In what is probably the most comprehensive study of U.S. policy against so-called “rogue states,” strategic analyst Robert Litwak has presented a solid and thoughtful critique of the doctrine and strategy of post-Cold War containment. First putting current policy within that context, he examines the origins and development of U.S. strategy, followed by an assessment of its effectiveness and possible alternatives. Of particular interest to readers of Middle East Policy, he presents U.S. policy towards Iran and Iraq as two of his three major case studies (the third being North Korea). Litwak’s book reveals the reasons why such a major focus of U.S. foreign policy over the past decade has been such a major failure.
The Clinton administration’s designation of rogue status on a given nation is based on three criteria: acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy, and attempts to destabilize or threaten neighboring countries. Litwak raises doubts as to whether “rogue states” are indeed a distinct category. For example, he acknowledges that Cuba remains on the list despite the fact that it fulfills none of the criteria currently. He also notes that certain obvious candidates are missing. He wonders, for example, why Sudan is on the list, while Pakistan is not. A more dubious contention is that Syria would be on the list were it not for Washington’s desire for its collaboration in the peace process with Israel. He exaggerates Syria’s threat to American interests and fails to note the qualitative differences between the Baath regimes in Baghdad and Damascus. Meanwhile, he largely ignores Israel’s development of weapons of mass destruction, occupation of neighboring countries and violation of the norms of international law.
At the outset, Litwak attempts to define the term and the main attributes that give states such an identification and questions whether it is a useful categorization. His conclusion is that demonizing a disparate group of states “perpetuates the false dichotomy that sets up containment and engagement as mutually exclusive strategies” rather than recognizing that “foreign policy is made along a continuum of choice” (p. xiv). Incentives, he argues, are required as well as penal- ties. Conditioned engagement may at times be the wisest course, yet this option is largely preempted by such categorization.
Litwak is neither hawk nor dove. He does not believe that the United States should not be engaged, even militarily, against some of these states, but that each needs to be evaluated separately on its own merits. The one-size-fits-all approach implied in the designation of rogue states makes it difficult to appreciate real differences between them. He notes that current policy, for example, fails to distinguish between an increasingly pluralistic Iran and the absolutism of Iraq. Indeed, one of the book’s strengths is his willingness to look at the differing domestic contexts of Iran and Iraq. Indeed, he critiques policy makers’ lack of knowledge of target states, including their underuse of area experts.
Litwak makes a convincing case that because U.S. policy makers have been “politically selective” in designating certain regimes as rogue states, this approach “limits strategic flexibility,” particularly regarding the ability to adapt to changing conditions, and that such generic policies incur “high political costs” (p. 75). For example, the author notes that the problem with using such hyperbole is that when policy makers recognize the need for reconciliation and moderation, they leave themselves open to charges of appeasement with what they had previously portrayed as a hopelessly extremist, irrational and untrustworthy government.
Indeed, Litwak acknowledges that the very designation of rogue states is primarily an effort at political mobilization to get a reluctant American population to back hardline policies. This policy has been one of the most contentious issues for America’s allies, which have called for a more flexible policy in dealing with such states. They have greatly resented Clinton administration efforts to try to enforce unilateral U.S. sanctions against these states through penalizing foreign companies. Indeed, such a policy is virtually identical to the Arab boycott of countries doing business in Israel, a practice the United States has long condemned on the grounds that such secondary boycotts were illegal. Litwak argues that if Washington pushed for narrower sanctions aimed at addressing specific areas of concern, like the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, it would be more effective in gaining support from allied governments than the comprehensive sanctions currently advocated.
The rogue-state policy has been subjected to some devastating critiques domestically, not just from traditional critics on the liberal left and isolationist right, but from such prominent mainstream analysts as Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft and Richard Murphy. Indeed, the very term became such an embarrassment in the waning days of the Clinton administration that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright began substituting the nomenclature “states of concern.”
While the author is well-versed in the relevant work of international-relations theorists, notably absent is the contribution of conflict-resolution theorists such as Harvard’s Roger Fisher, who have offered powerful critiques regarding how counterproductive U.S. policy has been towards Iran and Iraq. Also lacking was virtually any reference to Michael Klare’s seminal 1995 work Rogue States and Nuclear Outlaws. Indeed, while well-footnoted, the book contains no bibliography. On a broader conceptual level, Litwak seems to overstate the dichotomy between liberal and realist thinking, which diplomatic historians seem to understand better than most political scientists.
