Practical Alternatives

Regime change doesn’t work, but a tough policy of containment directed at North Korea and Iran, and a change of course in Iraq, would do the trick

But a tough policy of containment directed at North Korea and Iran, and a change of course in Iraq, would do the trick.

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is in Northeast Asia this week trying to persuade all of North Korea’s neighbors to help America limit the fall out from the Bush Bomb that Pyongyang exploded underground earlier this month. Chances are her efforts will fall short as North Korea is threatening to detonate another underground nuclear explosion.

This is precisely why foreign policy makers in Washington and congressional leaders need to return to a tried and true approach—an effective policy of containment—to manage the current standoff with North Korea and rescue the administration’s failed strategies in Iran and Iraq. The Bush administration six years ago inherited practical and effective diplomatic efforts at containing possible threats to America posed by North Korea, Iran, Libya, and even Iraq, alongside detailed intelligence of the dire threat posed by al-Qaeda. Six years later, it’s not too late for the Bush administration to embrace these efforts anew for the good of the country.

Let’s start with North Korea. The Clinton policy on North Korea had its flaws, most importantly the failure of officials to finish the job and permanently end the Korean nuclear and missile programs. But officials then knew how to use both force and diplomacy effectively. When North Korea threatened to unload its reactor at Yongbyon and process another batch of plutonium, Clinton threatened war. He had plans prepared for air strikes on the reactor.

The North Koreans backed down. Clinton knew how to use the threat of force to drive a negotiated solution that stopped all plutonium production for the entire decade. Moreover, without the framework’s freeze, North Korea would have completed construction of two much larger weapon production reactors, says former Department of Energy official Jon Wolfsthal, “By now, North Korea would have been capable of producing 20 nuclear weapons per year.”

Similarly, Clinton officials continued negotiations with Libya begun during the Reagan and Bush terms that moved that government closer to abandoning its nuclear and chemical weapons and missile programs in exchange for security assurances and the economic advantages that would result from normalized relations.

Instead of building on these efforts, Bush decided instead to embrace the confrontational, even messianic, “regime change” policy championed by neoconservative speechwriters, journalists, and analysts who themselves had never experienced firsthand the hard lessons of individual combat. They used the detection of North Korean imports of equipment for a uranium enrichment program—a clear violation of several agreements—as an excuse to abandon these agreements completely.

In similar circumstances, other presidents had used evidence of violations by the Soviets, Chinese, or other nations to bolster the agreements, insisting on tighter verification and enforcement procedures, for example. The uranium enrichment technology was a violation, but not an immediate threat, as it would take years, even decades, for the North Koreans to produce bomb material with this method.

But those were heady days for the Bush policy. When then-Undersecretary of State John Bolton was asked what lesson Iran and North Korea should draw from the Iraq War, he said, “Take a number.” We don’t deal with dictators, officials thought, we destroy them.

The arrogance and failures of the regime change strategy are self-evident, but less noticed are the foreign policy successes or near successes posted by the Bush administration when it practiced tried and true containment policies. Libya’s decision to give up its fledgling nuclear ambitions came after several years of negotiations and included key economic and diplomatic incentives, including a guarantee that the United States would not attack again (as it had under President Reagan).

The Bush administration likes to credit the invasion of Iraq for Libya’s about-face. Force played a role, but it was the delicate balance between force and diplomacy that worked to change this regime’s behavior, as Duke University scholars Bruce Jentleson and Christopher Whytock documented. Libyan leader Moamar Quadaffi went from the poster-child of a rogue state leader to someone President Bush now calls “a model” for others to emulate.

Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld opposed the deal with Libya. Fortunately, they were overruled by the influence of both British Prime Minister Tony Blair and then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. Unfortunately, it is the only sustained example of the pragmatists prevailing over the ideologues.

In Iran, Bush squandered opportunities available when the country helped the U.S. during its invasion of Afghanistan and stood aside as the U.S. deposed Iran’s mortal enemy, Saddam Hussein. Shortly after the fall of Baghdad, when U.S. power was at its apex, Iran presented Washington with a roadmap to resolving a full spectrum of issues, potentially leading to a new relationship with the U.S., Israel, and the region. The Bush administration ignored the offer, and Iran pressed ahead swiftly with its nuclear development efforts.

Now, with no credible military options to attempt regime change in Tehran or Pyongyang after the ill-advised invasion of Iraq and our urgent need to redeploy our Armed Forces to fight the real threat of terrorist networks, we can no longer afford the split between realists in the administration, such as Secretary Rice and Assistant Secretary Christopher Hill, who want to negotiate with North Korea (and Iran), and the ideologues, led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who want to overthrow both regimes.

Hill negotiated a deal to end the North Korean program last September—only to have it torpedoed by sanctions imposed under Cheney’s direction. The sanctions hurt enough to infuriate the North Koreans but not enough to force them to capitulate. The deal collapsed.

President Bush must ensure that his Secretary of State wins this struggle for control of foreign policy within his administration, and Congress must act to help in that effort when it returns to Washington in November. Now is the time to get smart. We must regain control of this situation.

Newly-elected U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has offered to mediate. Let him. South Korea may send an emissary directly to Pyongyang and it should. China must also play this role. China is perfectly willing to pressure the North, but will never go so far as to cause the collapse of the regime demanded by the far-right press (and The Washington Post). That would send millions of refuges streaming north and south, destabilizing the entire peninsula.

The key is to understand the limitations of sanctions and threats of force. They will never force North Korea to capitulate. But they could prod this difficult and dangerous government back to the bargaining table. The United States should be there waiting to directly engage them. The U.S. should make clear that we will give North Korea the deal we gave Libya: complete dismantlement of the nuclear program in exchange for diplomatic recognition, security assurances, and economic incentives.

The Libyan model is far superior to the Iraqi one: its costs were minimal, no one died, and it was 100 percent effective. And if we can negotiate such a deal with North Korea then we would have a blueprint in hand for dealing with Iran while we still have time.

President Bush must end his administration’s internal policy paralysis and back a new, final push for a deal with North Korea. If these efforts fail, we will have laid the ground work for a policy that aims to contain both the North Korean program and any efforts by our regional allies to begin their own nuclear weapons programs. We would also have shown good faith efforts to reach a deal with Pyongyang, which Tehran would surely notice.

Our diplomats know how to get the job done. They just need the orders to proceed.

Joseph Cirincione is Senior Vice President for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress. His areas of expertise include: nonproliferation, national security, international security, U.S. military, U.S. foreign policy

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