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Engage, Isolate, or Strike

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By Stanley Meisler, Illustrations by Sean McCabe

Published Apr 1, 2008 8:00 AM


We talk with North Korea, but strike Iraq. Deny relations to Cuba, But impose sanctions on Iran and Burma. U.S. foreign policy toward rogue states dominates the headlines as policy experts — including some of the most prominent thinkers at UCLA — debate the issue. Here is a primer on how the United States has and currently deals with renegade countries, including when and if to use deadly force.

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Read about the Burkle Center conference on U.S. policy toward rogue states.

After the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended in the last decade of the 20th century, American strategists turned their sights on another threat: the potential havoc that might come from a group of smaller countries like North Korea and Iran that the Americans called "rogue states." That name was a wonderful metaphor. It reminded everyone of "rogue elephant," the term that hunters and wildlife experts use for an elephant that breaks from the herd, follows its own rules, and goes on wild rampages. The antics of a rogue elephant sounded just like the threat of a rogue state, especially a rogue state trying to arm itself with nuclear weapons.

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But the metaphor had one flaw. No one tries to negotiate with rogue elephants. Hunters simply kill them. That finality prompted the Clinton administration to drop the term altogether in the year 2000. Hoping that diplomacy rather than saber-rattling could persuade these countries to forgo their nuclear dreams, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright announced, "We are now calling these states 'states of concern.' " But the George W. Bush administration, when it came to power a year later, reinstated "rogue state" into the U.S. strategic vocabulary. "States of concern" sounded too namby-pamby for the Bush hawks, some of whom like to picture the leaders at the helms of Iran and North Korea as madmen.

However, former UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale, who took part in the negotiation of arms limitation agreements with the Soviet Union in the 1970s, says a negotiator must begin with the assumption that the leaders of rogue states are not crazy. It is not unreasonable, for example, for the leader of a country labeled part of an "axis of evil" to fear an American invasion like that of Iraq. "They have to be assured that this is not imminent," Carnesale says.

As these conflicting opinions vividly demonstrate, the issue of rogue states and the appropriate policy for dealing with them is a challenge for American foreign policy. The issue was explored in depth at UCLA in March, when the Burkle Center for International Relations convened a daylong conference on "U.S. Foreign Policy Toward Rogue States: Engage, Isolate or Strike?"

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The conference was moderated by Burkle Center senior fellows Wesley Clark, former NATO commander and presidential candidate, and Kantathi Suphamongkhon, former Thai foreign minister and current UC Regents' Professor; as well as Professor Emeritus of History Stanley Wolpert; School of Public Affairs Associate Professor Amy Zegart; Burkle Center director Kal Raustiala; and Los Angeles Times Washington bureau chief Doyle McManus. Participants included New Mexico Governor and former Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson, who was the keynote speaker at the conference; U.S. Department of State Deputy Director of Iranian Affairs Henry Wooster; Feroz Khan, visiting professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School; RAND Corporation political scientist Dalia Dassa Kaye; and Robert Litwak, director of international security studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

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