The Politics of Dismantling Containment

Meghan L. O’Sullivan
Meghan O'Sullivan
Meghan L. O’Sullivan Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs, Director of the Geopolitics of Energy Project - Harvard Kennedy School

December 1, 2001

During the 2000 presidential election campaign, neither Vice President Al Gore nor Governor George W. Bush had many encouraging words for those countries interested in shedding their pariah status and moving toward more cordial relations with the United States. Although touting the need to build more constructive relationships with former enemies, Gore’s “forward engagement” concept justified engaging Russia and China, rather than advocated improving relations with the likes of Cuba or Iran. Bush’s campaign promised to remain tough on Cuba and to terminate the Clinton administration’s policy of unilateral gestures to Iran. Both candidates vowed to maintain sanctions on Iraq, press for the ouster of Saddam Hussein, and protect the United States from the attacks of “rogue” countries. This sort of election rhetoric was not surprising, given that pledging to improve relations with countries and regimes long vilified by U.S. leaders was sure to lose a candidate votes rather than gain him support. Yet, it would be wrong to conclude that these statements represent a U.S. consensus to continue policies of punishment toward countries with which the United States has had disagreements. To assume that North Korea, Cuba, Iran, and Iraq will remain on the periphery of international respectability as long as the United States is involved in demarcating those boundaries would also be inaccurate. If the election is no reliable barometer of the policy that the new administration and Congress might pursue toward such countries, what might be a more realistic assessment of what is to come? What are the prospects for a new approach that incorporates not only sanctions, but also incentives, in seeking to change the behavior of countries?

Reconsidering Past Approaches

The new administration and the new Congress will begin the challenge of evaluating and crafting U.S. policy toward North Korea, Cuba, Iran, and Iraq in a dramatically different climate than the one their executive and legislative predecessors faced four years ago. In 1996, U.S. policy toward these states was defined by the notion that they were “rogue” countries dedicated to challenging internationally accepted standards of conduct and unable to engage with the outside world in any constructive way. Judged to support terrorism, pursue weapons of mass destruction, persecute their own populations, and malign the United States, they were considered to be among the greatest threats to U.S. national security.

Based on this assessment, first articulated by then-National Security Adviser Anthony Lake in 19941, policy prescriptions for such states were straightforward: Economic sanctions coupled with other punitive policies were the only sensible options to deal with countries that policymakers had presented to the public as incapable of rehabilitation.

Limited sanctions—such as those on Iran—evolved into comprehensive ones. Cuba, Libya, and Iran, once subject to full U.S. unilateral sanctions, became the target of congressionally inspired “secondary” sanctions, mandating penalties on foreign companies seeking to invest there. The United States toughened its Iraq policy by declaring that multilateral sanctions would persist—and Iraq would continue to chafe under bombings—until Saddam was removed from power. U.S. policy toward North Korea was the only case to escape this trend as the United States moved away from the brink of confrontation with Pyongyang to engagement with it.

As the prominence of missile defense in today’s foreign policy discussions reveals, this disparate group of countries is still seen as a looming threat to U.S. interests and security. Many U.S. actors believe the threats posed by these countries are so significant that they warrant spending billions of dollars and running the risk of exacerbating U.S. relations with Russia, China, and even Europe in order to build a missile defense system to counter them. Nevertheless, widespread agreement no longer exists about what types of strategies should be pursued toward these countries. In contrast to the moral certitude and relative policy clarity of just a few years ago, the new administration and Congress will step into a foreign policy climate more ambivalent about the sanctions-dominated strategies and policies of punishment pursued in the past.

This altered environment reflects several realities, the most important being that these strategies have produced meager results. In each case, U.S. punitive policies have failed to bring about a change in regime: Fidel Castro, Mu’ammar Qadhafi, and Saddam seem secure in their positions of power. These strategies have also had little success in achieving less ambitious objectives, such as forcing regimes to change behaviors offensive to the United States.

Even where developments have been favorable to the United States, such as the growing democratization in Iran, it is very difficult to argue that these trends are a product of U.S. economic coercion. Rather, in most cases, unilateral sanctions have been unable to translate economic pressure into political change. To make matters worse, this poor record was often achieved at high costs—whether in terms of human lives lost, diplomatic tensions over punitive U.S. approaches, or commercial opportunities lost to U.S. business shut out of overseas markets.

