Obama Promises Bush III on Iran

Senior Fellow John R. Bolton
Senior Fellow
John R. Bolton

"You'd have to be an idiot to trust the North Koreans," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said recently. Apparently unaware of the irony, she then predicted eventual success for the six-party talks on the North's nuclear weapons program.

President-elect Barack Obama has promised major changes in U.S. diplomacy and repeatedly criticized the Bush administration on both substance and style. Mr. Obama has pledged more negotiation and multilateralism--less saber-rattling and "take it or leave it" unilateralism. While Iraq was Mr. Obama's focal point in the campaign, the biggest problem ahead is countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

But on proliferation, what is striking are the similarities between Mr. Obama and President George W. Bush's second term. Given Mr. Bush's recent record, continuity between the two presidencies is hardly reassuring. And where Mr. Obama differs with Mr. Bush, he is only more accommodating to the intractable rogues running Pyongyang and Tehran. This is decidedly bad news.

Neither North Korea nor Iran is prepared to voluntarily give up nuclear or ballistic missile programs.

The recent, embarrassing collapse of the six-party talks starkly underlines how, under Mr. Obama, everything old will be new again. The talks are classic multilateral diplomacy, pursued since 2003 with notable deference to North Korea. There's been about as much engagement with Pyongyang as consenting adults can lawfully have.

The outcome of this Obama-style diplomacy was the same as all prior negotiations with the leaders of the world's largest prison camp. North Korea charged even for the privilege of sitting at the negotiating table, extracted concession after concession, endlessly renegotiated points that had been resolved, and ultimately delivered nothing of consequence in return.

When pressed, North Korea would bluster and threaten to rain destruction on South Korea. "Experts" on North Korea would observe that this was just its style, nothing to worry about. Thus did the Bush administration enable the North's bullying behavior by proclaiming even greater willingness to offer further carrots.

Most recently in Beijing, Pyongyang refused to put in writing what U.S. negotiators say it committed to verbally--namely, verifying its commitment to abandon its nuclear program. But even taking U.S. negotiators at their word, this did not constitute real verification. The charade of verification was only one more ploy to squeeze out U.S. concessions, which Mr. Bush's negotiators seemed prepared to give.

On Iran, also for over five years, Mr. Bush has endorsed vigorous European diplomacy. The Europeans offered every imaginable carrot to persuade Iran to drop its nuclear program in exchange for a different relationship with Europe and America. This produced no change in Iran's strategic objective of acquiring deliverable nuclear weapons. The only real consequence is that Iran is five years closer to achieving that objective. It now has indigenous mastery over the entire nuclear fuel cycle.

The Obama alternative? "Present the Iranian regime with a clear choice" by using carrots and sticks to induce Iran to give up its nuclear aspirations. What does Mr. Obama think Mr. Bush and the Europeans have been doing? Does he really think his smooth talking will achieve more than Europe's smoothest talkers, who were in fact talking for us the whole time?

While Mr. Obama has uttered only generalities on North Korea, his Iran policy will be worse than Mr. Bush's. He acts as though the years of failed efforts to dissuade Iran from going nuclear simply didn't happen. That is blindness, not continuity. And that's without Mr. Obama's pledge to meet personally with Iran's leaders, an incredible act of legitimization he seems willing to give away for nothing.

Neither North Korea nor Iran is prepared to voluntarily give up nuclear or ballistic missile programs. The Bush policy was flawed not because its diplomacy was ineffective or disengaged, not because it was too intimidating to its adversaries, and not because it lacked persistence. Mr. Bush's flaw was believing that negotiation and mutual concession could accomplish the U.S. objective--the end of proliferation threats from Pyongyang and Tehran--when the objectives of our adversaries were precisely the opposite. They sought to buy valuable time to improve and expand their nuclear programs, extract as many carrots as possible, and play for legitimacy on the world stage.

Iran and North Korea achieved their objectives through diplomacy. Mr. Bush failed to achieve his. How can Mr. Obama do better? For starters, he could increase the pressure on China, which has real leverage over North Korea, to press Kim Jong Il's regime in ways that the six-party talks never approached. Options on Iran are more limited, but meaningful efforts at regime change and assisting Israel should it decide to strike Iran's nuclear facilities would be good first steps.

Sadly, the chances Mr. Obama will adopt these policies are far less than the steadily dwindling possibility that the Bush administration might yet come back to reality. Mr. Obama's handling of the rogue states will--at best--continue the Bush policies, which failed to stop nuclear proliferation. Get ready for a dangerous ride.

John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.

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John R.
Bolton
  • John R. Bolton, a diplomat and a lawyer, has spent many years in public service. From August 2005 to December 2006, he served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. From 2001 to 2005, he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security. At AEI, Ambassador Bolton's area of research is U.S. foreign and national security policy.

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