Strategic Mistake

The neoconservative approach to nonproliferation has been a disaster. Why Bush can’t disarm Iran.

By Jofi Joseph

Tagged DisarmamentForeign Policy

Over the past six years, the United States has confronted a range of
crises surrounding the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction
(WMD), from North Korea’s fall 2006 nuclear weapons test to Iran’s
willful defiance of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The
Bush Administration’s inclination toward the use of force and regime
change as tools to counter the proliferation of WMDs is well known, as
is its distaste for negotiations with states featuring tyrannical
regimes that abuse human rights. But minimal attention has been paid to
an important framing concept used by senior American government
officials in recent years when seeking to persuade states like North
Korea and Iran to stand down their WMD programs. As stated policy, the
United States encourages WMD proliferators to make a “strategic
decision,” sometimes referred to as a “strategic choice.” Accordingly,
the United States demands that rogue regimes assess the costs and
benefits of maintaining illicit weapons programs and then make a
voluntary, national-level decision to eliminate them in a comprehensive
and transparent fashion. As senior Administration officials like to
point out, this is what happened with Libya, which in 2003 made just
such a decision to end its nuclear weapons program and surrender its
chemical weapons stocks in favor of closer diplomatic and economic
relations with the West. Indeed, the agreement reached last month
between the United States, North Korea, and four other nations to
freeze and eventually dismantle Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program in
exchange for a series of economic, energy, and diplomatic benefits is
noteworthy precisely because it strays so far from the Administration’s
stated policy.

With the Administration insisting, in the wake of the North Korea
deal, that the strategic-decision approach remains official policy and
will guide its handling of Iran, it is vital to ask whether it actually
works. The answer is definitively no. It is unrealistic to expect a
state to reach an overnight realization that nuclear weapons are not in
its national interest. Instead, any such decision can only emerge in
the aftermath of sustained engagement demonstrating the tradeoffs
inherent in defying the will of the international community, a point
demonstrated by the years of negotiation preceding Libya’s decision
and, more recently, the agreement forged in the Six Party Talks on
North Korea. In fact, demanding a permanent strategic decision may
inadvertently discourage rogue regimes from taking intermediate steps
that make the world more secure, including “half-loaf” compromises that
fail to resolve a state’s underlying proliferation desires but
effectively constrain its arsenal for a period of time. Although messy,
these steps can buy the necessary time to allow a permanent solution to
emerge while securing our national interests in the interim.
Conversely, the strategic-decision approach allows the United States to
sit back while countries move down the road of weapons development.
After all, if a nation refuses to change, the United States won’t talk
with them, and absent a credible threat of force, there is not much
else the United States can do.

There is an alternative course, one that worked well in the 1990s,
and that is the lost art of coercive diplomacy: combining incentives
and punishments to coerce recalcitrant regimes into making the right
decisions. Such coercive diplomacy–as we might be seeing on the Korean
Peninsula, but will not likely see repeated with Iran–blends carrots
and sticks to ensure that hostile regimes have a clear choice between
economic integration and broad diplomatic acceptance versus isolation
and the prospective use of military force. It sees negotiation as a
diplomatic tool, not a diplomatic reward. And it recognizes something
that President Bush has ignored during his first six years in office:
that successful nonproliferation policies are more often marked by
shades of gray than black and white.

What Does Disarmament Look Like?

In January 2003, the White House faced a thorny dilemma. Under
pressure from the United States and the United Kingdom, the UN Security
Council had passed Resolution 1441, which presented Iraq with a final
chance to come clean on its WMD programs after a decade of stonewalling
on its commitments under the 1991 Gulf war cease-fire. Iraq allowed UN
and IAEA inspectors to return and filed a lengthy declaration laying
out the current status of its nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons
programs. Nonetheless, the Hussein regime placed numerous obstacles
before the international inspectors, including refusal to allow weapons
scientists to be interviewed privately and concealment of sensitive
documents, actions that led many in the international community to
assume that Iraq was still hiding critical information.

