Why do American diplomats seek to engage the world’s most egregious, insincere rogue regimes and terrorist groups? That was one of the questions I tried to answer in Dancing with the Devil, a history of more than a half-century of U.S. diplomacy with so-called rogues. The term ‘rogue regime’ isn’t the product of the past decade’s politicization of national security; rather, it has its roots in the 1970s but really came into vogue during the Clinton administration when such officials as Secretaries of State Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright and Secretaries of Defense Les Aspin, William Perry, and William Cohen all embraced the term, as did Clinton himself. In short, the Clinton team defined rogue regimes as states that eschew the norms of diplomacy, engage in proliferation and sponsor terrorism, and cannot be readily deterred. In short, rogue regimes are not ordinary adversaries. North Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran are rogues; the Soviet Union and communist Cuba were and are adversaries.
When looking at the history of diplomacy with these rogues, one of the unfortunate patterns which emerged, but which was based more on circumstantial evidence than hard proof, was the role of ego and careerism. Almost every U.S. diplomat is smart, articulate, and ambitious to the point that it can be hard to set him or herself apart from colleagues who would like just as much to advance to ambassador, an assistant secretary portfolio, or more. One of the key ways to get noticed is to ensconce oneself in high-profile diplomacy to bring in a rogue from the cold. Once upon a time, good sense and strategic outlook trumped this sort of ambition, but over the last quarter century, that changed.
It was engagement with terrorist groups and their state sponsors that brought fame and fortune to diplomats like Dennis Ross, Chris Hill, William Burns, and Robert Malley. Ross was Robert Oakley’s deputy on the National Security Council when, on February 16, 1988, dialogue began with proxies for the PLO. Even as PLO chairman Yasser Arafat violated most subsequent agreements and continued his embrace of terrorism until his dying day, Ross and his staff were unwilling to walk away. Malley, who joined Ross’ team toward the end of the Clinton administration, went even further and advocated engagement with Hamas.
As the press has grown more partisan, hostile to American exceptionalism, and prone to confuse neutrality with moral clarity, ambitious diplomats know they will have it in their pocket to cheerlead any diplomatic process with any rogue. The New York Times editorial board encapsulated this most famously in a 2007 editorial entitled, “What Would a Diplomat Do?” The conceit of the essay was that President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would do well to ask what a diplomat like Christopher Hill, who built his career negotiating with North Korea, would advise. The reality, however, was that Hill eviscerated American credibility, refused to abide by the checks-and-balances incumbent in good diplomacy, and more than any other diplomat besides perhaps current Iran negotiator Wendy Sherman, is responsible for North Korea advancing as far as it has with its nuclear program.
Then, of course, there was the press cheerleading for Bill Richardson, a cabinet-level U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton administration. On April 17, 1998, Richardson traveled to Kabul to meet with Taliban leaders. CNN was hagiographic in its assessment, titling its report, “Taliban, masters of a suffering people, took Bill Richardson’s visit seriously.” Alas, despite Richardson’s self-assessment, his visit neither ended the Afghan civil war nor did it result in terror training camps being closed. The only thing it accomplished was to provide Richardson—at the time he had presidential ambitions—the limelight and enhanced speaker fees post-administration.
Fast forward to the current negotiations with Iran: In what’s meant to be a color piece, the Boston Globe’s Matt Viser shows the ego and inflated sense of importance that infuses American diplomats on Secretary of State John Kerry and Undersecretary Wendy Sherman’s negotiating team:
During idle hours, they have debated who among them would be played by what stars, if any producer for some reason decided to make a movie about how the United States and Iran tried to overcome decades of distrust to craft an agreement limiting Iran’s ability to build a nuclear bomb. Kerry, US delegation members decided, would be played by Ted Danson, while Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz would be portrayed by Javier Bardem (from “No Country for Old Men”). The silver-haired Sherman would be played by Meryl Streep (as captured in “The Devil Wears Prada”). And Marie Harf, a senior communications adviser, would be portrayed by Kirsten Dunst.
The frequent quip that politics is Hollywood for ugly people is meant to be a joke; unfortunately, Kerry’s team has taken this to heart. Mature, more seasoned leaders would recognize that when their people start seeing themselves as movie-worthy, they have lost focus and perspective and it’s time to send people home and replace them with those more grounded and less likely to allow ego to trump judgment.
If the experiences of the last quarter-century are any indicator, when ego and ambition triumph, national security suffers. The Obama team is playing this truism to a ‘T’.