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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

What is left once diplomacy is eliminated?

(updated below)

One of the hallmarks of the Bush administration's foreign policy -- arguably its most disastrous hallmark -- is the literal elimination of diplomacy as a foreign policy instrument for dealing with hostile nations. They actually believe, and overtly argue, that diplomacy and negotiations are worthless when it comes to many countries which are acting against American interests.

Glenn Reynolds approvingly cites to this post from National Review's Michael Rubin, in which Rubin essentially declares negotiations to be a useless option for of our most pressing foreign policy problems:

Let’s be fair: To condemn the Axis of Evil speech is to condemn Bush for prescience. He didn’t create the Axis of Evil; rather, he voiced the problem. And if that shocked European diplomats, well too bad. If it’s a choice between national security and enabling European diplomats to remain secure in their illusions, I’d hope both Republicans and Democrats would favor the former.

Clinton administration attempts to engage the Taliban and the North Korean regime were folly. Any attempt to do likewise with Iran would be equally inane. Certain regimes cannot be appeased. Dialogue is no panacea.

When Rubin refers to "certain regimes" as ones with whom we cannot have any dialogue, he seems to mean most regimes which are hostile to the U.S. For instance, we know that Iran and North Korea can't be negotiated with. Saddam Hussein's Iraq could not be. Syria, with whom we refuse to have any dialogue at all, is on that list. So, in essence, there is no point in trying to negotiate with our enemies because to engage in diplomacy is simply to "appease" them.

After quoting from the Rubin post, Instapundit himself adds that "diplomats tend to overvalue dialogue," and he then cites to an interview Diane Sawyer conducted yesterday with Donald Gregg, the Ambassador to South Korea under Bush 41, in which Gregg argued that it was a mistake for the Bush administration to refuse North Korea's repeated requests for direct negotiations. In response, Reynolds says that the Gregg interview "made me very grateful that he no longer has a hand in formulating U.S. policy." Thank God that someone who thinks we should negotiate is out of government. After all, refusing to negotiate with North Korea has worked so very well.

It is this "reasoning," as much as anything else, that has placed us in the weak and vulnerable position we are now in. Where a country like North Korea is engaged in conduct that we would like to stop, we have three options:

(1) wage war against them;

(2) engage in diplomacy and attempt to reach a negotiated solution; or

(3) do nothing.

If we remove option (2) from the list -- as Bush followers want to do in almost every case and as the administration repeatedly does -- it means that only options (1) and (3) remain. And where option (1) is not viable -- as is the case with the U.S. vis-a-vis North Korea (mostly because we already chose option (1) with two other countries and are threatening to do so with a third) -- then the only option left is (3) -- do nothing. That is exactly what we have done while North Korea became a nuclear-armed power, and we did nothing because we operated from Rubin's premise that diplomacy and negotiations are essentially worthless, which left us with no other options.

This toxic notion that hostile countries can't be negotiated with -- or that attempts to negotiate with them are thinly disguised gestures of weakness, appeasement and surrender -- seems to be grounded in the belief, one could almost say the neurosis, that every country is Nazi Germany and every leader is Hitler and therefore are beyond reason. But none of the countries whom we are told can't be negotiated with has displayed that type of irrationality or self-destruction. To the contrary, Kim Jong Il -- like Saddam Hussein -- seems obsessed with self-preservation and with perpetuating the power of his regime. The same could be said for Syria's Bashar Assad, just like his father before him. And whatever else one wants to say about them, the Iranian mullahs seem to be among the most rational and calculating actors on the world stage.

They may be oppressive and tyrannical and even evil. But that doesn't mean they are irrational or beyond the realm of reason. What seems irrational is the refusal to negotiate with them, because we then have no good options. We can't wage endless war. In fact, we can't even successfully wage the current wars we are fighting given our limited resources. And even if we could, doing so doesn't seem to enable us to achieve our objectives (see e.g., Iraq and, more and more, Afghanistan).

Diplomacy and negotiations -- including with irrational and oppressive regimes -- have been the key to maintaining stability and peace since the end of World War I, at least. Ronald Reagan fought against the same anti-diplomacy factions now in order to negotiate with the Soviet Union precisely because it was the only real option. Once you decide that negotiations are a worthless instrument, you're left with only two options -- endless war-making, or standing by and doing nothing in the face of growing dangers.

That is why that those are the two things we have had over the last five years. We stood by and did basically nothing while North Korea developed a nuclear capability because, having eliminated diplomacy as an option, that was literally the only possibility there was. That decision led directly to Sunday's nuclear test. Ponder the level of irrationality required for someone to believe that this was a good and smart approach that ought to be repeated -- not just with North Korea, but also with Iran and beyond.

UPDATE: Tim at Balloon Juice sees the connection between the Bush administration's inflated sense of certainty in its own Rightness and its irrational, destructive refusal to negotiate with regimes they dislike.

UPDATE II: A couple of commenters have argued that there is a fourth option -- U.N. sanctions -- but sanctions are properly seen as a negotiating tool and thus a subset of option (2). Sanctions are intended to pressure a country into capitulating to an agreement on favorable terms. But whether they are viewed as a tool for negotiations or as an option unto themselves, they are scorned just the same by the anti-diplomacy crowd as a form of "appeasement." The argument that is advanced is that countries such as North Korea and Iran are so irrational, deceitful and evil that they can never be trusted to comply with the terms of any agreement -- whether the agreement is brought about by negotiations or sanctions. Only regime change, via military force, provides the necessary assurances.

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