On January 23 the White House issued a white paper titled “What Does
Disarmament Look Like?” The paper sought to contrast Iraq’s behavior
with that of other nations that had voluntarily and transparently
surrendered their WMD programs to the satisfaction of the international
community. In the process, the White House created a document that
serves as a guide to the Bush Administration’s thinking on disarmament.

According to this document, the first prerequisite for a strategic
decision to disarm calls for any such decision to be taken at the
highest political level. The supreme political authority in a state
must sign off on any such decision and invest personal credibility in
ensuring the implementation of resulting commitments. At the same time,
a genuine strategic decision must receive the approval of all key
national stakeholders. An agreement drafted and endorsed by a nation’s
foreign ministry to eliminate a WMD program, for instance, means
nothing if the national military has not reached the same conclusion.

Second, the national government must implement bureaucratic
initiatives to dismantle WMD and related infrastructure. A designated
entity within the chain of command must be given a clear mandate and
sufficient authority to organize dismantlement, with carte blanche
to overrule any special interests within a regime that may have reason
to hinder or frustrate the process. Designation of a central actor also
allows for smoother communications with outside countries and
international organizations.

Third, and most importantly, there must be full cooperation with
international authorities and transparent behavior through every step
of the process. A nation that has made a strategic decision on WMD
dismantlement will lead international inspectors to previously
concealed facilities, stockpiles, and personnel. It will not engage in
needless games or coy attempts at concealment; behavior to that effect
is perceived as a smoking gun that a strategic decision has not been
made. Nor will it allow international inspectors into the nation only
to hide information from and engage in subterfuge against them to
undermine their mission.

Running through these criteria is one important tenet–any strategic
decision to disarm must be voluntary and uncoerced; commitments
undertaken by states to dismantle WMD programs made under great duress,
the thinking goes, will have less staying power. Regimes must come to a
rational judgment that they are better off without WMD programs, not
simply make a hasty decision because they are under the gun.

The South African Example

To support their belief that such a transformation is possible,
Administration officials often point to South Africa and Libya as
successful models. In both cases, each government supposedly recognized
that its WMD program was artificially isolating their nation from the
global economy and was not providing tangible security benefits. For
South Africa, this argument holds merit. As its notorious apartheid
regime crumbled and the Cold War drew to a close in the late 1980s,
South Africa made a strategic decision to end its long-standing, albeit
secret, nuclear weapons program. Under the leadership of President F.W.
de Klerk, the South African government initiated dismantlement in 1990,
acceded to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) the following
year, and in 1993 publicly disclosed the existence of its program.

By and large, South Africa’s nuclear disarmament met the criteria of
a strategic decision. The decision was made at the most senior
political levels: When the decision was made in 1990 to terminate the
nuclear program, President de Klerk appointed a senior-level steering
committee with a mandate to oversee the dismantlement of the six
nuclear devices produced under the program and the melting and
recasting of all highly enriched uranium (HEU) material. The steering
committee fulfilled these orders in the span of slightly more than a
year, completing the dismantlement process by the time the South
African government acceded to the NPT. Moreover, the South African
authorities fully cooperated with the IAEA in verifying the
dismantlement of its nuclear weapons program and accounting for all
nuclear materials, stockpiles, and facilities.

The South African experience is a model case for the strategic
decision framework. And yet the specifics of the country’s position
make it difficult to see it as a model for future disarmament
scenarios. The decision came amid a peaceful transition from a uniquely
racist regime to a democratic one, and South Africa decided that it
simply no longer needed a nuclear weapon with the demise of
international communism (and with it the threat from communist rebels
to its north). It is unlikely that North Korea or Iran–or any other
future proliferator–will undergo such an alteration in regime and
security environment profound enough that will enable a 180-degree
reversal on their WMD programs.

The Libyan Example

Libya’s December 2003 decision to end its nuclear and chemical
weapons programs and fully cooperate with American, British, and
international inspectors is perhaps a more relevant example–and one
embraced by the Bush Administration. As Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice said, “Just as 2003 marked a turning point for the Libyan people,
so too could 2006 mark turning points for the peoples of Iran and North
Korea. ” We urge the leadership of Iran and North Korea to make similar
strategic decisions that would benefit their citizens.”