In the search for more suitable approaches, engagement—or the use of incentives rather than penalties to effect changes in behavior—has attracted the attention of policy-makers and analysts. U.S. incentives not only are increasingly potent in a world with no superpower rivalry, but their use, unlike that of penalties, is also consistent with the changing nature of global threats. Because many of today’s challenges to global security—such as terrorism and narcotics—are nurtured in weak countries, it makes sense to pursue an approach that seeks to minimize state failure, rather than exacerbate it as sanctions do. Strategies that seek to engage countries with which the United States has disagreements are also more consistent with the approaches taken by U.S. allies overseas. For this reason, they would be more likely to gain international support and would therefore be more likely to succeed.

Finally, the greater willingness to rethink past approaches and consider engagement is a result of the promise engagement has already shown in dealing with the difficult case of North Korea. In this case, policymakers only turned to engagement as a last resort when other options appeared certain to fail. The use of military force to destroy hidden nuclear installations was judged to be too risky and uncertain of success. Prospects for attaining nonproliferation goals through multilateral sanctions were grim once China hinted it had no intention of enforcing such measures, even if it was willing to abstain from vetoing their imposition in the United Nations Security Council. In these dire circumstances, policymakers turned to economic and diplomatic incentives and crafted a strategy that has since paved the road toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and helped catalyze a broader opening of the North to the outside world.

Outgrowing One-Size-Fits-All

In reassessing the old strategies toward recalcitrant regimes, and in crafting new approaches, the new administration and Congress are not starting from square one. In the past year, the Clinton administration has taken some important steps that, if not defining the contours of a new approach, have cleared some of the obstacles to its formulation. One notable move, taken in June 2000, was jettisoning the policy of labeling these countries “rogues.” Although the rogue-state concept helped justify punitive U.S. policies and made such strategies easy to sell at home, it impeded an effective policy toward this category of country in a number of ways. By lumping these countries together, the rogue classification encouraged a one-size-fits-all policy, when in fact the very different domestic politics, capabilities, and ambitions of each country demanded differentiated approaches. At the same time, labeling countries—rather than their behaviors—as roguish suggested that certain countries were beyond rehabilitation, thereby removing any incentive that a regime might have to improve its conduct in the hope of moving out of the rogue category.

In addition, the rogue rhetoric irked European and Asian countries that saw it as a product of U.S. hubris and as indicative of a preference for punitive approaches. Finally, the rogue concept mandated policies of punishment; any approach that sought to incorporate incentives or limited engagement was incompatible with the rogue paradigm. Given these multiple flaws in the rogue concept, its retirement is welcome. The adoption of the far less caustic “states of concern” terminology—although still subject to the criticism of classifying countries, not conduct—opens the door for a more effective policies toward countries such as North Korea, Cuba, Iran, and Iraq. The change in rhetoric makes it possible for new strategies not only to be better formulated to the circumstances of the country in question, but also to incorporate elements of engagement where appropriate. Nevertheless, the extent to which this possibility is realized depends on the inclinations and proclivities of the new occupants of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Lobbying for Engagement at Home

Other barriers to more effective policies are not as easily overcome as the retirement of an old and awkward phrase. In the past and today, the president and others interested in engaging difficult regimes have been impeded by the lack of support for these moves among U.S. domestic constituencies, particularly in Congress. For example, President Richard Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, were constrained in pursuing détente with the Soviet Union by a Congress unimpressed with their intricate strategy of linking political, economic, and diplomatic incentives to Soviet behavior in the developing world and at the arms control negotiating table. Congressional action tying most-favored-nation trading status for the Soviet Union to the issue of Jewish immigration kept Nixon and Kissinger from delivering the incentives they had promised to Moscow, undermining the overall détente policy.

Similarly, much more recent efforts of the Clinton administration to engage North Korea over its nuclear program have been consistently threatened by congressional reluctance to provide adequate funds for implementation of an agreement struck between the two countries in 1994. As these examples suggest, the face of the new Congress is important in determining whether more engagement-oriented approaches toward Cuba, Iran, and others will be crafted and whether they succeed. The new administration will need the approval of Congress to obtain the resources necessary to implement any engagement strategy, particularly when the incentives offered demand dollars for their realization. The need for congressional cooperation is particularly acute if engagement with Cuba, Iran, or Libya is to be sought.

Currently, U.S. relations with all three countries are restricted not only by presidential executive orders, but also by various layers of congressionally mandated economic sanctions. In these cases, the path to less hostile relations cannot be cleared without the active support of Congress.

