I was recently confronted – as I have not infrequently been before – with arguments against the U.S. approach of seeking to pressure and isolate “rogue regimes” such as North Korea (a.k.a. the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) and Iran. In this instance, the argument was offered by some friends of mine in the disarmament community, who felt that even the Obama Administration was taking too inflexible and Bush-like an approach to Tehran and Pyongyang.
My friends’ narrative was familiar in its outlines, because its plotline followed that so frequently articulated by such proliferator regimes themselves, and their supporters or apologists in the diplomatic community with whom I used to rub shoulders for a living. To be fair, my friends certainly did not share the objectives of the proliferator governments’ self-exculpatory narratives. Quite the contrary. Far from supporting or seeking to excuse such regimes’ pursuit or acquisition of nuclear weapons, my interlocutors were profoundly and fervently dedicated to nonproliferation and to disarmament. They sought merely to understand what they felt were the reasons for Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons proliferation, with an eye to using such insights in the development of improved policies to control the threats to international peace and security that are being created by this behavior.
That said, my friends nevertheless accepted the basic points of the very narratives of self-exoneration offered by the rogue regimes. Iran, for instance, was said to be understandably fearful of the United States. We Americans had been involved in overthrowing the government of Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, for example, and we had not been too concerned by Iran’s interest in nuclear technology under the Shah but have systematically tried to prevent the Islamic Republic of Iran from acquiring such know-how ever since. The United States had also winked complacently at Saddam Hussein’s war against the Iranian Revolution, and had largely looked the other way when Iraq used chemical weapons against the Iranians. In this context, my friends said, demonizing Iran as part of an “axis of evil” was naturally bound to provoke insecurity and a desire for nuclear weapons.
It was also, I was told, important to remember that North Korea had faced the deployment of considerable numbers of U.S. nuclear weapons in South Korea during the Cold War, and that Pyongyang had pursued nuclear weapons only after the end of the Cold War had deprived it of much of the strategic support it had long enjoyed from larger communist powers. The United States, my friends contended, had also failed to live up to its end of the bargain under the 1994 Agreed Framework with the DPRK – e.g., by not being willing to countenance a formal peace treaty to end the Korean War.
Drawing upon this narrative of the United States’ purported past mistreatment of Iran and North Korea – and those regimes’ consequently understandable feelings of being threatened by America, feelings which were posited to underlie their desire for nuclear weaponry – some of my friends argued against international sanctions and other such pressures on Iran and North Korea. Because U.S. pressure had helped create today’s proliferation problems, they seemed to believe, a relaxation of U.S. pressure would solve them: the answer lay in more and better “diplomatic engagement,” and apparently only in such outreach. Pressure and coercive constraints, it was suggested, were the wrong approach.
I was a bit surprised to hear this argument still being advanced, insofar as recent events in both North Korea and Iran – and specifically, those regimes’ bemusedly scornful indifference to the famously “outstretched hand” offered them in early 2009 by the incoming Obama Administration, coupled with an acceleration of their tub-thumping provocations – have done a great deal to undercut the plausibility of politically-correct “it’s really America’s fault” arguments. On the whole, my impression has been that the policy community is now actually congealing around the idea that there really is something deeply problematic about the Iranian and North Korean regimes. (Unfortunately, President Obama has been characteristically behind the curve in his nostalgic attachment to a fashionably self-abasing worldview in which we are as much villains as the villains. To his shame, for instance, the president refused to voice support for the demonstrators so bloodily suppressed last year in Iran because he felt that in light of the history of U.S. involvement in Iran’s affairs, actually to condemn the regime’s brutality and speak up for democracy there would just be more American “meddling.”)
Consequently, my first instinct in encountering this argument anew from my disarmament friends was simply to invoke my usual counter-narrative, pointing out some important things that rogue-exonerating historical retellings generally omit. I was struck, for instance, by the fact that while the purported threat to North Korea from U.S. nuclear weapons had been carefully recounted, my friends seemed to have forgotten why the United States had garrisoned South Korea in the first place – and those weapons’ role in deterring a repetition of North Korea’s catastrophically costly aggression against the south in 1950. I also wanted to point out that President George H.W. Bush had withdrawn U.S. nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula in 1991, before North Korea’s plutonium separation for nuclear weapons had begun at Yongbyon, and that North and South Korea had at that point signed a non-aggression pact. I also wanted to highlight the role that DPRK missile proliferation, state sponsorship of terrorism, repeated military provocations against South Korea, and cheating on the Agreed Framework with secret uranium enrichment work from the mid-1990s played in sabotaging any hope peninsular diplomacy might arguably once have had for success.