No question exists that Libya has acted in an exemplary manner.
Tripoli granted the United States permission to airlift out of Libya,
to Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a voluminous set of
documents and components from its nuclear and ballistic missile
programs, including uranium hexafluoride supplies and centrifuge parts.
It invited IAEA officials, as well as Amerian and British experts, into
the country to conduct follow-on inspections, with the Libyans eagerly
opening up their previously illicit programs to the light of full

However, a closer examination of Libyan behavior reveals that the
Muammar Quaddafi regime’s decision came only after lengthy negotiations
over tradeoffs and concessions that involved significant deception on
the part of the Libyans before the United States and Britain called
their bluff. In fact, the Libyan disarmament process more closely
resembled traditional negotiations with a proliferator state seeking to
extract maximum gain before surrendering a valuable bargaining chip,
rather than a textbook strategic decision. First, the Libyan decision
to end WMD activities was carefully predicated upon the expected
response of the United States and Great Britain, who served as proxies
for the broader international community. Reports indicate that Libya
conducted back-channel talks with representatives of the U.S.
government as early as 1992, when the prospect of opening Libya’s WMD
programs to full disclosure and international inspection was first put
on the table. The behind-the-scenes diplomatic process continued into
the Bush Administration in 2001, with all sides able to settle on a
final agreement only in December 2003.

Even then, the Libyans were unable to fully commit, instead seeking
concrete assurances on the type of economic, trade, and diplomatic
benefits they could expect upon making this decision, a desire
reciprocated by their American and British interlocutors. The Financial Times reported
that Prime Minister Tony Blair sent a letter to Quaddafi in 2002, with
Bush’s concurrence, spelling out how a final deal on WMD would lead to
normalization of relations. And a former Bush Administration official,
Flynt Leverett, disclosed that in 2003 the United States offered Libya
an “explicit quid pro quo” involving the lifting of U.S. sanctions in
return for a verifiable termination of Libya’s WMD program.

In other words, Libya, the United States, and the United Kingdom
were engaged in lengthy negotiations, with the discussions focused on
the gains Libya could expect by doing the right thing on WMD
disarmament. Advocates of the strategic decision approach often
minimize the value of negotiations with rogue regimes. Yet rather than
proving their point, the Libya example presents stubborn proof that
such negotiations can be essential for securing proliferation

Furthermore, the strategic decision school of thought posits that
those nations that have made a genuine commitment to disarmament will
have no reason to dissemble or conceal evidence from international
authorities and inspectors. Yet, in the case of Libya, months of
desultory talks in 2003 produced results only following just such an
incident. In October 2003, the United States, acting on sensitive
intelligence and working in concert with Germany and Italy, intercepted
a freighter headed toward Libya found to be carrying essential
components for uranium-enrichment centrifuges. The contents of the BBC China
cargo allowed American officials to confront the Libyans with concrete
evidence that Tripoli’s nuclear program was on a much larger scale than
they had previously revealed. It was only at this point that the Libyan
regime fully confessed, inviting American and British weapons experts
and intelligence officials into their country, opening up their weapons
facilities and stockpiles, and making available scientists for

Libya’s deceitful behavior raises questions about why that country
is celebrated by the Bush Administration as a model for
strategic-decision making. Had Iran or North Korea engaged in similar
talks with the United States, only to be discovered at the eleventh
hour engaging in illicit procurement activities, those discussions
likely would have quickly collapsed. After all, such behavior would run
counter to the whole strategic decision approach.

Why the Strategic Decision Paradigm Fails

To the Administration’s credit, there are advantages to the
strategic-decision template. It allows the United States to communicate
clearly that WMD proliferation is the wrong choice for nations that
aspire to a prosperous future, full membership in the international
community, and a rewarding relationship with the United States. It also
provides valuable clarity in assessing whether nations are truly
committed to dismantling WMD programs. A state that continually hedges
its bets, frustrates international inspectors, conceals WMD-related
information, and limits transparency is a state that has not yet made a
genuine decision to give up its illicit programs. Recognition of such
behavior is invaluable in shaping follow-on national and international