It was frustrating to read an entire chapter on Iraq with such scant mention of the serious humanitarian consequences of the sanctions, perhaps the most preventable human tragedy of our time. Nor does he question the legality of the ongoing U.S. air strikes against Iraq, which have not been authorized by the U.N. Security Council. While quick to quote UNSCOM director Scott Ritter, who resigned in protest of lack of more decisive action against Saddam Hussein, he fails to quote Dennis Halliday or other equally prominent U.N. officials stationed in Iraq who have resigned in protest of the immorality of a sanctions regime whose primary victims are children. Nor is there any mention in the text of the admission of spying by U.S. members of the UNSCOM team, which prompted the curtailment by the Iraqi regime of its activities. Indeed, he assumes the only debate on Iraq policy is between those supporting the current policy and those pushing for a more militant “rollback,” ignoring the broad grass-roots movement to end the non-military sanctions and its increasing support in Congress.
Litwak may have also been too quick to dismiss the role of the Pentagon and the arms industry as major forces in using these exaggerated threats as a means of boosting military spending. While he addresses American appeasement of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein during the 1980s, he does not put enough emphasis on the transfer of dual-use technology and other assets critical in Iraq’s development of weapons of mass destruction. Also disappointing is the failure to distinguish between nonproliferation and counter proliferation regarding U.S. policy towards these states.
The chief problem with Rogue States and U.S. Foreign Policy is that, while it offers a solid critique of certain policies, it fails to challenge the equally dubious assumptions behind the policy as a whole. For example, while critiquing whether the rogue state doctrine can lead to a reintegration of these states into the international community, either by behavior change or regime change, he fails to ask the question, on whose terms? Indeed, perhaps the biggest threat from Iran and Iraq is not the behavior of their governments, however reprehensible. It is the fact that they are the only states with the combination of oil, water and population to make them regional powers potentially capable of challenging U.S. hegemony in the region.
Some of his accusations are just plain wrong, such as referring to Iraq’s “expulsion” of UNSCOM inspectors in the fall of 1997 (p. 69) when it was actually UNSCOM director Richard Butler who ordered the pullout himself. The author also refers to how Libya has been “success- fully contained and deterred” since the U.S. bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi in 1986 (p. 97), despite the strong U.S. belief of the involvement by Libyan agents in the retaliatory Pan Am bombing. He refers to “Iran’s . . . support for Hizballah attacks on Israel from southern Lebanon” (p. 174), despite the fact that the vast majority of attacks were on Israeli occupation forces inside Lebanon in violation of U.N. Security Council resolution 425. And there is little indication that Iran played a direct role in Hizballah military strategy. Similarly, he claims, without any supporting evidence, that the December 1998 Anglo-American bombing campaign of Iraq “weakened Saddam Hussein’s domestic power base.” Indeed, there is considerable evidence that it strengthened it.
Other ideological biases creep through when he refers to the leftist but non-aligned Sandinista regime as “pro-Moscow.” He asserts that it was the downing of an Iranian airliner by the U.S. Navy and not Iraq’s offensive that led to the end of the Iran-Iraq War. He mentions Iran’s occupation of Abu Musa Island, claimed by the United Arab Emirates, as an indication of Iran’s possible strategic threat, without noting it was the United States and Britain that encouraged Iran to seize the island in 1971. He curiously doesn’t acknowledge the clandestine U.S. arms transfers to Iran prior to 1986.
Even within the paradigm of the foreign-policy establishment, however, Litwak is able to give a devastating critique of the policy. This begs the question as to what is motivating it despite its clear failure to meet its objectives and the resentment it is creating among America’s allies. Perhaps U.S. policy is simply reactive and not logical. Perhaps feminist theorists are right in their critiques of the machismo factor motivating counterproductive but tough and cathartic methods. Perhaps it relates to U.S. policy makers naively assuming that such threats will lead to results, yet – when they don’t – feeling they must press ahead with punitive measures anyway despite the harm they do rather than risk losing credibility (a phenomenon to which most parents can relate!).
During lectures to undergraduates at my university, I try to illustrate contemporary U.S. foreign policy by picking up a blackboard eraser. I ask the students to think of why I picked it up. Was I about to erase something on the blackboard? Was I nervous and just wanted to hold onto something as I paced? Or was I about to throw it at one of them? They laugh at the absurdity of the third option until I ask, suppose they had been hired by the university’s student association to watch out for possible assaults by professors on students? The first thing they would think when I picked up the eraser was just that possibility.
The United States government employs thousands of people whose job is to find possible threats to our national security. With the Soviet Union gone, they just have to look a little harder. As George W. Bush stated in the campaign in response to a question, while he could not think of any specific threats to the nation, he knew those threats were out there and he was determined to find them! Litwak has done an admirable job questioning whether U.S. policy toward the so-called rogue states is the best way to deal with such threats. What also needs to be done is to question whether they are actually as serious or unique as we have been led to believe.