Politics & Policy

Damned If You Do

Diplomatic dangers and cautions

‘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.

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?

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.

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.

#page#LOPEZ: How do you determine who is rogue? What are the lines to draw on who is “the devil” and who can be engaged?

RUBIN: As you may recall, it’s actually the Clinton administration that came up with the term. In short, rogues sponsor or engage in terrorism, often seek weapons of mass destruction, and don’t abide by the rules of diplomacy.

The fundamental question we have to ask is whether the target of our diplomacy will abide by agreements once reached. If not, then diplomacy simply becomes a way to spin in place and delay tougher choices about how to deal with the problem.

LOPEZ: How do rogue regimes pretend to be aggrieved to put the West on the defensive? Can we engage but respond differently?

RUBIN: Culture matters. While American diplomats pride themselves on cultural sensitivity, we fail to recognize that rogues often use culture against us. Jihadists, for example, know how afraid we are of offending Muslims, and so hide weapons in mosques because they recognize we will hesitate to enter them.

My favorite example, though, which I highlight in the book, involves the phrase “carrots and sticks.” A few years ago, some Iranian diplomats told some American dialogue partners that such a phrase was insulting, and that we were comparing Iranians to donkeys. Several senior American diplomats took their word for it, and began criticizing the insensitivity of Americans and demanded that we take a softer, more conciliatory approach to Tehran. Had they bothered to check what the same Iranian officials said in Persian, however, they would have found that the Iranians used the same phrase all the time.

LOPEZ: You point out that Machiavelli “maintained a skeptical view of negotiation.” Does the U.S. really want to be Machiavellian?

RUBIN: No, but we need to recognize that some of our opponents do.

LOPEZ: Why is it important to point out that “Reagan met Gorbachev in Reykjavik only after years of preparation”?

RUBIN: Because diplomats today forget that talking is only the last step in a carefully crafted strategy. We’ve kept the talk, but forgotten the strategy.

LOPEZ: In the book, you write: “As Reagan deployed intermediate-range and cruise missiles across Europe, antagonism toward the United States soared. But Reagan’s jokes about bombing Russia convinced Soviet officials that he might just be crazy enough to use those missiles. It appeared to be in Moscow’s interest to negotiate.” Was Reagan joking about using nuclear weapons on Russia a good thing?

RUBIN: Probably not, though the unintended effect of convincing Soviet leaders that he was unpredictable and dangerous may have catalyzed diplomacy, ironically. What was important, however, was his moral clarity in calling the Soviet Union “the Evil Empire.” Former Soviet dissidents and even those Soviets who were not politically active said it really was a watershed moment to hear someone call it like it was. Unfortunately, for today’s diplomats, moral clarity has become a dirty concept.

LOPEZ: Are sanctions — such as with China after Tiananmen Square and Sudan after Darfur — inhumane?

RUBIN: There’s no magic formula. If sanctions are too broad, they might hurt innocent people. But they’ve got to be broad enough to spark grassroots sentiment against the government. If they are so targeted that they don’t have an impact on general society, however, they will be ineffective. The important thing is not to use sanctions alone, but to combine them with other elements of national power.

LOPEZ: How does the false appearance of sincerity threaten U.S. national security?

RUBIN: The basis of diplomacy is that deals stick. If countries either value the process more than the deal or if they cheat on the final agreement, then national security suffers.

LOPEZ: How does deal-making undermine moral clarity?

RUBIN: It doesn’t need to, but, too often, the State Department will sacrifice dissidents in order to accelerate agreement. But if we play our cards right, we can have it all.

LOPEZ: Is yours a moral case against engagement with rogues?

RUBIN: That’s part of it, but the core arguments are that diplomacy poorly executed can undermine national security and that, regardless, diplomacy has a cost. Too many officials who should know better — Richard Armitage and Nicholas Burns, for example — have argued essentially that it is cost-free.

Whether diplomacy is more costly than other strategies is something we can determine on a case-by-case basis. Dancing with the Devil most certainly isn’t a call for military action. But we’ve got to stop treating diplomacy as a panacea.

