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Engage, Isolate, or Strike


By Stanley Meisler, Illustrations by Sean McCabe

Published Apr 1, 2008 8:00 AM

A Rogue by Any Other Name

"Some people say the United States is a rogue state," notes Gen. Clark. "We're going to really have to tackle that issue. We started this denomination by going through the rogue states that were defined during the Clinton administration: North Korea, Iran, in some instances Syria and Iraq. That was more or less perpetuated in the Bush administration. But it's a categorization that needs more refinement. I mean, Iraq was a rogue state because [Saddam Hussein] refused to let weapons inspectors back in. Syria was a rogue state because they didn't want to negotiate seriously on the Israeli-Palestinian [issue] ... North Koreans because they wouldn't uphold the agreed framework. And the Iranians because they seemed to be flirting with a nuclear weapon."

But Clark contends the questions that need to be answered are more far-ranging. "Is there a responsibility to protect people from the loss of human rights?" he asks. "And where do you draw the line? Is there a responsibility to intervene in the case of mass murder? Suspected genocide? Proved genocide? And who has that responsibility? And what are the penalties if you don't do it? And what do we do about global warming? Is there a responsibility to take environmental action? Do nations have responsibility for what is occurring in the atmosphere? These are areas that need consensus to develop, and out of that come definitions of rogue states and what can be done about them."

The term itself has no standing in international law. Neither the United Nations nor any other international body decides whether to classify a nation as a rogue state. It is purely a concoction of American policymakers from the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon.


The controversy is not just a semantic one. The definition of what is and what is not a renegade nation is accompanied by vigorous, ongoing and often contentious debate about how, when and in what measure the U.S. should deal with these countries.

The U.S. justified its invasion of Iraq in 2003 by depicting it as a rogue state supposedly rife with nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. More recently, there has been a great deal of debate over American attempts to prevent North Korea and Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. After trying to isolate the two, the Bush administration is showing signs of a new interest in diplomatic engagement, at least with North Korea. Some analysts believe this reflects the subtlety and nimbleness of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Others think it shows she's a pushover.

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union kept each other at bay by the aptly named policy of MAD — mutual assured destruction — in which each nation had enough weaponry to wipe out the other. But the policy would not work after the collapse of the Communist regime. In the view of some American policymakers, the leaders of rogue states did not always act in a rational way.

In fact, some rogue state leaders sponsored terrorists who, if they had nuclear weapons, would surely not fret about retaliation. Suspicions about rogue states became more acute after the first Persian Gulf war, when it was discovered that Saddam Hussein's Iraq had been closer to making a nuclear bomb than most experts had guessed. In 1991, Robert M. Gates, then the CIA director, warned that some small countries, several headed by megalomaniacs, were "forging arsenals of such destructive capacity as to defy all reason."

In his State of the Union address in January 2002, President Bush castigated Iraq, Iran and North Korea as more dangerous than other rogue states and labeled them an "axis of evil." After the American invasion removed Iraq from the list, John R. Bolton, then the undersecretary for arms control and international security in the State Department, identified the remaining rogue states as Iran, North Korea, Syria, Libya and Cuba.

Cuba, of course, has not been a threat to the United States since the Soviet Union removed its missiles from the island 45 years ago, but its inclusion played to the Cuban-American vote in Florida. Libya was promoted off the list later when it gave up its incipient nuclear weapons program and agreed to international inspections.

All this classification may not be useful. In fact, Robert Litwak, the director of international security studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, believes the U.S. puts itself in a straitjacket by lumping diverse countries into a single category. " 'Rogue state,' " he has written, "is a lazy convenience that has obscured our understanding of the countries branded with the rubric [and] it distorts our policy toward them."

To deal with rogue states and the potential threat of their acquiring weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. has two main strategies. First of all, it has embarked on a missile defense system, a kind of mini Star Wars defense. The theory is that while it would have been futile to mount a Star Wars defense against the arrival of thousands of Soviet nuclear missiles at the same time, it ought to be feasible to set up a way of shooting down a couple of missiles coming from Iran or North Korea or some terrorist.

But far more important, the U.S. is trying to prevent rogue states from building or buying the nuclear weapons in the first place. The U.S. tries to do this through diplomacy, condemnation, isolation, sanctions and the threat of military force. In the case of Iraq, it actually mounted an invasion. But this proved a fiasco, for Iraq, it turned out, had no weapons of mass destruction, and the continuing occupation has cost hundreds of billions of dollars and the lives of 4,000 American troops.