Bolton: Obama Should Try What Didn’t Work Already

Our guest blogger is Peter Juul, Research Associate at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

john_bolton_01.jpgFormer UN ambassador and assistant secretary of state John Bolton has taken to the pages of the Los Angeles Times to publish a churlish missive denouncing the “naivete” of President Obama’s incipient North Korea policy. It’s ironic that one of the main advocates of the failed conservative approach to national security — epitomized by former Vice President Dick Cheney’s statement “We don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it” — is blasting the Obama administration’s early efforts to clean up after conservatives’ international mess. Refusing to engage “evil” regimes in Tehran and Pyongyang over the last eight years hasn’t led to their defeat – it’s led to their empowerment. Bolton presided over a policy of appeasement — these regimes got what they wanted.


— The Bush administration purposefully disparaged the Clinton administration’s efforts to engage North Korea on its nuclear program. President Bush embarrassed then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, forcing him to retract a statement to the effect that the new administration would pick up where Clinton left off. He then dissed South Korea’s then-President Kim Dae-Jung, repudiating the leader’s “sunshine policy” of détente with the North. Bush would not negotiate with Kim Jong-il, whom he personally “loathed,” and instead hoped the North would crumble due to isolation. What crumbled instead was the Agree Framework controlling North Korea’s plutonium, and in October 2006 Pyongyang conducted a crude nuclear test. Bush was then forced to enter serious negotiations that eventually led to a tenuous deal to shut down North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor in exchange for a normalization of relations with the United States, including removal from the state sponsors of terrorism list. Unfortunately, the deal is unstable and Bush’s policy has left Pyongyang with enough fissile material for at least six nuclear weapons.

— The Bush administration refused to engage with Iran on a number of issues, including direct talks over its nuclear program. Even when the United States appeared to be riding high in the region following the fall of Baghdad in 2003, the administration didn’t explore overtures made by the reformist president, Muhammad Khatami. When Iraq went south and Iran’s nuclear program became a more pressing issue, the United States refused to hold direct talks with Tehran and outsourced diplomacy to the European Union. Bush only reversed course last July, sending Undersecretary of State William Burns to talks in Geneva. The sum result of refusing to directly engage Iran: Tehran is currently led by a hardline president, ascendant in the region, and now has enough low-enriched uranium to further process into fissile material for a bomb.

The arrogant naivete of Bolton’s approach –- which assumes that the United States is powerful enough to go it alone and can make other nations bend through sheer willpower –- is breathtaking. This “Green Lantern theory” of foreign policy has little to no bearing on the realities the United States confronts in the 21st century. Simply expecting unfriendly regimes to do as we ask because we have “moral clarity” and declare them evil is delusional bordering on psychotic.

Negotiating with regimes that abuse human rights on a massive scale and engage in disruptive international behavior is certainly distasteful in the extreme. Talking with leaders with blood on their hands isn’t pleasant, and it’s not supposed to be. But a great power like the United States has to do it in order to achieve its overriding foreign policy priorities, such as nuclear nonproliferation. Waiting for regimes engaged in bad foreign policy behavior to change their ways or collapse is simply a strategy for failure. The United States has to drive hard bargains to make regimes like Pyongyang and Tehran change their destructive behavior.