Nevertheless, a rigid and unyielding emphasis on the necessity of a
strategic decision can actually encourage recalcitrant states to
maintain, if not expand, their illicit programs. That’s because in
adopting an all-or-nothing approach, the United States risks missing
out on partial “half-a-loaf” compromises that may further
nonproliferation interests. Nowhere is this dynamic better seen than in
the case of North Korea. From 1994 to 2002, the Agreed Framework
effectively froze the most dangerous component of North Korea’s nuclear
weapons program, its plutonium reprocessing capability located at
Yongbyon, while permitting it to retain its existing nuclear facilities
and avoiding a timetable for dismantlement of its nuclear program. That
agreement collapsed in the fall of 2002, when American representatives
confronted North Korean officials with evidence of a secret
uranium-enrichment program. The North Korean officials confessed to the
violation, triggering a chain of events that culminated in North
Korea’s ejection of IAEA inspectors, its withdrawal from the NPT, and
the restart of its plutonium-based weapons program–ultimately leading
to its test of a nuclear weapon in October 2006.

Despite its very real success, Republican pundits and lawmakers have
mocked the Agreed Framework as the most egregious case of appeasement
since Neville Chamberlain came back from Munich muttering “peace in our
time.” Nothing could be further from the truth, as the last four years
have effectively demonstrated. Under President Bill Clinton’s watch,
the United States averted the prospect of a bloody war on the Korean
peninsula with a negotiated agreement that, while admittedly imperfect,
served to keep in check North Korea’s nuclear program for almost a
decade. The Agreed Framework, although never advertised as anything
more than a temporary and incomplete solution, succeeded in imposing a
cap on North Korea’s plutonium-reprocessing capacity for eight years
and hence prevented a nuclear “breakout” on the Korean peninsula.

And, whereas the Clinton Administration threatened a military strike
in 1994 if the North Koreans so much as touched spent fuel rods that
could be reprocessed for weapons-grade plutonium, the Bush
Administration, facing a nearly identical scenario in the winter of
2002, stood idly by and watched the North Koreans cart away the spent
fuel rods and restart the Yongbyon nuclear reactor. Administration
policymakers defended their laissez-faire approach by pointing to North
Korea’s secret uranium-enrichment program and declaring that Pyongyang
had already violated the Agreed Framework; that North Korea was now
explicitly violating the Agreed Framework was irrelevant because it had
already revealed its true stripes.

In effect, Bush Administration policymakers were viewing the North
Korean crisis through the perspective of the strategic-decision model.
The uranium-enrichment effort, they felt, offered clear evidence that
North Korea had not truly committed to disarmament when it signed the
Agreed Framework in 1994. Until North Korea arrived at a genuine
strategic decision that nuclear weapons did not serve its national
interests, they maintained, it made little sense for the United States
and the international community to pretend otherwise through compromise
deals or agreements honored in the breach.

But the Administration’s thinking is akin to equating grand larceny
with jaywalking: Both North Korean violations qualify as contempt for
commitments previously made, yet their degrees of magnitude are not
comparable. The uranium-enrichment program, if it existed in the first
place (North Korea has subsequently denied any confession and the
underlying intelligence remains shaky), was still in its nascent stages
in 2002 and was years from posing any critical danger to the United
States. By contrast, for eight years, the Agreed Framework mothballed
North Korea’s plutonium-based nuclear weapons program under the
watchful eyes of IAEA inspectors. The spent fuel rods that were
effectively frozen under the Agreed Framework represented a direct
danger to the United States; their reprocessing could yield in a matter
of months sufficient fissile material for four to five nuclear weapons.

Of course, the North Korea case demonstrates that the
strategic-decision paradigm can only go so far, even with its strongest
proponents. In late 2006, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill
was granted unprecedented flexibility by the White House and Rice to
reach an agreement with Pyongyang and halt, if not dismantle, its
growing nuclear program. After a subsequent series of intense
negotiations, including bilateral talks between the United States and
North Korea, the Six Party Talks reached consensus in February on an
agreement to freeze the Yongbyon reactor and lay the foundation for
further nuclear dismantlement steps in exchange for a series of
concessions, including immediate energy assistance and the softening of
U.S. financial sanctions. In effect, despite all its words of
castigation and condemnation of its predecessor’s efforts, the Bush
Administration has signed on to a sequel to the Agreed Framework.