It is tempting to assert that the partisan breakdown of the new Congress is the most important factor shaping its attitude toward engagement. Yet, perhaps of greater significance are the slim majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate. These realities, maybe even more so than which party controls Congress, have repercussions for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy overall and the handling of relations with difficult countries by implication. In these circumstances, Congress is less likely to seize the initiative on sensitive foreign policy matters, preferring instead to react to crises as they arise. A recalcitrant regime that stays quiet can expect to be ignored. The attention it does receive from Congress is more likely to be in response to provocations and therefore negative. Moreover, where Congress does tackle sensitive foreign policy issues, both parties will have to work together to do more good than harm. In essence, the close partisan balance of the new Congress is a vote for the status quo toward these countries of concern: the maintenance of punitive policies, with some softening at the margins to allow for limited commercial contacts.

Nevertheless, congressional attitudes toward sanctions, the utility of engagement, or even U.S. relations with some of these countries are shaped by important factors beyond partisan affiliation. As the surprising partnerships forged among legislators concerning permanent normal trading relations (PNTR) for China demonstrate, partisan divisions can be overcome by passions surrounding matters of human rights, weapons proliferation, and U.S. economic power and opportunity. Many of these issues are at the heart of U.S. relations with North Korea, Cuba, Iran, and Iraq. Similarly, wide-spread support in both the Senate and the House to lift certain elements of the Cuban embargo, as well as to loosen restrictions on the sale of food and medicine to all nations, also indicate broad bipartisan agreement in some areas related to these countries.

It would be inaccurate to claim that Congress has shed its impulse to reach for sanctions even when their chances of success are slim, or to allege that a broad congressional consensus exists over the effectiveness of sanctions or the procedures through which they should be imposed. Several developments do warrant optimism, however, when assessing the prospects for the adoption of more engagement-oriented approaches in the new Congress. The passage of PNTR for China, the movement in favor of greater contact with Cuba, and other similar votes suggest that Congress as a whole is becoming increasingly pro-trade, pro-economic engagement, and generally less interested in fettering trade with political considerations. Although not a prerequisite for engagement with these “states of concern,” this predisposition would facilitate it. Moreover, the prominence of business and agricultural groups highlighting the costs of sanctions to U.S. commercial interests has won the sympathies of many representatives and has been the backbone of steady support for the sanctions reform proposed by Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and others. Finally, humanitarian concerns, as well as diplomatic tensions caused by secondary sanctions, have diminished congressional enthusiasm for the unbridled use of economic coercion to pursue foreign policy goals.

This congressional atmosphere suggests that the commitment of the new president to reevaluate past U.S. policies of punishment will be decisive in shaping U.S. policy toward North Korea, Cuba, Iran, and Iraq. If the president maintains a preference for the almost exclusive use of punitive tools despite their poor record in dealing with these countries, slim majorities in Congress? and the reality that sanctions are a primary vehicle for congressional involvement in foreign policy? will reinforce the status quo. If the new president is committed to exploring new approaches that offer at least the possibility of achieving the same goals that have eluded punitive strategies, however, the recent changes on Capitol Hill in favor of engagement present him with a real opportunity to overhaul a critical component of U.S. foreign policy.

Two to Tango

If prospects to engage North Korea, Cuba, Iran, and Iraq depended only on general trends in Congress and the leadership of the executive branch, we might forecast a strengthening trend toward engagement with some confidence. Yet these domestic U.S. factors are only half of the equation. After all, inherent in the concept of engagement is some level of cooperation between countries and, more often than not, some collaboration between governments.

The uncomfortable reality is that no matter how good U.S. intentions are, or how seriously the United States may be committed to a process of improving relations, the country or regime in question is also a key arbiter of success. Not only can it unilaterally decide to jettison engagement with the United States, but its behavior can also make further progress untenable for U.S. politicians.

As a result, the different circumstances of each country are critical in determining whether engagement with the United States is feasible. An anti-Western or anti-U.S. atmosphere in a country may compromise the ability of a regime to engage the United States. It is equally plausible that a leader may have the domestic support? or the complete control that makes a regime invulnerable to popular opinion? to engage the United States, but not the inclination to do so. For example, Castro has the domestic support and the political power necessary to ease tensions with the United States, but he clearly lacks the desire to pursue such a course. In other cases, political power may be diffused within a society of multiple viewpoints, restricting a leader’s ability to move his or her country away from the status quo in its relations with the United States. This has been the case in Iran, where internal power struggles between domestic political factions have constrained the ability of President Mohammad Khatemi to respond to limited U.S. gestures to move toward a more constructive relationship.

