Obama’s nuke strategy: Do the rogues really care about “engagement”?

At the heart of President Obama’s nuclear weapons policy lies a key assumption – that Iran, North Korea and other “rogue” states are susceptible to threats of isolation and tempted by global acceptance.

He may be right – and I hope he is – but history offers compelling evidence to the contrary.

Of his new nuclear strategy – the “Nuclear Posture Review” – and of each nation’s obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Obama said Thursday in Moscow while signing a new U.S.-Russia arms control treaty:

“Those nations that follow the rules will find greater security and opportunity.  Those nations that refuse to meet their obligations will be isolated, and denied the opportunity that comes with international recognition.”

Questions abound, the most obvious of which is: What drives such rogue states as North Korea and Iran, the former of which has a new nuclear weapons program and the latter of which is pushing to develop one?

Do they care about how other nations and the world writ large view them?

Or, is their rogue-ness part and parcel of who they are?

Did Hitler care when the British, French and others tut-tutted about his rearmament, his reoccupation of the Rhineland, his “Anschluss” with Austria and his conquest of Czechoslovakia before he finally went too far in invading Poland?

Did North Vietnam’s leadership care about Western disgust at the re-education to which it subjected Vietnam’s people after America’s withdrawal, prompting thousands to flee in rickety boats from which many drowned?

Did Pol Pot fret when the West condemned his murder of some two million of his own people in a crazed attempt to completely remake Cambodia’s society and its people?

Do Cuba’s leaders care about their nation’s decades-long “isolation?” Do Sudan’s? Burma’s? Zimbabwe’s?

Regarding rogue states, U.S. leaders have been issuing the same threats of isolation and floating the same offers of acceptability for decades. “Engagement” may be Obama’s calling card, but he did not invent the strategy.

Even since Iran’s rebirth as the Islamic Republic in 1979, U.S. presidents have tried to convince the clerical regime to abandon its nuclear weapons program, stop sponsoring terrorism and, in general, act like a responsible regional power. The promised reward: Warmer relations with the United States, greater economic benefits from the West, and wider international respect for its regional role.

Tehran has consistently rebuffed Washington’s entreaties because its nuclear program, its terrorism sponsorship and its regional mischief-making are part and parcel of what it is. For Tehran, to suddenly shift course for the promise of Western benefits would be to renounce the revolutionary ardor at its core.

So, too, have recent presidents sought to convince North Korea’s dictators – first Kim Il-Sung, then his son Kim Jong-Il – to abandon and dismantle their nuclear program and to open their society to outside influence. The promised reward: More economic and humanitarian assistance for their suffering people.

Pyongyang has played a different game, but with the same bottom line. It has often promised to cut a deal by abandoning its nuclear program for the promise of aid, only to take the aid and return to its old ways.

The same trade-off fuels U.S. attempts, also decades in the making, to convince Syria’s rulers – first Hafez al-Assad, then his son Bashar – to loosen their ties with Iran, turn toward the West, and make peace with Israel.  The promised reward: Less U.S. hostility, more global respect and greater economic benefits.

Damascus plays its own game – resembling Tehran’s in part, Pyongyang’s in part. It offers peace feelers to the West but makes clear to Arab audiences that it has no interest in peace with Jerusalem, no interest in splitting with Tehran, and no interest in loosening its support for the region’s terrorist groups.

History moves in no single line, of course. The past need not be prologue. Previous failure need not mean failure forever.

But Obama has lots riding on the idea that rogue regimes are susceptible to threats of isolation and temptations of acceptance.

His new nuclear posture narrows the options for using nuclear weapons, while keeping rogue states as a possible target.

His nuclear posture also relies on maintaining the nation’s aging nuclear stockpile rather than investing in new weaponry, in an effort to set a good example for rogue nuclear-izers like North Korea and Iran.

His new arms deal with Russia reduces America’s nuclear arsenal, also in an effort to set a good example for the rogues.

I’m skeptical, but I hope I’m wrong.

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