Nonetheless, the strategic decision paradigm imposed severe costs
in the interim period. Between 2002 and 2007, the North Koreans
reportedly has quadrupled the size of its plutonium-based stockpile,
making the October 2006 nuclear test a fait accompli (with more
fissile material on hand, North Korea could afford to expend some of it
in a nuclear test). By any measure, the North Korean nuclear problem
today is significantly worse than it was in 2002. History rarely gives
us the opportunity to assess how two different leaders would respond to
a similar situation, yet the two nuclear crises on the Korean Peninsula
in 1994-1995 and 2002-2006 have done just that. And the verdict is not
kind to President Bush and the strategic-decision approach he followed
on the Korean Peninsula for the majority of his presidency–and, more
ominously, continues to follow with Iran.

Indeed, the relative success of the Agreed Framework demonstrates
that partial compromises sometimes have a place in nonproliferation
policy, even if they are unsatisfying and do not provide full closure.
Diplomacy does not always insist upon immediately solving a thorny
problem, but rather managing and containing a problem for a period of
months or years until more propitious circumstances arrive. With their
firm delineation of right versus wrong choices by national governments,
strategic-decision advocates do not allow for this form of nuance.
Their emphasis on a permanent solution can allow potential intermediate
opportunities for constraining further proliferation to slip away.

The strategic-decision model also inadvertently absolves the United
States of any obligation for leadership. Strategic-decision advocates
focus their attention on the proliferating state; it is the bad actor
that is expected to recognize the error of its ways, make amends to the
international community, and disarm in a thorough and transparent
manner. Because a nation that has made a real strategic decision should
not expect explicit incentives and concessions, minimal attention is
paid to the “carrots” offered by leading powers and the international
community. Under the strategic-decision approach, the inducements
offered by the United States and other leading powers ultimately do not

Taken to its extreme, as it often is by the Bush Administration, the
strategic-decision school of thought can absolve the United State of
even the need to talk with WMD proliferators. If the burden of proof
for a state that is dismantling its illicit programs is total and
complete cooperation, with no caveats, modifiers, or exceptions, then
negotiations to establish such modalities are not required. As former
Undersecretary of State and UN Ambassador John Bolton asserted in a
speech drawing out the lessons for Iran and North Korea from the Libya
case, “The principle, though, of not rewarding outlaw regimes merely
for coming back into compliance with their past obligations is an
important one for the United States to uphold. It is not only anathema
to our values–it is bad policy. It will encourage further violations
not only with the state in question, but other rogue states as well.”

It makes sense that an administration that has demonstrated extreme
reluctance to engage those regimes it finds odious for reasons of
tyranny, human rights abuses, or general anti-Americanism will be drawn
to a paradigm for WMD proliferation that minimizes the importance of
negotiations and mutual compromises. Yet, ultimately, such an approach
represents an abdication of responsibility. By dint of its national
interests and global leadership duties, the United States cannot afford
the luxury of refusing to engage dangerous regimes on ideological or
moral grounds. Already, we see the end results of such a course: WMD
proliferation has accelerated and other nations, most notably China,
have stepped into the void created by the absence of U.S. leadership

Resuscitating the Art of Coercive Diplomacy

As evidenced by the recent North Korean agreement, the Bush
Administration is not necessarily beholden to the strategic-decision
paradigm when it comes to navigating nonproliferation challenges. After
six years of policy paralysis that permitted North Korea to become a
declared nuclear power with ample fissile material, the Administration
finally reversed course and struck a deal with Pyongyang. Yet it is
important to remember that the North Korean deal likely represents more
of an aberration than a fundamental change in policy. More than
anything else, it appears to have been driven by the White House’s need
for a foreign policy success in an otherwise bleak environment. And the
strategic decision model continues to undergird the U.S. approach to
Iran: The White House continues to rule out a diplomatic outreach to
Tehran, demanding that Iran first verifiably suspend its uranium
enrichment program before talks can begin.

