Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes, by Michael Rubin (Encounter, 384 pp., $27.99)
Just a few months ago, Secretary of State John Kerry was praising “our Russian partners” for their role in making possible a second “Geneva peace conference” on Syria. Having spent more time with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov than with any other colleague, Kerry promoted the illusion that Russia and the United States were teaming up to resolve a number of issues, including the Syrian civil war and Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And then, all of a sudden, we had Russia flexing its muscle in Ukraine by breaking the sacrosanct rule under which European borders could not be changed by force. Lavrov and his boss, President Vladimir Putin, were violating not only the emblematic Helsinki accords of 1975 but also a set of treaties that guarantee Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity.
In other words, Russia had gone rogue.
But what is a rogue state?
According to Michael Rubin’s new and extensively researched book, a rogue state is one that ignores international law and accepted norms of behavior whenever that serves its policy objectives. A rogue state may make promises, sign treaties, and join international organizations but will always reason as a lone wolf that abides by no rules. It may shake the hand of friendship with extra warmth while holding a knife at the ready behind its back.
“Rogues are proactive rather than reactive,” Rubin writes. “They simply do not accept international norms.” Thus, in dealing with them, “limiting strategy to the normal tools of diplomacy” will result in failure.
The rogues are able to act roguishly because those capable of reining them in succumb to the temptation of securing a settlement through diplomacy.
Even before he was elected president, Barack Obama insisted that the U.S. ought to “talk to its enemies.” In the case of the Islamic republic in Iran, he offered “a hand of friendship” and proposed a one-on-one meeting with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Implicitly, he blamed previous U.S. administrations for three decades of tension in relations with Iran.
But Obama is not alone in the belief that he could do better than his predecessors. Rubin writes: “Carter never gave up hope that he might broker peace.” That was because he had “uncritical trust in his own power of persuasion” and believed that “if past diplomacy had failed, it had to be the fault of his predecessors, not America’s adversaries.”
Rubin shows how successive administrations refuse to learn from the experience of their predecessors. Take Syria, for example. Sometime in 1970, and for reasons that remain a mystery, the State Department adopted the shibboleth that, in the Middle East, there could be no war without Egypt and no peace without Syria. Thus, an annual “summit” of the U.S. president and the Syrian despot, Hafez Assad, became part of the American diplomatic ritual. For almost three decades, Damascus became the most popular destination for U.S. secretaries of state. George Shultz went there six times, and James Baker doubled that number. Warren Christopher more than doubled that again by traveling to Damascus 29 times. No one actually took a moment to assess the results of paying so much attention to a tin-pot tyrant. Every new secretary of state taking the road to Damascus claimed that he was having success where others had failed.
Measuring success in “dancing with the devil” is itself an exercise in obfuscation. Among the claims made to justify wooing the rogues is that “jaw-jaw is better than war-war.” Here, the trick is to narrow down all options to just two: talking to the enemy or invading his territory. Often, the trick works because most people don’t have the time or the information to realize that war is not the only alternative to sterile negotiations.
The rogue-wooers also claim that talking helps with “confidence-building” or the establishment of “parameters” for future engagement. They claim that “modest progress” has been made or that “constructive dialogue” is under way and that “encouraging signs” can be detected. When none of these claims sound convincing, the rogue-wooer asserts that things might have been worse without engagement.
The rogue states have one crucial advantage over their democratic adversaries, including the United States. Ali Khamenei, the “Supreme Guide” of Iran, has been a central player in the power structure in Tehran since 1979 and has dealt with six U.S. presidents. President Hassan Rouhani has been a key figure in the Khomeinist security services since 1980, long before Obama was old enough to nurture political dreams. The Kim dynasty in Pyongyang has been in charge of North Korea’s destiny for more than six decades. The Assad clique has dominated Syria since 1970. Even Putin is now in his third decade in power, as prime minister or president of Russia.
The rogues know that their American adversaries are only mildly interested in tackling complex issues. American policymakers come and go, write their books, launch a second career in think tanks or boardrooms, and have little or no desire to make life complicated for themselves. Rubin provides a large number of names of former politicians and diplomats who have recast themselves as freelance peacemakers. Among them are such distinguished figures as Lee Hamilton, Thomas Pickering, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft, and Richard Haass. Such individuals are not as harmful as professional appeasers, if only because they lack consistency in their analyses. Nevertheless, they help perpetuate the illusion of peace, thus helping rogues buy time in which to make more mischief.