With regard to Iran, it also hardly seemed irrelevant to me that Iran’s clearly weapons-focused nuclear technology acquisition binge had begun nearly two decades before anyone had ever used the phrase “axis of evil,” and that – as was so dramatically demonstrated by the hostage crisis – there has essentially never been a point at which the Islamic Republic of Iran, long the world’s most significant state sponsor of terrorism, has not displayed a gleefully casual disregard for international law and correspondingly exuberant interest in exporting its own radical Islamist revolution. How much purely “defensive” motivation could there really be said to be, I felt, in a regime that had from its inception portrayed itself as the revolutionary vanguard of a quasi-messianic Islamic global tide, and was today all but openly pursuing nuclear weapons development in the context of a clear drive for regional hegemony and even a hope articulated by its president that Israel will be “wiped off the map”?
And so I started running down this road of counter-narrative, offering counterpoised data points of my own in an effort to redirect the thrust of the story my friends were telling. Their narrative highlighted the ways in which the United States was purportedly at fault for helping create the present situation; my initial response highlighted the reasons why America wasn’t at fault and how these regimes in a sense deserved harsh treatment at the hands of the international community. We were good enough friends to avoid belaboring our respective points, and we ended up doing little more than agreeing to disagree about whose historical narrative more accurately captured the “real” development of today’s problems, and which one more fairly apportioned blame for these developments.
Upon reflection, however, I regret our getting bogged down in this battle of competing narratives. Indeed, I wonder if my critique of the argument my friends were advancing was too shallow. I still think they were wrong in the most important respects even within the framework of our “battle of the narratives,” but I now think the error lies deeper, in confusions about the present-day policy import of the historical storylines we tell each other.
What we were really discussing, after all – or at least what I think we were trying to debate – was how to approach the challenges currently presented, both for U.S. policy and international peace and security, by the Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons programs. In theory, my friends’ historical narrative was merely a tool to this end, the employment of which was predicated upon the assumption that if we can identify the party whose fault the problem is, we can leverage this finding into getting that party to change its behavior and thus resolving the problem. They had contended that since the United States had made Iran and North Korea feel insecure, the remedy was for U.S. officials now warmly to embrace these governments and all would be well.
I’m coming to think that my friends were wrong at a deeper level than simply what policy is the best one with which to meet present-day challenges. I think they were mistaken in the sense that their narrative-spinning seems to reflect a misunderstanding of the relationship between the past, the present, and the desired future. Fundamentally, their storyline seems to have been predicated upon the idea that history is in some sense fundamentally – and indeed, fairly quickly – reversible. It was fairly explicitly predicated upon the syllogism that because (a) we helped make the rogues insecure and (b) their insecurity feeds their desire for nuclear weapons, therefore (c) we can turn these countries’ nuclear policies around by offering them the security and the warm, respectful embrace they are presumed to want.
I think there is something faulty in this progression of logic where it draws present-day policy lessons from its narrative. Let us be analytically charitable and assume for the sake of argument – though I should make clear, for the record, that I reject the proposition – that the storyline of justifiable rogue state insecurity is “right” to suggest that the nuclear weapons programs of Iran and North Korea are in some importance sense basically America’s fault, and that a warmer, more conciliatory U.S. policy toward these regimes many years ago would have prevented their movement down the nuclear path. From the perspective of what policy to pursue in dealing with them today, however, how much does this apportioning of blame really matter?
