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A LOOK AT... Rogue States
A Handy Label, But a Lousy Policy

By Robert S. Litwak

Sunday, February 20, 2000; Page B03

ONCE A RHETORICAL FLOURISH, the term 'rogue state' has become an essential part of the U.S. diplomatic lexicon. That's a mistake, argues author Robert Litwak.

It sounds so irrefutable, so resolute, so well-defined: rogue state.

It is an efficient political shorthand that leaves no doubt about a country's place in the world of nations: "Dealing with the rogue states is one of the great challenges of our time," Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright declared in September 1997, "because as I have often described the international system, they are there with the sole purpose of destroying the system."

Indeed, the phrase trips off the tongue so easily that U.S. politicians, policymakers and presidential candidates use it almost daily:

* "In the next century, the community of nations may see more and more of the very kind of threat Iraq poses now--a rogue state with weapons of mass destruction, ready to use them or provide them to terrorists, drug traffickers or organized criminals who travel the world among us unnoticed." (President Clinton, February 1998)

* "[We intend to develop] a national missile defense program to provide a limited defense for the 50 states against a long-range missile threat posed by rogue nations." (Secretary of Defense William Cohen, January 1999)

* "I'd institute a policy that I call a rogue state rollback. I would arm, train and equip . . . forces that would eventually overthrow the governments and install free and democratically elected governments." (Sen. John McCain, at a GOP debate in South Carolina last week)

Where the term once meant something specific--a state that had failed to adhere to the rule of law--it has become an elastic catch phrase that is used to demonize behavior and rally political support. Thus, the Clinton administration brandishes it to justify a national missile defense system ("to defend ourselves against rogue states"), while its GOP opponents can appropriate it to criticize administration policy (as one Republican did in 1998, when he urged Clinton to cancel a planned visit to China because it was a "rogue state"). Thus, the United States is actively trying to contain some states (Iraq and Libya, for example) while engaging others (Syria and Pakistan) that exhibit some of the same behavior, although perhaps not to the same degree.

The question is not whether such regimes are threatening or odious. They are. But by lumping together a diverse group of states under the "rogue" rubric, the term obscures understanding and distorts U.S. foreign policy. This is not an issue of semantics: The Clinton administration has elevated the phrase from its rhetorical roots into a basis for policy, and that has proved to be a diplomatic liability.

The current love affair with the phrase is a distinctly '90s phenomenon, which coincided with the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet threat. After Iraq's invasion of Kuwait led to war in the Persian Gulf, Bush administration officials warned that the main danger to international peace stemmed from the "Iraqs of the future"--Third World states possessing weapons of mass destruction, sponsoring terrorism and threatening U.S. interests in key regions.

The American impulse to brand behavior is not new, but the language has changed in the past quarter-century. An early favorite was "pariah state." Reagan administration officials were partial to "outlaw," while President Bush favored "renegade." Rogue state is an old standby, but it has acquired new stature in the Clinton administration.

And new meaning. Until the 1970s, "rogue" was used to describe regimes whose internal actions--how they treated their own people--were viewed as abhorrent. After 1979, with the advent of the State Department's annual report on state-sponsored terrorism, the criterion for rogue state status shifted from internal to external behavior. The Clinton administration further developed this theme. In September 1997 speeches, Albright asserted that the category of "rogue states" qualified as one of four distinct groupings of nations in the post-Cold War world (the other three are nations that work within the international system, transitional countries and failed states.) North Korea, Iran, Iraq and Libya are the countries that most consistently make the administration's list of rogue states.

Although the term ostensibly refers to violations of accepted international norms, it's a label that has no formal standing in international law. It derives instead from an American political culture that has traditionally viewed international relations as a clash between the forces of good and evil. Because it's analytically soft and quintessentially political, its selective use creates contradictions.

Cuba, a post-Cold War communist holdover (and basket-case state), has occasionally been included in the rogue category even though the Castro regime does not have a weapons of mass destruction program and no longer poses a real security threat to the Caribbean region. That is largely because calling Cuba a rogue state plays well in the politically powerful Cuban emigre community in south Florida.