Because the U.S. cycle of elections does not coincide with the diplomatic cycle, any change of administration or personnel in Washington could mean starting the “engagement process” from zero. The outgoing officials become critics of the incoming ones, claiming that they would have handled the engagement better than their successors.
Those who are too old to be thinking about a second career, people such as John Kerry and Joe Biden, favor engagement; even if it leads nowhere, they might be cast as peacemakers and end up with a Nobel Peace Prize. Rubin writes: “Elite Washington society often treats engagement with rogues as chic and sophisticated.” Anyone who suggests that some rogues will not stop unless they hit something hard is labeled a warmonger or a cowboy.
Furthermore, a maker or implementer of American policy knows that whatever the outcome of “engagement” with rogues, his personal risks are minimal. The interlocutors on the “rogue” side are in a dramatically different situation. The slightest mistake could mean loss of power, imprisonment, exile, and even death.
Promoting engagement with the rogues has nurtured a vast appeasement industry that keeps thousands of former officials, real or self-styled experts, op-ed crusaders, and “Track II” fixers busy. At a minimum, the would-be appeaser is rewarded with visas to visit the rogue states and access to powerful figures there. In a growing number of cases, appeasers have also benefited from lucrative business deals for those on the lookout for a fast buck. In time, engagement becomes an end in itself, not a means to an end.
The rogues welcome engagement because it removes the threat of military action or genuinely hurtful sanctions against them. Kerry’s engagement with Lavrov has enabled the Russians to keep Bashar Assad in power in Damascus and to launch a new phase in Putin’s plan to at least partially revive the Soviet Empire. Engagement with Iran has enabled the mullahs to continue their nuclear program while Obama acts as chief lobbyist for them to prevent the U.S. Congress from imposing new sanctions. This is how Hussein Mussavian, a former Khomeinist security official, assesses the outcome of a previous round of negotiations with the U.S. and other Western powers: “During two years of negotiations we made far greater progress [in uranium enrichment] than North Korea.” The technique was simple: Keep talking but continue doing exactly what you were doing. Abdullah Ramazanzadeh, a spokesman for former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, is more specific: “We had one overt policy — negotiations and confidence-building — and a covert policy, which was the continuation of our [nuclear] activities.”
As part of the appeasement strategy, successive U.S. administrations overlooked crimes committed by rogue states against America. For example, since 1979 the Islamic republic in Tehran has always held a number of American hostages without losing the sympathy of the appeasement lobby. (Today, five U.S. citizens are being held hostage in Iran.) President Bill Clinton chose to ignore the murder of 19 U.S. servicemen by Iranian Hezbollah agents in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, and even apologized for “the wrongs my civilization has done” to Iran.
The Kim gang in North Korea has pocketed billions in American aid, supposedly in exchange for stopping its nuclear program, but is busy expanding its deadly arsenal.
North Korea, Iran, and Russia are not the only rogues to come under Rubin’s scrutiny. He shows how “engagement” with the Palestine Liberation Organization, Libya, and, more recently, the Muslim Brotherhood produced the opposite of the results that the appeasers had promised.
In every case, the rogues or their apologists knew how to hoodwink the gullible Americans. Here is Tariq Ramadan, a grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood: “I must speak in a way that is appropriate for the ear hearing me.”
It is not only misguided idealists, opportunists, and useful idiots who preach and peddle engagement with rogues. At times, there are U.S. officials who sympathize with causes espoused by them. Rubin cites as an example the case of several officials of the Carter administration, among them the analyst Richard Falk and the intelligence operative Gary Sick, who actually misled the president in order to shield the then-fragile Khomeinist regime against an effective American riposte.
Rubin has a sober lesson for whoever cares to learn it: “The first casualty of engagement with rogues is moral clarity.”
– Mr. Taheri is an Iranian-born analyst of Middle Eastern affairs and terrorism. He is the author, most recently, of The Persian Night: Iran under the Khomeinist Revolution.