U.S. officials have not been shy about concealing an implicit threat
of military action when it comes to Iran. Yet any objective observer
can realize that the U.S. military is in no position to engage in a
third front in Southwest Asia, much less absorb the threat of Iranian
retaliation within Iraq. Which means that if the United States cannot
rely on the power of military force, the threat of regime change, or
the aura of moral condemnation to convince proliferators to promptly
disarm, it must develop an alternative framework to effectively
constrain and roll back proliferation. It is time for the Bush
Administration to re-acquaint themselves with the concept of coercive
diplomacy, a time-honored approach that has been largely abandoned for
the past six years.

Coercive diplomacy successfully incorporates openness to dialogue
and negotiations, backed by the threat or use of limited force, to
facilitate a successful outcome. A nation practicing coercive diplomacy
is not afraid to reveal, and even brandish, the stick of force, so long
as it publicly demonstrates that it is willing to settle for a peaceful
solution that achieves its objectives. A successful application of
coercive diplomacy ultimately avoids the use of force, because the
threat of force is so credible that the adversary recognizes further
defiance is unwise in the face of a peaceful, negotiated alternative.

Three key principles underlie a successful use of coercive diplomacy
as it applies to the challenge posed by proliferation outlaws. The
first principle is that regime disarmament trumps regime change. It is
impossible to engage in coercive diplomacy with another regime if you
are simultaneously seeking the forcible removal of that regime. No
matter how heinous a regime, if the principal aim of U.S. foreign
policy is to prevent that regime from acquiring WMD, then Washington
must be willing to accept a verifiable disarmament package even as the
regime continues to solidify its internal power. The United States must
be willing to credibly assure proliferating nations that, if they
faithfully implement disarmament obligations, they will enjoy a minimum
level of access to U.S. diplomatic, economic, and security benefits and
will not need a nuclear weapon to deter U.S.-fostered regime change.
Both Iran and North Korea, not unreasonably, have hesitated to engage
with Washington ever since Bush made his infamous “axis of evil”
statement in the 2002 State of the Union address. Instead, hard-liners
in both regimes have been empowered to block any conciliatory stances
toward Washington by citing the barely hidden desires in the Bush
Administration for their removal. Regime change may be an appropriate
alternative in those cases where it stands a chance of success.
Unfortunately, in both Iran and North Korea, both regimes have
strengthened their grip over the past four years. Calls to depose the
rulers in Tehran and Pyongyang are ultimately counterproductive.

This approach need not surrender all of the goodies Washington has
to offer in exchange for WMD disarmament alone. The United States can
structure additional concessions, such as economic assistance, down the
road in exchange for greater democratization and human rights
practices. But the proliferation of WMDs is the most urgent national
security threat facing the United States. No matter how realpolitik or
calculating it may appear, halting the spread of these weapons must
take precedence above all other priorities, including the spread of
democracy and the desired universality of human rights standards.
Otherwise, the U.S. government is placing the interests of foreign
citizens above the safety and security of the American people.

Second, an effective strategy of coercive diplomacy requires the
ability to deliver on both carrots and sticks and deploys both in a
balance. Although the United States has professed openness to a
negotiated solution to resolve the Iranian crisis, it has failed to
offer either credible carrots or genuine sticks. On the carrots side,
the United States has refused to make a clear offer of a security
guarantee to Iran in exchange for its complete and verifiable
disarmament, instead asserting that other issues must be resolved first
or that a security assurance from the world’s sole superpower is
unnecessary. European and Asian partners are more than capable of
stepping up and providing various economic inducements; what the United
States can uniquely offer is the binding promise that it will not
attack either regime. A carrot is not worthwhile unless a nation is
willing to extend it.

