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Engage, Isolate, or Strike


By Stanley Meisler, Illustrations by Sean McCabe

Published Apr 1, 2008 8:00 AM

Pros and Cons

The most fervent case against negotiating with North Korea and Iran has been made by John Bolton, who dealt with the problem of rogue states as undersecretary of state and U.N. ambassador in the Bush administration. In his recent memoir Surrender Is Not an Option, Bolton, now a senior fellow with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, denigrates negotiations as "a diplomatic frolic" that lead to "mush."

Bolton dismisses European Union negotiators as "EUroids" who offer Iran "carrots ├╝ber alles." He claims that ElBaradei and his "watch puppy" agency foolishly look for moderate leaders in Iran who do not exist. He looks on the State Department bureaucracy as a hotbed of appeasement. During his days at the department, he says, he and his allies were "locked in trench warfare against the Crusaders of Compromise."

Bolton is certain that neither North Korea nor Iran will ever "voluntarily" give up its nuclear weapons program, an argument that leads logically to the U.S. use of military force. In the case of Iran, he writes, "a policy based on the contrary assumption is not just delusional, but dangerous. This is the road to Nuclear Holocaust."

Many analysts disagree. Litwak of the Wilson Center believes that Bolton and the hawks in the Bush administration make a fundamental error when they insist that they cannot eliminate nuclear weapons programs in Iran and North Korea without changing their regimes, pointing out that if the underlying motivations for building these programs are not addressed, the new leaders may have the same reasons as the old leaders for wanting a nuclear arsenal.

Negotiations obviously involve delicate balancing. The Americans must offer enough — power plants, fuel, diplomatic recognition, economic assistance, guarantees against invasion, etc. — to persuade the rogue state to give up its nuclear weapons. The rogue state must realize that if negotiations fail, the consequences could be dire — severe sanctions or even a military strike. Yet this threat must be muted. Loud threats can frighten a regime into dropping out of negotiations because it envisions a nuclear arsenal as its only real defense.

Negotiations can be difficult, protracted, tiresome and very frustrating. But, considering the alternatives, diplomacy, as Carnesale says, "often is the least bad option."

For more opinions on how the U.S. should deal with rogue nations, see "Matters of Opinion"