerous behavior by our adversaries do not work. Concessions delivered out of desperation in the naïve hope that despots will respond in kind tend not to enhance the security of the United States.

— Dick Cheney was vice president during the George W. Bush administration. This is an excerpt from his new memoir, In My Time

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