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Is Talking the Shortest Path to War?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A half century worth of experience does not support the thesis that diplomacy with rogue regimes or terrorist groups brings peace. Rather, diplomacy misapplied can be the shortest path to war.

On January 21, 2013, President Barack Obama outlined his vision for his second term and legacy, saying, “We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully — not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.” His desire to engage was both genuine and in alignment with long-held conventional wisdom among senior statesmen. A half century worth of experience, however, does not support the thesis that diplomacy with rogue regimes or terrorist groups brings peace. Rather, diplomacy misapplied can be the shortest path to war.

False assumptions undermine strategic interests. Rogues do not accept American standards of diplomacy or the sanctity of agreements. By Western standards, North Korea, Iran, and the PLO cheat, but if judged by their own goals, they triumph. The West may consider economic integration a benefit, but adversaries do not share motivations. Throughout the 1990s, diplomats spoke of the “China model” for Iran, in which trade might bring economic liberalization and, in turn, spark political reform. The result was a cash infusion into Tehran that ended up fueling its nuclear and missile programs.

Incentives backfire; rather than ameliorate tension, they convince rogues that bad behavior pays. Both Iran and North Korea, for example, modulate tension to collect incentives while developing nuclear and missile capabilities without interruption. As Kim Il Sung’s 1991 outreach or Muammar Qadhafi’s 2003 nuclear about-face shows, a demonstration of force is more effective than diplomatic niceties. The State Department once understood this, but its culture changed over the decades. Since the Cold War’s end, Western officials operate under the assumption that they should sequence diplomacy and coercion, rather than combine them. The sum of the parts seldom equals the whole, however. Combining diplomacy, sanctions, military strategies, and an effective information strategy to broadcast the American perspective directly into foreign lands can amplify diplomacy’s effect.

Seldom anymore do diplomats set the right circumstances for success. Neither Pakistan nor the Taliban have incentive to seek peace when the United States releases Taliban prisoners before talks start, or announces a timeline for withdrawal. Nor does Iran believe that it must compromise on its nuclear program when it regards American power as being in retreat. Leverage has become a dirty word. The State Department regularly opposes new sanctions, and presidents waive those at their disposal.

Complicating the mix is the bizarre attraction that Islamism holds for many Western progressives. On its surface, the embrace is illogical: Islamism is the antithesis of liberalism when it comes to feminism, gay rights, tolerance, and individual rights. Yet leftists find Islamism’s rhetoric of social justice and its fierce anti-Americanism attractive. Radical chic is alive and well.

Diplomats may see negotiation as a means to resolve conflict, but rogues do not share that view. After decades of watching how Washington operates, ayatollahs, commissars, and fedayeen all understand that once diplomats begin engaging, they seldom stop. When diplomats become invested in high-profile engagement, they refuse to admit failure. Too often, a rogue’s pledge to act substitutes for results.

The maxim that ‘it never hurts to talk’ has cost lives.

The State Department avoids metrics to judge diplomacy’s effect, and therefore seldom cuts its losses when its policy fails. Soldiers spend less time in the field than in the classroom poring over after-action reports and identifying errors, but diplomats seldom acknowledge or reflect on failure. When Obama offered Iran an outstretched hand, he never considered why similar efforts by Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush had failed, nor did the State Department ever consider why Clinton’s negotiations with the Taliban went nowhere but Obama’s talks with the same figures should succeed. “It is always an error to concentrate on negotiations rather than real progress on the ground,” observed Elliott Abrams, a former National Security Council official, in reflecting upon George W. Bush’s failed Middle East peacemaking.1

Compounding the problem is a tendency at the State Department to shop around for partners. The most compliant partners, however, are seldom those who can deliver. Partner shopping allows rogues to play good cop / bad cop, collecting incentives while pursuing goals through terror. Diplomats see hope in political rivalries that they might exploit, but seldom do internal factions within rogues matter on the issues of greatest concern to U.S. national security. Great optimism accompanied the election of the “reformer” Mohammad Khatami to the Iranian presidency in 1997, but he was no liberal. As minister of culture and Islamic guidance, he had banned hundreds of books and films, such as Bashu, the Little Stranger, censored both for its depiction of war in a negative light and for a story revolving around a strong, independent woman.2 Iranian reformers are just as committed to the nuclear program as hardliners. Similarly, members of Fatah often embrace the same attitudes toward Jews and Americans as do Hamas militants. Sometimes the White House is blind to this pattern; a desire to let diplomacy succeed can corrupt analysis and politicize intelligence.

Personal ambition also pushes engagement further than is strategically wise. Richard Holbrooke and Bill Richardson each sought to leverage rogue outreach into top State Department slots, and diplomats like Christopher Hill, David Welch, and Dennis Ross built careers on outreach to rogues despite a record of failure. Even if their motives were pure and uncorrupted by personal ambition, their upward career trajectories — rapid promotion, jet-setting, Oval Office attention — can inspire junior diplomats to replicate their path, often at the expense of U.S. national security. The State Department hands out meritorious service awards for breaking new ground or weathering crises, not for quiet management of the status quo. Sometimes, however, silence is a virtue.

