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Engage, Isolate, or Strike

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.

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.

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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.

To Talk Or Not To Talk

A closer look at the crisis over North Korea demonstrates the complexity of the issues.

Under an agreement with the Clinton administration signed in 1994, North Korea had promised to halt its nuclear weapons program in exchange for two American-built nuclear power plants and other benefits, among them diplomatic recognition. Although the agreement was falling apart by the time President George W. Bush took power, Colin Powell, his secretary of state, told reporters, "We do plan to engage with North Korea to pick up where President Clinton and his administration left off. Some promising elements were left on the table."

Powell was swiftly smacked down by the Bush administration. The hawks intended to isolate North Korea as a pariah, not engage with it. As Vice President Dick Cheney boasted later, "We don't negotiate with evil. We defeat it." Only when North Korea met certain conditions, including the return of weapons inspectors, would the United States talk to it. A chastened Powell corrected himself and told reporters, "Sometimes you get a little too far forward on your skis."

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But isolation did not work. Defying the Bush administration, North Korea tested one nuclear bomb, and U.S. officials believe it has built one or two others. Faced with this defiance, the United States changed course. Talks between the two resumed, as part of a series of six-nation conferences with China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. An agreement was signed last year in which North Korea promised to dismantle its nuclear operations in exchange for a million tons of fuel oil and eventual diplomatic recognition. Though it has fallen behind schedule, North Korea has started to take down its nuclear facilities.

Iran has proven more difficult to handle. The Bush administration should not have been surprised by its nuclear ambition. In her recent book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies, Barbara Slavin, a senior diplomatic correspondent for USA Today, reports that the Bush White House invaded Iraq despite intelligence warnings that this would provoke Iran to accelerate its efforts to build nuclear weapons. Iran has tried to hide this program by claiming it is producing enriched uranium to fuel civilian nuclear power plants. Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran has signed, it has that right. But it is producing more than needed for civilian needs.

The United States has refused to discuss the issue with Iran, which Americans regard as the world's leading state sponsor of terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah. But we have not tried to isolate Iran completely. While the U.S. has remained aloof, negotiations have been assumed by Britain, France and Germany on behalf of the European Union and by Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The U.S. role has been to apply pressure on the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions.

Iran has been as stubborn as the United States. It wants the prestige of discussing the issue one-on-one with the U.S. In what was billed by the Americans as a major concession, Secretary of State Rice announced last May that the U.S. would talk with the Iranians, provided they first suspended their uranium enrichment program. It was not much of an offer. Slavin likens it to the U.S. "holding its nose while it stretched out a pinky toward Teheran." Iran would have to stop enriching uranium before the U.S. deigned to negotiate about stopping it. The condition was rejected by Iran.

The issue grew even more confused late last year when the U.S. intelligence agencies, in their latest National Intelligence Estimate, concluded "with high confidence that in Fall 2003, Teheran halted its nuclear weapons program." This prompted critics like Lee H. Hamilton, the influential former congressman who heads the Wilson Center, to urge the Bush administration to "be prepared to engage Iran diplomatically one-on-one, without preconditions."

But, while the new estimate toned down war talk in Washington and made tougher U.N. sanctions less likely, President Bush insisted that he would not budge.

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"