- - Wednesday, May 28, 2014

By Michael Rubin
Encounter Books, $27.99, 384 pages

Foreign-policy books are hard to write and even harder to sell in President Obama’s America, where leading from behind is practically the state religion. Stunning reversals of statecraft — such as in Crimea, Egypt and Syria — are dismissed and taken as the latest reasons to bury our heads even deeper in the sand.

Against this daunting backdrop, Michael Rubin offers a disturbing assessment: Nearly a half-century of American diplomacy has failed to restrain rogue regimes. Those regimes — or “states of concern,” as former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright preferred to call them — include familiar adversaries such as Iran, as well as nominal allies like Pakistan. Whether cast as rogues, outcasts or pariahs, such regimes seem to have three things in common: deep antipathy toward the United States, unwavering determination to acquire weapons of mass destruction and a stark willingness to support terrorism.

In confronting such evils, Mr. Rubin argues that American diplomacy has been consistent only through its childlike faith in engagement, a conviction that talking to the enemy is the sine qua non of all statecraft. The reality, however, is otherwise. Despite constant demands from the United Nations and the European Union that Iran suspend its production of weapons-grade plutonium, by 2006 Tehran had increased its number of centrifuges from 164 to 3,000. The author writes, “For diplomats, getting Iran to the table had become the top objective, more important even than holding Iran to its commitments. Talking trumped behavior as a measure of progress.”

Mr. Rubin, a Yale-trained historian, amasses formidable documentation to support this blunt contention. “For the United States, dialogue was a means to resolve conflict, but for Iran, it provided cover for the export of revolutionary goals and support of terrorism.” Not to mention acquiring those weapons of mass destruction.

This same fallacy has been evident over the past half-century whenever the United States extended the hand of fellowship to North Korea — only to have the Hermit Kingdom respond with a single upturned finger. That admittedly inelegant metaphor accurately depicts the consistently aggressive behavior of the North Korean regime, frequently resulting in the loss of American lives.

Examples include capturing the USS Pueblo, downing reconnaissance aircraft and even the deliberate killing of American officers in the so-called demilitarized zone. Mr. Rubin shows how the North Koreans frequently gained concessions from gullible American negotiators by simply promising to do better next time.

Nowhere were these failures more egregious than when both Democratic and Republican presidents spent decades trying to prevent the North Koreans from acquiring nuclear weapons. When Bill Clinton promised heavy fuel oil and light-water reactors, Sen. John McCain lamented that he had “extended carrot after carrot, concession after concession and pursued a policy of appeasement [believing that] the North Koreans just wanted to be part of the community of nations.”

Future American diplomats would do well to ponder the author’s grim assessment: “Pyongyang’s playbook never changed: First they provoke, then they consent to accept an agreement in exchange for concessions, and finally they violate that agreement, starting the cycle again. Never will the State Department’s hope be fulfilled in the next round.”

It hardly requires emphasis that a succession of Dear Leaders systematically exploited American diplomatic irresolution, effectively enough to acquire the nuclear weapons and long-range missiles that now directly threaten U.S. territory. To ensure that we clearly understand their intentions, the North Koreans routinely commit outrages such as sinking ships or firing artillery and missile barrages at their closest neighbors.

What may be most disconcerting is that other adversaries, probably without reading Mr. Rubin’s book, have already reached many of his conclusions. “The Taliban negotiating strategy has been consistent: String America along, demand concessions but make no compromise. Rather than see diplomacy as laying out a path toward resolving conflict, the Taliban interpret American outreach as evidence the United States is weak and irresolute.” The immediate bill-payers for this continuing diplomatic gap between intention and reality: the U.S. troops now fighting in Afghanistan.

Mr. Rubin’s extensive scholarship and cogent writing backlight his devastating portraits of a bipartisan, sequential failure of American governance. However, what bothered me most was recognizing the names of high officials tarred by their complicity in those foreign-policy disasters. Even worse: Many members of this legion of dishonor have subsequently taught in our most prestigious academic institutions, presumably to shape impressionable minds.

We can only hope that more courageous (and probably more junior) faculty members will follow Mr. Rubin’s cogent suggestion that we teach our future diplomats how their pompous predecessors failed for decades to defend American strategic interests. Far better had they just spoken softly and carried a big stick.

Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel, is the author of four books and holds a doctorate from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

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