If my friends’ historical analysis is sound, it might perhaps follow that the way to deal with future potential proliferators is to be more conciliatory. (Or it might not, but for now that’s beside the point.) But the question isn’t about just how to deal with potential future proliferators: we also must deal with the actual ones that exist today. Like it or not, we have to deal with Iran and North Korea as they are, not as we wish them to be, or as we might contend they would have been if our policies had been different decades ago. We are not confronted with a historical magnetic tape than can be “rewound,” and it does not necessarily follow that just because it is “our fault” that things got to this difficult impasse, today’s problems can be fixed merely by adopting policies that arguably would have avoided the problem if applied at some earlier point.
I hope the reader will forgive the simple analogy, but imagine, for instance, that Jack is a criminal with a record of violent offenses that is, as the saying goes, as long as your arm. How do we deal with Jack? Imagine now also that he is the product of a highly dysfunctional and abusive family upbringing, that he has suffered every imaginable form of socio-economic disadvantage, and that for any number of reasons, he never really had any chance for success in life except as a vicious thug in the violent criminal street gang in which he grew up. For the sake of argument, let us also assume the correctness of what I think of as the “Officer Krupke Theory” – the idea, which Steven Sondheim worked into the amusing lyrics of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, that antisocial behavior is less the “fault” of the criminal than simply the aggregate mechanical result of damage inflicted upon him by his familial, social, and economic circumstances, and that society’s first priority in dealing with him should be to fix this damage rather than punishing him for the behavior it has created.
“We ain’t no delinquents, / We’re misunderstood. / Deep down inside us there is good! /... / This boy don’t need a judge, he needs an analyst’s care!”
Krupke Theory is, in essence, my friends’ approach to Iran: we shouldn’t be too hard on the Pasdaran/clerical regime because we helped make it into the problem it is; the delinquent is being justifiably wayward, and we should re-embrace, not punish, him.
Critically, however, Krupke Theory doesn’t really get us where we need to go in having a useful approach to dealing with Jack. Sociological explanations for his crime might perhaps say something about how to prevent others from becoming brutalized and dangerous as he has become, but merely understanding this makes Jack no less dangerous right now. Nor does such insight necessarily mean that we can entirely re-socialize him – and even if it does, it does not necessarily follow that there will be no need to impose pretty draconian constraints upon him until such a process has been completed. We might hope to change Jack, but however we assign blame for him becoming what he is, we cannot escape the necessity of dealing with him as he is now. The real problem might be, in Sondheim’s phrase, that Jack never got “the love that ev’ry child oughta get” and that “it’s just [his] bringing-upke that gets [him] out of hand. ” If Jack is indeed out of hand, however, it is foolishness to allow him the freedom to indulge his waywardness until his damaged psyche has been reconstructed. It may serve the interests of rehabilitation to treat Jack with humaneness and respect when he is in prison, but prison must still be his home until we are confident that he’s indeed been reformed.
This is why I think the Krupke Theory of proliferation isn’t nearly as useful as a guide to policy – as opposed merely to a blame-America propaganda point – as its proponents seem to think. It might be that understanding the supposed role of the United States in creating today’s proliferation problems means that these problems can be resolved by conciliatory warmth and a succession of diplomatic, security, and economic concessions. Or it might not. The merit of such a policy prescription does not necessarily follow from one’s acceptance of that tendentious narrative. Nor is it not logically inevitable that every perpetrator-victim in fact can be reformed – or at a price that society will find acceptable. If the measures that must be taken in the face of real threats presented in the here-and-now tend to reinforce proliferators’ victim narratives, for example, this cost may have to be borne. One might suggest here a principle of prophylaxis: if push comes to shove, it is more important that Jack not continue to kill and rob than that he be eventually reformed. Ideally, we can restrain and retrain, but if these two objectives come into conflict, the former must be given priority.
So would warmly embracing Iran and North Korea – and offering them the respect and security they are said to crave – help end their nuclear programs, as my friends contended? Or would it just validate and reward these programs, thus reaping the whirlwind both with those countries and with other future, would-be proliferators? Which approach is best in each case does not necessarily follow from any particular historical narrative, even the proliferator-exonerating “Officer Krupke” version. We should be wary of the seductive simplicity of such victim narratives, because judging the policy that is best in confronting the circumstances we confront today may turn out to have surprisingly little to do with whose “fault” the situation is.
-- Christopher Ford