The maxim that “it never hurts to talk” has cost lives. Diplomacy imbues rogue leaders with respectability and rewards both bluster and terror. Rogue rulers are not idiots; they understand that they can delay retaliation for months or even years by feigning sincerity. Iranian authorities have become masterful at taking ten steps forward toward their nuclear goal, so long as they mollify diplomats by occasionally taking one step back.

Once diplomats shatter a rogue’s stigma, it is nearly impossible to restore. Ariel Sharon’s complaints about American outreach to Yasir Arafat fell on deaf ears because the Israeli prime minister himself had maintained indirect contacts.3 Likewise, the efforts by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s prime minister, to isolate the Kurdistan Workers’ Party ended forever when he launched talks with the terror group.

Leftists find Islamism’s rhetoric of social justice and its fierce anti-Americanism attractive. Radical chic is alive and well.

When it comes to diplomacy with democracies, rogues also have the advantage of time: they know that every four or eight years, they can seek a better deal. The tendency of new American presidents to blame predecessors for the failure of diplomacy remains a serious handicap. Meanwhile, rogues realize that they can create false baselines. The Palestinians often claim fictitious understandings to create a new baseline for talks. The “grand bargain” peddled to U.S. journalists by an Iranian agent of influence in 2003 should be seen in the same light.

False sincerity threatens U.S. national security in other ways. While diplomats swore that North Korean behavior improved with the Agreed Framework, the opposite was true: It was during this period that North Korea sent nuclear blueprints and other technology to Pakistan and Iran.4 As President Clinton corralled international partners to condemn Pyongyang at the United Nations, North Korea destroyed evidence of its nuclear cheating. The same pattern gave Saddam Hussein time to plan the insurgency, and it repeats with Iran.

Defiance also inspires other rogues. When North Korea conducted a nuclear test, it was not only the Dear Leader who celebrated. “By carrying out a nuclear test,” the Pakistani newspaper Nawa-i-Waqt declared, “North Korea has slapped the United States in the face.” The paper urged Pakistani authorities to learn the North Korean lesson and defy the West.5

The fallout from outreach to rogues affects not only America, but also its allies. Scores of South Koreans and Israelis have died as a result of poorly timed and naïve American outreach to North Korea and to Palestinian groups. The greatest numbers of victims, however, are among the citizens subject to rogue despots and roaming terror militias. Iranian respect for human rights declined and executions doubled alongside engagement. Persecution of religious minorities increased.6 Saddam’s regime filled mass graves while diplomats sipped wine, and the Taliban terrorized women while their representatives met American diplomats thousands of miles away.

Deal making undermines moral clarity. Such concerns are often dismissed by diplomats. Charles Pritchard, a State Department official in the George W. Bush era, described as “maddening” the tendency of political appointees to invoke moral clarity as reason to avoid compromise.7 Sometimes, however, national security and an antidote to suffering are best found in regime change rather than regime subsidy. Because diplomats are averse to considering regime change as an option, however, they entrench partners. Lost is the big picture: Every initiative to embrace rogue regimes risks repeating the moral and strategic error of George H. W. Bush’s “Chicken Kiev” speech.

Iran has become adroit at provoking crises to distract Americans.

Choosing to preserve rogues rather than undermine them is dangerous. The most quiescent rogue leader will exploit American distraction when a crisis erupts elsewhere. In the 1960s and 1970s, North Korea exploited American involvement in Vietnam, and in the 2000s it exploited American involvement in the Middle East. Iran has become adroit at provoking crises to distract Americans.

Diplomacy is a potent tool, but no tool can solve every problem. It is true that war carries a tremendous cost, and sanctions are not foolproof either. But just because strategies A and B are not perfect does not make strategy C a panacea. The evidence from repeated diplomatic outreach to rogue regimes is overwhelming: When presidents embrace dialogue and incentives as the solution to rogue behavior — when hope trumps change — the United States does not win peace, but instead hastens conflict.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

This article is excerpted from Rubin’s new book, “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes.” Rubin recently delivered a Bradley lecture on the lessons from negotiating with rogues and terrorists.

FURTHER READING: Rubin also writes “Charting the Future of Iran-Iraq Relationships” and “Roll Back the Muslim Brotherhood.” Paul Wolfowitz writes “A Good Half-Century and a Bad One: What Will the Next 50 Years Be Like?”

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group


1. Elliott Abrams, Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 309.
2. Judith Miller, “Film: Movies of Iran Struggle for Acceptance,” New York Times, July 19, 1992.
3. Abrams, Tested by Zion, p. 24.
4. Chuck Downs, Over the Line: North Korea’s Negotiating Strategy (Washington: American Enterprise Institute, 1999), p. 277.
5. “Pakistani Paper Lauds North Korea Test, Urges U.S. to Review ‘Biased’ Policies,” Nawa-i-Waqt (Rawalpindi), October 10, 2006, translation provided by BBC Worldwide Monitoring. See also, “Pakistan May Reportedly Relax Restrictions on A.Q. Khan,” Nawa-i-Waqt, October 12, 2006.
6. “Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic,” United Nations General Assembly, October 15, 1997, A/52/472.
7. Charles L. Pritchard, Failed Diplomacy: The Tragic Story of How North Korea Got the Bomb (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2007), p. 50.

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