By contrast, Syria, which uses terrorism as an instrument of state policy, has been exempted from the Clinton administration's list of rogue states because of its central role in the Middle East peace process. Similarly Pakistan, which tested a nuclear device in May 1998 and whose military regime was recently implicated by the U.S. government in the terrorist hijacking of an Indian airliner, has not been labeled a rogue state because of its long-standing ties to the United States.

Since the Cold War ended, one of the main objectives of U.S. policy has been the "containment" of rogue states. But this approach, and the label itself, sharply limits diplomatic flexibility. It pushes policymakers into a one-size-fits-all strategy. Once a state, such as Iran, is declared "beyond the pale" and relegated to the "rogue" category, it is politically difficult to pursue an alternative approach.

North Korea is the exception to this general pattern, as well as the best illustration of the problem. The Clinton administration, confronted with the acute danger posed by Pyongyang's maturing nuclear program, opted reluctantly to engage with the rogue. The alternatives were military strikes on North Korea's nuclear facilities or economic sanctions, either of which could have triggered a war on the Korean peninsula and neither of which could guarantee North Korea's nuclear disarmament.

So in October 1994, the two countries signed the U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework. The accord commits North Korea to a freeze of its nuclear weapons activity and the eventual dismantling of its existing nuclear reactors. In exchange, a U.S.-led consortium agreed to provide two "proliferation-resistant" light-water nuclear reactors. Congressional critics have castigated the pact as a "giveaway." This demonstrates the label's problem: When a negotiation involves a "rogue," even a reciprocated concession can be cast as an act of appeasement.

Then it was the Clinton administration's turn to use the label for its purposes. To mobilize support for its national missile defense policy, it has returned to calling North Korea a "rogue state." The use of this charged term has undercut the administration's ability to conduct further talks with the North Koreans or pursue a strategy that deviates from comprehensive containment and isolation.

Iran is another case in which changed circumstances--primarily the election of President Mohammed Khatemi in May 1997--have challenged the rogue state strategy. Despite Khatemi's call for a "dialogue between civilizations" and Albright's proposal for a "road map" to normal relations, a diplomatic impasse persists because of formidable domestic political barriers on both sides. For the United States, there is no imperative for engagement, in contrast to the North Korean situation. Khatemi and his allies are locked in a political struggle with theocratic hard-liners in Iran, and the issue of relations with America, the "Great Satan," is at the core.

Will Iran remain a revolutionary state, or is it ready to rejoin the "family of nations"? The United States has the ability, if only marginally, to influence this complex, unfolding process. But the continued designation of Iran as a rogue state limits the Clinton administration's ability to respond to encouraging developments, such as Khatemi's efforts to rein in government agencies linked to international terrorism. It ensures that any American gesture that could make a real difference in Tehran would be politically risky in Washington.

The alternative to the rogue state policy is to develop what might be called "differentiated" strategies that address the particular conditions in each "rogue" country. This alternative is not an argument for blanket engagement with every unsavory regime. Iran's domestic politics create opportunities to be pursued, while Iraq's do not--because politics there simply do not exist beyond Saddam Hussein's cult of personality.

Rather than lumping some states into the rogues' gallery and selectively omitting others, the United States should focus on actions by regimes that contravene established international norms with respect to both external and internal behavior. These criteria enjoy broad international legitimacy--unlike the unilateral American "rogue state" designation--and provide a basis for accountability (such as indicting war criminals).

Above all, the shift from a generic to a targeted approach requires a different kind of foreign policy dialogue between the executive branch, Congress and the general public. That entails making the case to meet a threat on its own terms, without recourse to hyperbole or some misleading catchall category. Such a debate about how to deal with states like Iran and Iraq, each of which poses a unique challenge, will yield no ready answers. But it will provide a sound basis for choice.

Robert Litwak, director of international studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center, served on the National Security Council staff during President Clinton's first term. This article is based on his new book, "Rogue States and U.S. Foreign Policy" (Wilson Center Press/Johns Hopkins University Press).

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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