Rarely do we get to see the dangerous consequences of appeasing one aggressor unfold at the same time we are appeasing another in exactly the same way. But that’s what we are witnessing today, as our leaders respond to Iran’s push for nuclear weapons with the same appeasement playbook that turned a two-bit failed state like North Korea into a nuclear-armed aggressor.
The chronology of the U.S.’s dealings with three psychotic Kim regimes makes for depressing reading. Start in 1991, when President George Bush Sr. withdrew 100 nuclear weapons from South Korea as part of a deal with Mikhail Gorbachev. That same year South Korea formally abjured the production or use of nuclear weapons, a deal the North cheerfully went along with, fully intending to violate it. The next year the North signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and allowed in inspectors. A mere two months later the U.S. had to impose sanctions on two companies in the North involved in developing missiles.
In little more than a year, the pattern of North Korea’s defiance and duplicity, and Western appeasement and inaction, had been set. The North would make an announcement promising to let in inspectors in order to head off sanctions, or threaten to withdraw from the NPT to wring concessions from the West, and then would come the revelation that the North had taken yet another step towards creating a nuclear weapon. Then “bilateral talks” would be announced and conducted, “agreed frameworks” and “moratoriums” signed and touted, promises of suspension of forbidden activities made by the North, “appropriate compensation,” i.e. bribes––like food aid, South Korea’s “sunshine policy” of détente and economic cooperation with the North, “economic normalization,” and free light-water nuclear reactors (!)––for such duplicitous concessions delivered by the West, all followed by more sanctions imposed when the North was caught out lying and cheating.
We know the result of this pas de deux of appeasement. North Korea today possesses several atomic weapons, and is preparing to test a missile that can reach America’s bases on Okinawa and Guam. A Defense Intelligence Agency report stated there was “moderate confidence” that North Korea “has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles.” The next step will be nuclear-armed missiles capable of reaching the west coast of the United States. This was the conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community in a report from 2001, which warned that before 2015 North Korea would have ICBMs that could reach our shores.
In response to this latest iteration of a decades-long pattern of failure, our new Secretary of State John Kerry has gone on a nostalgia tour marked by toothless threats, diplomatic happy-talk, and pathetic begging of China to rein in its pit-bull client. In Beijing, Kerry told the Chinese that the U.S. would pull back deployment of anti-ballistic missile batteries on Guam and on Aegis cruisers in the waters near North Korea if China would restrain Pyongyang. China responded by warning the U.S. against provoking North Korea. Kerry also offered to negotiate directly with Kim Jong Eun over his nuclear arsenal, sanctions on his nation, and food aid. The offer of talks to Kim will likely go nowhere, judging from his rebuff of South Korea’s offer to talk, calling it a “crafty trick.” Like his father, Kim considers such offers as signs of weakness to be met by an escalation of aggression. Last year, after being offered food aid in exchange for international monitoring of his nuclear program, Kim launched a long-range missile in defiance of a U.N. Security Council resolution.
This repetition of decades of failed attempts to use diplomacy and non-lethal sanctions to change North Korean behavior is depressing enough. North Korea has been the most-sanctioned nation in the world for years, and during that time it has become a nuclear power. Giving food aid to a regime has not been any more useful, given that the regime cares little or nothing for the starving people it brutalizes and imprisons in gulags, and welcomes the opportunity to sell the aid. As bad as all that is, much worse is our current repeating of that failure in dealing with Iran. Outreach, talk, sanctions, and empty bluster, the formula for failure in North Korea, are still the only options the U.S. seems to have.
Obama’s attempts at “outreach” and discussions “without preconditions,” for example, begun as soon as he took office in 2009, have been met with Iranian contempt and aggression. A videotaped greeting for the Persian New Year in March 2009 was followed by Ayatollah Khamenei’s announcement that “the path of Iran’s nuclear progress could not be blocked.” In May 2009, a personal letter sent by Obama to Khamenei calling for “co-operation in regional and bilateral relations” was followed by the brutal crackdown on protests against the rigged presidential election in June, protests Khamenei blamed on American “agents.” Groveling responses to Iranian bad behavior fared not better. After Iran failed to disclose the uranium-enrichment facility in Qom, Obama reassured the mullahs, “We remain committed to serious, meaningful engagement with Iran.” As for multiple stern “deadlines” set for Iran to change its behavior, all have been ignored with impunity.
Four years later, the same pattern of answering outreach with aggression was repeated earlier this month. After fruitless multilateral talks in Kazakhstan, Iranian president Ahmadinejad announced that Iran was expanding uranium production, and crowed, “Iran has already become a nuclear country and no one is capable of stealing this title.” He also disclosed that Iran had opened two new mines for extracting uranium, and a factory to manufacture yellowcake, semi-refined uranium that can be processed into nuclear fuel. The U.S. response? More sanctions and more bluster from Obama about not allowing Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. Sound familiar?
I can’t think of another historical example of a great power appeasing one aggressor at precisely the same time it is appeasing another with exactly the same failed policy. But we shouldn’t be surprised, given the delusional assumptions on which our foreign policy establishment bases its treatment of our geopolitical rivals. A massive failure of imagination keeps them from acknowledging that there are peoples and regimes in the world that value power, prestige, and aggression over peace and cooperation, and that scorn as weakness and fear our Western ideals of rational discussion, give-and-take negotiation, peaceful coexistence, and tolerance for the other side’s perspective. Worse yet, our foreign policy mavens seemingly can’t quite understand that those aggressors know full well that we are hesitant to act and often use diplomacy and negotiation to create the pretense of action when the will is lacking. So our enemies manipulate our ideals and engage in our empty diplomatic rituals in order to misdirect us and buy time for achieving their goals.
But let’s not forget the other factor in this dismal dance of appeasement. Our politicians of all stripes know that the use of force, with all its unforeseen consequences, incalculable risks, and telegenic death and destruction, comes with a high political price. We had enough outrage and anger over 9/11 to start the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but eventually grew weary and impatient enough that Obama could precipitately withdraw from both conflicts without paying a price. The result is an Iraq transforming before our eyes into a satellite of Iran even as sectarian violence continues to tear it apart, and an Afghanistan that most likely after our departure will see the Taliban restored as a major faction and font of terrorist disorder.
No politician either Republican or Democrat has been punished for letting North Korea go nuclear. And Obama hasn’t been punished so far for repeating that blunder with Iran, even though the consequences of a nuclear-armed jihadist regime in the middle of nearly two-thirds of the world’s proven oil reserves will be vastly more serious. We can blame our leaders and castigate the State Department, but at the end of the day in a democracy it’s the voters who refuse to hold them accountable who must shoulder the blame.
Bruce Thornton is a Research Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization.