Engagement is Folly

A review by Jerry Gordon  (March 2014)


Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engagement with Rogue Regimes
by Michael Rubin
Encounter Books ( Feb.18, 2014)
Hardcover: 384 pp.
ISBN: 978-1594037238



In January 1954, during a White House visit, Britain’s redoubtable Prime Minister Winston Churchill said that “To jaw jaw is always better than to war war.” This from the WWII British leader who on his predecessor Neville Chamberlain return from Munich in 1938 after selling out Czechoslovakia remarked

And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigor, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.

Michael Rubin, former Pentagon expert on Iran and Iraq during the Bush era, now a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), echoes Churchill’s observations about appeasement in his new book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engagement with Rogue Regimes. It is a dossier of the incredulous cupidity of American governments over nearly five decades who have been played for fools by nuclear obsessed Iran, Gaddafi’s Libya, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the draconian hermit kingdom of North Korea, and Islamic nuclear power and proliferator, Pakistan. Add to this rogues gallery are non-state aspirants from the Islamic terror groups; the Taliban, the Palestinians, both the PLO-Fatah and Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran’s proxy, Hezbolleh. The finely honed tools used by these states and terror groups include kidnapping, terror, deceitful evasion of agreements, bluster and bribery.

As Rubin reveals, Iran under the Ayatollahs, perfected their chess playing based on the successes of their North Korean allies in what George W. Bush called the “axis of evil.” They followed North Korea's lead on negotiations with the EU, IAEA and the US to aggressively pursue nuclear weapons and missile programs. Not unlike the mafia, through coercion they forced their unwary adversaries even to provide the funding.  Witness the billion or more that the US provided North Korea in food, oil and light water nuclear reactors in the vain hope of stopping their perfection of nuclear weapons and ICBMs, the latter possibly able by decade’s end to reach the West Coast of the US. All while taking hostage an American naval intelligence crew and ship, the USS Pueblo, kidnapping Americans, Japanese and South Koreans, pummeling South Korean islands with artillery and sinking their vessels killing dozens of seamen. Pakistan, which Rubin considers a rogue state, uses its intelligence service, the ISI to support terrorism through the Taliban both inside Pakistan and in Afghanistan. The ISI lent logistic support to the murderous Mumbai jihad attack in November 2008. Further Pakistan’s rogue nuclear weapons developer in chief, A.Q. Khan, has been the nexus supplying technology and feedstock for the nuclear weapons programs of Iran, North Korea and Libya. Sanctions and red lines that the US developed to contend with these rogue states have been easily evaded by them and often overridden by eager American and EU negotiators desperately seeking “progress” in resolving alleged grievances.   

As the late Republican Senate leader during the Eisenhower era, Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois, was wont to say about ballooning domestic budgets can equally be applied to the bribes that our country has tendered to this international mafia, “a billion here, a billion there and pretty soon you're talking about real money.” 

Rubin‘s book is a cautionary tale that the cost in human terms of dealing with this international mafia surpasses the risks involved with such undertakings. Witness the millions of victims in regional and asymmetrical wars, especially American and coalition partners dead and injured, whether hostages or service personnel, often killed by these rogue regimes during negotiations. Talk of this stripe is not cheap, rather it is very dear. Rubin gives us well documented illustrations about what he deems the high costs of such engagements from episodes during the Presidencies of Carter, Reagan, the Bushes, father and son, Clinton and now Obama. Under the delusion that  grievances can be resolved through discussions, our national security interests and those of allies, especially Israel, have been suborned by pursuit of misguided and uninformed policies aided by politicized intelligence.

Both national security advisers and State Department diplomats believed in all too many instances the Ancient Chinese maxim of Sun Tzu from his classic The Art of War, “keep your friends close and enemies closer.” Unfortunately, we know very little about these new post-modern enemies, their ideologies and guile. Our national leaders have evaded the ancient maxim of the Roman Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus known as Vegetius from De Re Militari, “To seek peace, prepare for war.” Rubin cites the example of Nicolo Machiavelli in 15th Century warring Italian city-states, who unlike 21st Century Americans and Europeans understood that  trusting adversaries to honor agreements via diplomacy was foolhardy. Rubin quips:

Too often, Western engagement of rogue regimes is akin to a matchup between Machiavelli and Neville Chamberlain. In such circumstances, Chamberlain seldom wins.

Former Pentagon official Richard Perle and Rubin’s colleague at the AEI told a story at a dinner we attended about the panic that broke out in Washington when the Tehran US Embassy hostage taking occurred in November 1979. The Carter National Security team led by Zbigniew Brzezinski thought they could deal with Ayatollah Khomenei because he was a “religious man.”  But they knew nothing about his apocalyptic Shiite Twelver Shiite ideology and tactics. According to Perle they searched and found a book of his writings in Farsi at the Library of Congress, yet the intelligence community had no one immediately available to translate it!

As many have questioned the wisdom of the P5+1 negotiations with Iran endeavoring to stop the latter’s achievement, Rubin’s discussion of US experience from 1979 to today is a graphic example of his thesis threading through the case studies in Dancing with the Devil.