Such factors, in conjunction with case-specific U.S. domestic political realities, suggest very different prospects for engagement with each country in question. Whereas the intransigence of Saddam virtually precludes U.S. engagement with Iraq for the foreseeable future, U.S. efforts to engage North Korea are likely to endure as long as Pyongyang continues its gradual opening and does not breach existing agreements. In contrast, what will happen with the three cases of Cuba, Iran, and Libya is harder to predict. Take Libya, for example. U.S. attitudes toward the North African country have gradually shifted since the 1980s when President Ronald Reagan not only imposed comprehensive U.S. sanctions on Libya, but also directed military strikes against it. As suggested by the recent comment of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Ronald Neumann that “Libya is not Iraq,” the United States has slowly moved away from demanding a regime change in Tripoli as a prerequisite to improving relations with Libya.

This shift, which removes a major obstacle to engagement, was largely in response to changing Libyan behavior. Most important, Libyan support for terrorism has waned. Through the extradition of the Pan Am 103 suspects and other actions, Libya has also demonstrated an apparent willingness to bear at least some responsibility for past terrorist acts.

Yet, however positive these developments, they are still insufficient to warrant greater engagement with Libya until the trial at Camp Zeist is closed and Libyan cooperation with its efforts are judged to have been complete. If and when this occurs, the United States should proceed cautiously as Washington explores Qadhafi’s intentions and charts a path toward improved U.S.-Libyan relations. In doing so, the new administration should keep in mind that the likelihood that engagement will bear fruits depends not only on Qadhafi’s actions, but also on how effectively the president makes the case to Congress and the public that a new approach to Libya is warranted.

Containing Containment?

Assessing prospects for engagement with countries such as Libya, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, and Iraq is not easy. A variety of factors play important roles in determining what policies the new administration pursues, including the support of domestic constituencies, presidential leadership, and the willingness of the country to be engaged. Moreover, each of these elements can, almost unilaterally, inhibit progress or even terminate an engagement strategy. Despite this, overall prospects for engaging these countries are arguably greater than they have been at any time in the Clinton administration. Given this reality, and the opportunities presented by a confluence of factors both within these countries and in the U.S. domestic political scene, a new U.S. president willing to rethink U.S. policy toward this disparate group of countries could begin his time in office by taking a number of steps.

The new president could increase the chances of successful engagement with the tough cases of Cuba, Iran, and Libya by proposing a road map for each country. This map would offer a detailed agenda marking out the steps that need to be taken for the relationship between the United States and the country in question to improve, and the benefits that will accrue to each side as it does. By suggesting to the country that engagement can be a reciprocal process (if not an equal one), a road map makes engagement more appealing to regimes reluctant to engage the United States. The existence of a calibrated agenda is also good domestic U.S. politics, because Congress is more likely to support a transparent process that it can evaluate by the external benchmarks laid out on the road map.

In addition to these specific efforts, the new administration could strengthen the general trend toward engagement in a number of ways. To begin with, because sanctions and the ability to lift them when appropriate are critical to engagement, the new president should support some variation of the sanctions reform legislation that has been percolating in Congress for the past two years. Geared to make the process of imposing sanctions more deliberative, the president should assist members of Congress in formulating a draft on which both branches of government can agree. In addition, the new administration must commit to, and invest in, convincing Congress and Americans overall of the importance of foreign aid in general and its strategic uses in particular. Although the incentives offered in engagement strategies rarely require huge sums of foreign aid, engagement efforts that do require monetary resources? such as the recent ones with North Korea? are damaged by the general misperception that the United States already lavishes large amounts of money on problems overseas. Working with Congress to pass a Foreign Assistance Authorization bill, the first since 1985, could provide policymakers with one important opportunity to make the case for the importance of foreign aid.

In many of the difficult cases facing U.S. policymakers today, and in many of the challenges that will be presented to them tomorrow, a more thoughtful policy that incorporates elements of engagement will be preferable to a sanctions-dominated strategy. The transition from instinctively imposing punitive policies to more carefully considering a wider variety of options is already under way. It will be the responsibility of the new president and the new Congress to transform these flirtations and uncertain trends into a solid new strategy toward the countries formerly known as “rogues.”