‘Realists’ Press for Bush to Engage Iran, North Korea

Hawks in the administration of President George W. Bush may think that they are tough, but their dreams of "regime change" in Iran and North Korea are increasingly deluded, not to say dangerous, according to their hard-edged realist rivals who have become increasingly outspoken in recent weeks.

Their latest broadside comes in the form of an article by Richard Haass, president of the influential Council on Foreign Relations, in the forthcoming edition of the journal Foreign Affairs entitled "The Limits of Regime Change."

Haass, who served under Bush in a top State Department position, also has just published a new book, The Opportunity: America’s Moment to Alter History’s Course, one of the central themes of which is that the hawks have overestimated Washington’s ability to change the world.

Haass’ article and book release follow the publication of a column last week by arch-realist Brent Scowcroft in the Wall Street Journal which argues that the hawks’ rejection of bilateral talks with North Korea in the hopes that the government there will collapse are "irresponsible."

Yet another realist, former Foreign Affairs editor Fareed Zakaria, made much the same argument in a recent Newsweek column that assailed the White House for what he called a four-year "stalemate" within the administration between hawks who "want to push for regime change" in North Korea and "pragmatists" who "want to end the North’s nuclear program."

Common to all three authors is the conviction that the U.S. is not all-powerful; that it must coordinate its policy with other great powers to achieve its ends; that creative diplomacy can be far more constructive than military action; and that, despite the tough rhetoric of administration hawks, U.S. policy towards Iran and North Korea, both members of Bush’s "axis of evil," effectively is adrift.

The realist offensive comes amid a growing sense that the intra-administration fights between hawks led by Vice President Dick Cheney and realists led by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell have continued unabated nearly six months into Bush’s second term, albeit more recently without Powell and fewer leaks from unhappy State Department and intelligence officers who generally lined up with the realists.

While Washington has persisted in its refusal to directly engage either Iran or North Korea, it has provided nominal, if skeptical, support to negotiations between the so-called EU-3 – Germany, Britain and France – and Iran on Teheran’s nuclear program. while also stating that a military option of one kind or another remains on the table if an agreement is not reached.

Washington also has continued to insist that Pyongyang return to the Six-Party Talks – which also involve China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia – to discuss a possible agreement for dismantling its nuclear program.

But the administration has rejected entreaties by China and South Korea, in particular, to put on the table what it might be prepared to offer if the North were to strike such a deal. In recent weeks, Washington also has sent 17 Stealth warplanes to South Korea as part of a series of steps to increase pressure on the North and signal the other parties that its patience is running out.

Haass, who, as head of the influential Policy Planning office in the State Department during the first two years of the Bush administration, was a top adviser to Powell, argues in his Foreign Affairs article, that the hawks’ pursuit of regime change is flawed on many counts.

He concedes that regime change appears superficially attractive because it "is less distasteful than diplomacy and less dangerous than living with new nuclear states."

"There is only one problem," he adds. "It is highly unlikely to have the desired effect soon enough."

Haass dismisses the notion that Washington is prepared to invade either country simply due to the "enormous" expense involved, the ability of Pyongyang’s conventional military power to inflict destruction on South Korea and U.S. forces stationed there, and the size and large population of Iran that would make "any occupation costly, miserable, and futile."

In addition, "regime replacement," often is far more difficult and expensive than the initial regime ouster, as Washington’s experience in Iraq has demonstrated, according to Haass.

As for the option of carrying out a military attack on Pyongyang’s or Teheran’s nuclear sites, as urged by some hard-line circles outside the administration, Haass warns that, given the state of U.S. intelligence on the two countries’ nuclear programs, this is likely to be limited in its effectiveness and would almost certainly prove strategically counterproductive.

In the first place, Washington is unlikely to face a demonstrable imminent threat from either country that would justify preemptive action. Any preventive attack on North Korea would be opposed by Washington’s Six-Party partners because of the dangers posed by war on the Korean Peninsula, according to Haass.

While a preventive attack on Iranian targets could set back its nuclear program. by months or years, he argues, Teheran could respond in any number of ways, from "unleashing terrorism" and promoting instability in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia, to triggering oil price increases that "could trigger a global economic crisis."

Instead, Haass urges what he terms a "containment" policy similar to that pursued by Washington during the Cold War which, he notes, had as a "second, subordinate goal" incremental regime change or "regime evolution." Such a policy, he says, "tends to be indirect and gradual and to involve the use of foreign policy tools other than military force."

"A foreign policy that chooses to integrate, not isolate, despotic regimes can be the Trojan horse that moderates their behavior in the short run and their nature in the long run," he writes.

Critical to this strategy is Washington’s willingness to offer clear incentives, "including economic assistance, security assurances, and greater political standing," to both countries if they satisfied U.S. and international concerns regarding their nuclear programs It also would spell out clear penalties, including military attack "in the most dire circumstances," if they failed to cooperate, says Haass.

Washington also should work with its negotiating partners to devise packages for both countries that lay out similar carrots and sticks on which all parties would commit themselves, he adds.

He admits it is quite possible this strategy will not work, and that one or both countries will use the time to build up their nuclear capabilities either overtly or covertly. The option then is to accept their de facto nuclear status similar to that currently accepted for Israel, India, and Pakistan.

Given the stakes that would be involved, particularly the likelihood that the two countries’ neighbors would try to follow suit, Washington, according to Haass should declare publicly that any government that uses or threatens to use weapons of mass destruction or knowingly transfers them to third parties "opens itself up to the strongest reprisals, including attack and removal from power." At the same time, the U.S. should try to persuade all other major powers to sign on to such a policy, he adds.

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.