Review: ‘Dancing With the Devil’ By Michael Rubin

Strengthening America’s enemies by endlessly talking to them

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif / AP
January 19, 2014

In Dancing with the Devil, Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute details the failures of diplomacy with rogue regimes that have weakened global peace prospects and strengthened America’s enemies.

What is a rogue regime? These are governments that do not follow the norms of global diplomacy, seek nuclear proliferation, sponsor terrorism, and pose a threat to America and her allies. Rubin’s book is a historical study of U.S. diplomatic engagement of Iran, North Korea, Libya, the Taliban, Pakistan, Iraq, and terrorist groups such as the PLO, Hamas, and Hezbollah. Engagement failed in each case.

Every administration enters office promising a fresh dialogue with our global competitors. Just as the news cycle has a limited memory for the past, so too do new presidents, who believe their team will finally solve a given problem. However, whether a president outwardly projects strength or a willingness to talk to America’s enemies, history shows that anything short of sanctions and a military threat has failed to achieve America’s desired outcomes, Rubin says.

The most glaring mistake: The State Department accepts form over function. Talks become more important than signed agreements. Maintaining dialogue with rogue regimes is regarded as a victory on its own.

A commonly held belief is that talks bog down an enemy in minutiae. However, evidence shows that rogue states use endless peace talks as opportunities to pursue secret agendas while maintaining the illusion of playing nice.

Think of North Korea. Through its history it has repeatedly shaken hands with the West and portrayed itself as willing to talk. Hearing the Hermit Kingdom’s words as portents of change, America mollifies the regime, such as when we withdrew our nuclear arsenal from the peninsula in 1992. But none of this stops North Korean nuclear ambitions or missile development or weapons proliferation or belligerence.

Diplomats continue to fall for rogue tricks. The reason, according to Rubin, is that a diplomat’s career hinges on his ability to bring our enemies to the table. Endless talks, which drag on for years, are a measure of success among diplomats.

The State Department also will ignore on-the-ground intelligence that goes against what its diplomats wish to be true. A diplomat is willing to downplay or ignore information suggesting an increase in nuclear proliferation or support of terrorism, for example, in order to maintain his account of events.

Following the Oslo Accords in 1993, a series of negotiations took place intended to lead to a final peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Dennis Ross, Middle East envoy under President Clinton, worked closely with Yasser Arafat, who resisted any Palestinian concessions such as recognizing Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Terrorist attacks increased as distrust on both sides festered. Ross pushed Arafat to engage with his Israeli counterpart to stop the violence. Rubin says that Ross’s eagerness to get his job done made him unaware that Arafat was associated with the Palestinian terror attacks against Israel.

Maintaining an image of aggression at home is very important for a rogue regime’s leader. This can be done many ways, but the most popular way seems to be by snubbing America. And the best moment to turn down America’s outstretched hand is when a peace agreement is reaching its final stages.

While a rogue regime may make a verbal commitment, it means nothing until a written agreement has been signed and endorsed by all involved. Publicly reneging an American agreement will boost a regime’s support at home and embarrass America on the global stage.

The newly elected president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, was greeted with open arms by the Obama administration and the press at the United Nations last year. To his new friends, Rouhani promised an increased dialogue with the West and a thaw in negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program. However, Rubin points out that while Obama celebrated with the media about Iran’s new desire to roll back its nuclear plans, Rouhani told his Iranian audience that he had no plans to give up the program.

Diplomats believe that rogue regimes will respond positively if we talk to them on an even playing field. In reality, Rubin says, all this does is legitimize tyrannical rulers. This is bad enough when diplomats open talks to state actors, but is especially troubling when negotiations begin with non-state rogues.

Since its emergence in 1995, Americans have reached out to the Taliban. Repeatedly, the Taliban has taken advantage of diplomatic efforts. Worst of all, Rubin argues, even if a deal is reached with the Taliban following American withdrawal in Afghanistan, it will come at the cost of doing business with a terror-embracing Islamist regime that ignores human rights.

Rubin, a former Pentagon official, does not argue that the State Department is always wrong and the military is always right. On the contrary, the book makes clear that military officials make mistakes. The difference between the two government agencies, he says, lies in the Defense Department’s ability to learn from past mistakes.

Rubin identifies a consistent pattern in negotiating with rogue regimes: The only thing hostile adversaries respond to, he says, is military force.

For example, when American forces invaded Kuwait in the first Gulf war, Iran’s proxy Hezbollah was holding American hostages in Lebanon. America’s ability to destroy Saddam Hussein’s army in only 100 hours sent shockwaves through Iran, which had not been able to do anything close to the same during eight years of the Iran-Iraq war. Within months, Hezbollah began releasing the hostages.

Similarly, America’s might during the 2003 invasion of Iraq led Libyan leader Col. Gadhafi to "come in from the cold." Libya gave up its nuclear weapons program and agreed to compensate the victims of Libyan terrorism.

Rubin does not believe that a policy of strike first and ask questions later is the answer. However, the threat of action accompanied by a hard deadline can have the desired affect when dealing with unpredictable rogue leaders. Setting a red line and then ignoring it when dealing with tyrants only weakens America.

Dancing with the Devil is a timely read. As the Obama administration spends more time at the negotiating table with Iran, its diplomats would be wise to study their history. Otherwise they may repeat it.

Carter Eltzroth is a writer in Washington, DC.