While there are few examples of American Presidents succeeding against rogue states, there are two examples cited by Rubin for Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush who otherwise found it difficult to contend with “cunning diplomacy first” advocates in their Administrations. Reagan redeemed himself from the disastrous Iran-Contra affair when the US weighed in during the 1987- 1988 Tanker War. Reagan authorized Operation Earnest Will reflagging foreign flagged vessels to facilitate US Navy protection of continued flow of Persian Gulf oil through the strategic Straits of Hormuz to the world oil markets. Despite his winking at the alleged inadvertent Iraqi air missile attack against the USS Stark that killed 37 US seamen injuring 21 others, Reagan launched covert actions in Operation Praying Mantis that witnessed Navy Seals assaulting offshore Iranian oil production platforms and decimating what passed for the Iranian navy. The irony today is one of those damaged Iranian Naval vessels from the Tanker War of the Reagan era, the frigate Sabalan, is part of a modest Iranian naval  flotilla making a power show of traversing the US Atlantic frontier in 2014.

We noted Reagan’s adroit use of military force during the 1987-1988 Tanker war with Iran that succeeded in pushback against the Islamic Republic blocking the Persian Gulf oil centers. The other example of adroit sequencing of strategies was Bush’s forcing Gaddafi’s capitulation and dismantling of his WMD chemical and nuclear weapons programs as a result of military coercion and exquisite intelligence from coalition partners.

In 1985 terrorist attacks at Rome and Vienna Airports killed 19 and injured 138. In 1986 there was the murderous attack at La Belle Disco in Berlin frequented by American service personnel. Reagan ordered a retaliatory raid on targets in Libya by the US Air Force. The downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie Scotland in 1988 with the loss of 259 people aboard and 11 on the ground resulted in sanctions by President George H.W. Bush who considered this a crime. The US and Britain demanded surrender by Libya  of the Pan Am 103 perpetrators  and pushed for UN sanctions and resolutions calling for compensation of the victims. When in 1995 the IAEA found that Libya had restarted centrifuge uranium enrichment, Congress passed and President Clinton signed into law the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act. Then in April 1999 Libyan handed over to Dutch authorities two Libyan suspects for trial under Scottish Law at the International Court of Justice at The Hague. Gaddafi also expelled the Palestinian Abu Nidal Organization implicated in the Achille Lauro murder and dozens of other attacks against Jews and Westerners in both Europe and the Middle East. In May 1999 the British had intercepted missile parts bound for Libya. However, pressures were building on Gaddafi from the sanctions and low oil prices to capitulate. The January 2001 conviction by the Scottish court of Abdelbasset Ali Mohamed al-Megrabi of downing Pan Am 103 excised Gaddafi from culpability thus enabling secret talks between the US and Gaddafi. When 9/11 occurred Gaddafi condemned the attack offered condolences to the Americans and suggested he had rejected terrorism, although that was still suspect. In August 2003, Gaddafi capitulated finally on his responsibility for the downing of Pan Am 103 and offered compensation of $2.7 billion. The British Prime Minister sent to letter to Gaddafi in September 2003 agreeing to end sanctions for the quid pro quo of cooperating in ending his WMD programs. In October 2003  Intelligence had been tracking a vessel, the BBC China with nuclear equipment from a Malaysian factory affiliated with the rogue Pakistani A.Q. Khan network. It was intercepted by German and Italian authorities and diverted to Italy for inspection by the Proliferation Security Initiative. The jig was up for Gaddafi and he knew that he could no longer lie. He came clean with an announcement in mid December 2003 about the WMD program. By March 2014, the remaining equipment, Scud missiles bought from North Korea and 13 kilograms of highly enriched uranium were removed. Shortly thereafter in late April 2004 Bush lifted the Libyan sanctions from the 1996 Act. Still, Gaddafi was culpable. Libya was not formally released from the terrorist designation list given his support for the plot to assassination of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdullaziz of Saudi Arabia. British authorities had intercepted Abdulrahman Alamoudi, a former confidant and business partner of Republican notable, Grover Norquist, and trustee of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center with $350,000 in his possession. Alamoudi is presently serving a 23 year term in a federal prison. 

Note Rubin’s rubrics that should be tattooed underneath the eyelids of American and Western negotiators.

·   False assumptions undermine strategic interests. Rogues do not accept American standards of diplomacy or the sanctity of agreements.

·   Incentives backfire; rather than ameliorate tension, they convince rogues that bad behavior pays.

·   Seldom anymore do diplomats set the right circumstances for success. 

·   Complicating the mix is the bizarre attraction that Islamism for many Western progressives. Islamism is the antithesis of liberalism over issues like feminism, gay rights, tolerance and individual rights.

·   Diplomats may see negotiation as a means to resolve conflict, but rogues do not share that view. When diplomats become invested in high-profile engagement they refuse to admit failure. Too often a rogues’ pledge to act substitutes for results.

·  The State Department avoids metrics to judge diplomacy’s effect, and therefore seldom cuts its losses when its policy fails.

·   Compounding the problem is a tendency at the State Department to shop around for compliant partners.

·   Personal ambition also pushes engagement further than is strategically wise.

·   The maxim that it “never hurts to talk” has cost lives. Diplomacy imbues rogue leaders with respectability and rewards both bluster and terror.

·   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.

·   False sincerity threatens US national security.

·   Defiance also inspires other rogues.

·   Deal making undermines moral clarity.

·   Choosing to preserve rogues rather than undermine them is dangerous.

·   Diplomacy is a potent tool, but no tool can solve every problem.

Will these maxims drawn from Rubin's book Dancing with the Devil filter through the agendas of President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry? They are both intent on achieving deals with rogues states like Iran, Pakistan and the Palestinian Authority as described in Jonathan Schanzer's book, The State of FailureAfter reading Dancing with the Devil, we sincerely doubt it.



Also see Jerry Gordon's collection of interviews, The West Speaks.


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