Dancing with the Devil

Blathering with dictators has a bloody price.

dancMichael Rubin will be speaking at the Freedom Center's Wednesday Morning Club on Tuesday, April 1, 2014, in Los Angeles. For more information, click here.

Many books have been written about the cost of war. Far fewer have been written about the cost of diplomacy.

Diplomacy, diplomats assume, is always a good thing. There can be no harm in talking to an enemy. Talking, talking and then talking some more. It’s the myth that Obama has built his entire foreign policy around, broadcasting his eagerness for unconditional dialogue with totalitarian states, and it is a myth that Michael Rubin challenges with a combination of hard facts, historical accounts and bigger ideas in Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes.

Despite the presence of “Rogue Regimes” in the title, a favorite buzzword of the post-Cold War diplomatic establishment, Rubin analyzes and challenges the term “rogue” and many of the other comforting clichés of modern diplomacy whose real goal is to avoid coming to terms with reality.

The biggest of these clichés is that talking is a sign of progress. As Rubin demonstrates, enemy states use diplomacy to buy time or intimidate an opponent as summed up in the famous aphorism about diplomacy being the art of saying nice doggie while picking up a rock. Except we’re the doggie and the rock is radioactive.

In Dancing with the Devil, Rubin shows how totalitarian states like North Korea, Iraq and Iran used negotiations as levers for achieving their own goals without giving up anything in return. Totalitarian states have learned that a combination of diplomacy with aggressive threats leads to a rewards cycle as Western diplomats struggle to sustain diplomacy with more generous concessions of appeasement.

For Western diplomats, success means bringing an enemy to the negotiating table and keeping him there, but as Rubin’s book quotes Kissinger as saying in regard to negotiations with the USSR, “When talks become their own objective, they are at the mercy of the party most prepared to break them off.”

That is the phenomenon that we are seeing in the latest round of negotiations between Israel and PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas who has to be bribed with an escalating series of freebies just to stay at the negotiating table to negotiate the pre-negotiating process.

It was also the response of Obama to any talk of sanctions on Iran as the negotiations process became something that Iran offered as a reward to America in exchange for ‘good’ behavior… instead of the other way around.

Diplomats take the grievances of totalitarian states seriously and seek to appease them which only encourages them to cultivate further grievances. Rather than stabilizing the conflict, appeasement further escalates it as totalitarian states find more things to be angry about and more grievances to threaten war over.

Western diplomats, Rubin writes, are content to negotiate endlessly and to treat these serial negotiations as signs of success. Enemy diplomats however want instant benefits for their regime while offering worthless long term promises that they intend to break at the first opportunity having learned that this will only lead to more negotiations. They can’t lose and we can’t win.

Rogues continue to “go rogue” while negotiating with multilateralists. The multilateral diplomacy fetish perversely punishes fellow mulilateralists while rewarding rogues thereby incentivizing rogue behavior and disincentivizing membership in the multilateral club.

Western governments that commit to the diplomatic route become practiced at ignoring threats and aggressive activities as mere “provocations” so that Obama’s interlocutors dismiss Iran’s threats of war as a negotiating strategy rather than statements of intent.

Rubin documents how Russian espionage under Obama in 2010 was quickly resolved by releasing the spies to avoid disrupting the ephemeral “reset”. Bill Clinton ordered a cover up of the Khobar Towers bombing to avoid ruining diplomatic outreach to Iran. Arafat’s links to terrorism were likewise covered up to avoid the end of foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority and the end of the peace process.

By positioning war and diplomacy as opposites on a spectrum representing a range from hostility to peace, the false perception was maintained that any move toward negotiations was also a move away from war. Negotiations however are not the opposite of conflict. Sometimes they are an extension of it.

As Chinese Communist leader Zhou Enlai said, “All diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means.”

The West has made peace into an absolute good, but that assumption is not shared by its enemies. Western diplomats seek to integrate “rogue states” into a peaceful multilateral consensus, assuming that this is something that they want as well, when what the rogue states really want is to humiliate and defeat their enemies.

While Obama tells Putin that Ukraine is not a zero sum game, Putin wins by behaving as if it is. Diplomats believe in compromise, but totalitarians do not.

Authoritarian regimes do not believe in mutual gain. A totalitarian system treats everything as a zero sum game. Its structural setup rejects compromise domestically and internationally. Furthermore regimes such as North Korea and Iran learn from each other when it comes to gaming out successful strategies against the West so that a concession on one front becomes a sellout on many.

Diplomats, Rubin points out, have come to define success and failure in terms of ‘talking’. They do this without questioning their assumptions about the virtues of the ‘talking cure’ for totalitarian tyrannies. Diplomacy however works best as a velvet glove over an iron fist. A Western velvet glove without the iron is useless against totalitarian regimes that come to the negotiating table with their iron fists out.

Diplomacy may offer rewards, but when dealing with declared enemies, genocidal tyrannies and totalitarian states, it must be armored with a punitive element.

Dancing with the Devil also highlights the problems of diplomacy when conducted between consistently hostile dictatorships with one ruler and adversarial democracies whose newly elected leaders are quick to blame their predecessors for the former intractability of Russia, Iran, North Korea or the PLO, and to assume that it will be different with their new approach at the negotiating table.

Hillary’s reset button ignored all the lessons learned about Russia by her Republican predecessors by assuming that what had gone before had somehow been Bush’s fault. This is how American diplomats find themselves playing the short game while their opponents, who answer to a single dictator whose program goes back decades, are the ones playing the long game.

The final cost of diplomacy may be military, but the first cost of diplomacy is moral as Western countries look the other way at the abuses and atrocities of the tyrannies they are engaging diplomatically.

Rubin points out that Iran actually began executing more people during Clinton and Obama’s bouts of outreach to the Islamist theocracy in its so-called moderate phases. Bill Clinton ignored Assad’s bloody track record in the hopes of getting him into a peace process with Israel.

Negotiations with totalitarian states don’t save lives. They cost lives. They cost honor. And they take away the peace that might have been possible and substitute for it a state of endless negotiated war.

Obama’s foreign policy has demonstrated once again the timeless truth that appeasement does not secure peace.

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