Rogues, concern and U.S. policy

June 27, 2000|By Jim Anderson

WASHINGTON -- Once you know the code, it's easy to tell when policies fail at the State Department. Their names are "disappeared" just as efficiently as political suspects were eliminated in Latin American dictatorships.

Policy names that are no longer useful are exterminated, like the Kremlin used to expunge names and faces from photographs when a member of the Politburo fell out of Stalin's favor.

The latest example of this semantic cleansing at the State Department is "rogue," as in "rogue states." This would be trivial, except that the concept was the basis for a whole series of layers of American foreign policy which, it turns out, were based on sloppy thinking. And which remain.

The term has been used as the basis of the national missile defense that is now being considered by the Clinton administration and is being enthusiastically pushed by the backers of Republican Gov. George W. Bush.

The idea is that a cut-rate anti-ballistic missile system against "rogue" states -- but not against Russia or China -- would make us secure. Problem: The Russians don't believe it, the Chinese don't believe it and neither do the Europeans. We should understand that we are talking multiple dozens of billions of dollars here plus a potential breakdown of existing arms control agreements.

To have such a limited defense requires rogue states. Otherwise it makes no sense at all.

The phrase "rogue state" entered the American diplomatic lexicon in May 1993 when Martin Indyk, now U.S. ambassador to Israel, then a National Security Council aide, gave a speech at the Washington Institute on Near East Policy, pronouncing a new policy of "dual containment." The purpose was to isolate and weaken both Iran and Iraq, which he labeled as rogues that threatened both the United States and Israel.

The catchword appears to have been a derivative of the late Democratic Idaho Sen. Frank Church's description in the 1970s of the Central Intelligence Agency as a bureaucratic "rogue elephant," heedlessly crushing parts of the international landscape in pursuit of its various aims.

The problem with the rogue state school of diplomacy was that it bore the same fatal gene as the concept of dual containment.

Both arbitrarily grouped dissimilar countries which had little or nothing in common, except that they didn't like the United States and the United States didn't like them. That definition was so uselessly vague that, on certain days, France could have been included. Iran and Iraq may hate the United States, but they hate each other more and lumping them together merely prompts them to join together to hate the United States more.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright defined the rogue states as countries whose sole purpose "was destroying the system." But that wasn't true of any of the "rogues." They wanted to change, not destroy, the system, especially the part where the United States was using its only remaining superpower role to push other nations around.

The labeling may have made certain sense for a while at the White House or in Foggy Bottom. But it was so arbitrary that it almost immediately caused problems with American allies, chiefly the European Union. Its members, who had important economic interests in the Persian Gulf region, believed that isolating a complex country like Iran -- with competing moderate and fundamentalist factions -- would simply bolster the hard-liners and weaken the moderates in Iran.

The State Department response was, in effect, the Europeans were wimps, sucking up to the Iranians for profit.

But reality was acknowledged last Monday when Ms. Albright announced on Diane Rehm's public radio show that the term "rogue states" was out and "states of concern" was in. A university-run National Public Radio station was an unusual place to announce a change in U.S. foreign policy, but a good place to acknowledge a retreat, especially since State Department reporters were not informed beforehand.

The result is not necessarily an improvement.

Rogue was a good word, badly used. It was a blunt instrument, a gentlemanly term for a knave, but at least it had a certain ring to it. It had meaning, even though that meaning was misplaced.

The replacement term, "states of concern," is so vague, so State Department, that on any given day a country like Canada might be included when the salmon wars are being waged in the Pacific.

Words also have their hidden meanings. A term like "states of concern" reflects exactly the vagueness of a foreign policy that has lost its direction. This is well understood in French, German, Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese, Russian and every other language.

Jim Anderson has covered the State Department for 31 years for United Press International and Deutsche Press Agentur, the German press agency.

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