The Bush Administration has been even more cavalier on the stick
side of the equation. After warning Iran that its rejection of an
international call for suspension of uranium enrichment would be met by
strong sanctions, the United States engaged in months of feckless
negotiations with its fellow UN Security Council members, only to
produce a set of weak and limited sanctions that underscored the lack
of international unity on Iran’s nuclear program. In short, we have
substituted bluster for real threats, removing any genuine element of
coercion from our diplomatic approach. A new approach would minimize
the hyperbole, instead working with our partners and allies on a
genuine set of sticks that can be backed by a credible willingness to
actually use them. One positive recent sign is the Administration’s
willingness to use financial and economic pressure as a means to
squeeze North Korea and Iran’s access to world capital markets; the key
question is whether the United States is willing to turn off this
pressure in return for specific WMD concessions from Tehran.

Finally, it is important to return to a nuanced understanding of
diplomacy and negotiations as a mechanism for securing broader national
interests, not as an end in and of itself. Many Europeans and other
committed “multilateralists” often view negotiations as a panacea for
international security challenges: So long as all parties are meeting
with one another and dialogue is taking place, they feel, a lid is kept
on potential crises. This perspective ignores the reality that
negotiations can provide the necessary time and cover to allow a
proliferator to simultaneously engage in discussions while proceeding
apace with its WMD programs. At the other extreme, the Bush
Administration has adopted the curious view that negotiation itself
represents a concession, one that should only be parceled out after the
suspected proliferator makes a strategic decision. The Administration
is essentially stating that the price of talking with the United States
is unilateral resolution of the very issue at hand in the first place–a
demand that seems to strike everyone but the White House as
fundamentally perverse.

Both of these perspectives are flawed, because they offer excessive
import to the very act of negotiations and diplomacy. Instead, America
should once again recognize that diplomacy is a useful tool of our
nation’s foreign policy and, when used in the right circumstances, can
help us secure our national interests. Diplomacy offers the added
benefits of forcing our adversaries to come to the table with their own
credible packages and permitting a glimpse of the internal divisions
and rivalries that may shape decision-making in otherwise closed
regimes. Talking to our enemies does not legitimate their actions or
form of government; instead, it offers a means to lay out clearly what
can happen if a regime chooses to give up its WMD programs and rejoins
the international community. A stubborn refusal to come to the table
only forces the spotlight on the United States and makes it out to be
the bad guy, jeopardizing valuable support from allies and partners.
Talking never hurts; as the world’s sole superpower, the United States
should know that better than anyone.

Measuring Success

History’s verdict on the Bush Administration’s nonproliferation
record will not be kind. On its watch, the United States carried out a
preventive war against a regime it accused of amassing WMDs, only to
find that Iraq’s efforts had been stillborn for almost a decade. It
stood by as North Korea greatly expanded its nuclear arsenal, tested a
nuclear weapon, and threatened to sell its weapons and fissile material
to the highest bidder, all without any discernible consequences.
Finally, it rejected opportunities in 2002 and 2003 for dialogue on
Iran’s emerging nuclear program when Tehran was more likely to make
significant concessions; today, Iran is proceeding apace with its
nuclear program and is in little mood to compromise.

Underlining this disastrous approach to nonproliferation policy is
the mistaken view that only a strategic decision for comprehensive and
irreversible disarmament can qualify as a success. This approach has
informed the Administration’s refusal to talk to unsavory regimes and
has rationalized its disparagement of previous U.S. nonproliferation
victories, most notably the Agreed Framework. The strategic-decision
model is a ready-made excuse for the U.S. government to step away from
the duties of leadership in the struggle to contain the spread of WMDs.

Coercive diplomacy offers a more sturdy and reliable foundation for
America’s foreign policy in coming years. By successfully integrating
all of the available options in our nation’s toolkit, we can maximize
the full spectrum of our nation’s power, ranging from the strength of
our economy to the dominance of our military. Coercive diplomacy offers
an unmistakable choice to nations pursuing illicit weapons programs:
Join with the United States in a prosperous and secure future or face
the prospect of economic isolation backed by the threat of force.
President Bush has shown encouraging signs that he may be moving away
from the strategic-decision model when it comes to North Korea, but his
unyielding stance remains firm with Iran. If he is to avoid saddling
his successor with an emerging nuclear state at the heart of the Middle
East, it is time for him to switch course.


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Jofi Joseph is foreign relations adviser for Senator Bob Casey, Jr. (D-Penn.). The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Senator.

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