#page#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.

#page#LOPEZ: Speaking of North Korea, what did George W. Bush do wrong there? Are the how’s and why’s there important in learning from it?

RUBIN: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was so intent on achieving a breakthrough to bolster Bush’s legacy that she provided incentives to North Korea that they did not legally merit. For example, she removed North Korea from the State Sponsor of Terrorism List even though it was in neck deep with both the Tamil Tigers and Hezbollah. Simply put, it’s important to deal with the reality of these rogues, rather than whitewashing reality in order to facilitate diplomacy.

LOPEZ: What would a Secretary of State Rubin do about North Korea?

RUBIN: First of all, I’d ground Dennis Rodman and Jimmy Carter, who increasingly seem more similar than different. More seriously, North Korea blusters for concessions. Standing up to them is dangerous, but at some point, we need to draw a line and simply say no. Offering incentives has simply encouraged greater outrage down the line. In many ways, the North Korean regime is a monster made in Beijing, and it’s time to hold China accountable for the disaster that its policy has wrought.

LOPEZ: Running with that fantasy Cabinet game I haven’t been able to play in a while: What would be the priorities a Secretary of State Rubin might present to a president of the United States?

RUBIN: We need to rethink how we conduct diplomacy. Today, we have it backwards: We bash allies and coddle adversaries. We can no longer ignore the corrosive impact of incitement and should start holding our partners to account for the anti-Americanism they cynically promote. Religious liberty should be a guiding principle. We should talk, but we shouldn’t hesitate to walk away from the table when opponents are not sincere. We need to set metrics by which to judge diplomacy and cut our losses when necessary. Nor should we offer any more incentives to adversaries, because we don’t want to reward bad behavior. If we’ve got to spend money, it’s better to spend it on our friends. There should also be a fundamental rethink of U.S. aid and how it is spent. It’s an open secret that USAID is an ineffective mess.

LOPEZ: You declare Pakistan rogue. What is there to do then?

RUBIN: The problem in Pakistan is its intelligence service, the ISI. They call the shots outside the formal mechanism of power. I interviewed senior ISI officials for my book, and they didn’t hide their perspective. Rather than bribe Pakistan to stay on the reservation, I would take the opposite tack and offer India a qualitative military edge should Pakistan continue to sponsor terrorism.

LOPEZ: How might you try to get senators to “recognize the downside of frequent diplomatic travel”?

RUBIN: Name and shame. The late Arlen Specter, for example, traveled more than 20 times to Syria to meet Hafez al-Assad or his successor Bashar al-Assad, but was never able to name any achievement from his taxpayer-financed travel. Likewise, he should never have lived down his advocacy for delaying military sanctions on Saddam in order to encourage diplomacy just months before the Iraqi leader ordered his troops into Kuwait.

LOPEZ: Would you say: Damned are the peacemakers?

RUBIN: Damned are those sacrificing American security for the sake of limelight or personal ambition.

LOPEZ: “When it comes to diplomacy with democracies, rogues also have the advantage of time,” you write. “They know that every four or eight years, they can seek a better deal. The tendency of new American presidents to blame predecessors for the failure of diplomacy remains a serious handicap.” How can we do this better?

RUBIN: We’ve got to stop self-flagellating and recognize that the problem lies in Tehran, Pyongyang, Quetta, and the southern suburbs of Beirut, not in Washington.

LOPEZ: You do a lot of travel, including to dangerous parts of the world. What are some of the most clarifying lessons you’ve learned? What is most important for Americans to know?

RUBIN: Whether it was visiting the last co-ed university in Afghanistan days before the Taliban attacked Mazar-e-Sharif in 1997, seeing Iraqis who fled Saddam reunite with families who thought they were dead in 2003, or visiting Syria last month, there are some constants: Liberty matters and freedom shouldn’t be a dirty word. At the same time, there really are some evil, misguided people out there who mean the United States and every single American harm. We’ve got to deal with reality, rather than live in a fantasy world where we can simply talk all our problems away.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.

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