There has never been a better time in history to be an enemy of the United States of America. While America’s traditional allies in Europe and the Middle East express confusion and frustration, Obama’s White House delivers compliments and concessions to some of the most brutal dictatorships in the world. In the span of a single week, the U.S. has restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, pressured Ukraine to accept Vladimir Putin’s butchering of its eastern region, and brokered a deal to liberate Iran from sanctions.
These actions would represent a tremendous series of diplomatic triumphs if they improved human rights in these repressed nations, saved lives in conflict regions, or improved global security. That is, in fact, what the White House says these deals will do, despite copious evidence to the contrary. These negotiations represent willful ignorance of the fundamental nature of the regimes in question, especially those of Iran and Russia. Cuba is a political hotspot in the U.S. and remains a potent symbol of totalitarianism, but despite its regional meddling, especially in Venezuela, it isn’t on the scale of the global threats represented by Iran’s terrorism and nuclear ambitions and Putin’s nuclear-backed expansionism. Regardless of the wishes of the Iranian and Russian people, their leaders have no interest in peace, although they are very interested in never-ending peace negotiations that provide them with cover as they continue to spread violence and hatred.
The vocabulary of negotiation is a pleasant and comforting one, especially to a war-weary America. It’s difficult to argue against civilized concepts like diplomacy and engagement, and the Obama administration and the pundits who support it have made good use of this rhetorical advantage. In contrast, deterrence and isolation are harsh, negative themes that evoke the dark time of the Cold War and its constant shadow of nuclear confrontation. No one would like less a return to those days than me or anyone else born and raised behind the Iron Curtain. The question is how best to avoid such a return.
The favorite straw man of the “peacemongers” is that the only alternative to appeasement is war, which makes no sense when there is already an escalating war in progress. The alternative to diplomacy isn’t war when it prolongs or worsens existing conflicts and gives the real warmongers a free hand. Deterrence is the alternative to appeasement. Isolation is the alternative to years of engagement that has only fueled more aggression.
Perhaps it’s because I grew up in a Communist country that I cannot so casually ignore the suffering of the people being left behind as these treaties are signed. Ronald Reagan was called a warmonger by the same crowd that is praising Obama to the skies today and yet Reagan is the one who freed hundreds of millions of people from the Communist yoke, not the “peacemakers” Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter.
Diplomacy takes two while capitulation is unilateral. Diplomacy can fail and there is real damage, and real casualties, when it does. Putin’s dictatorship was immeasurably strengthened by the catastrophe known as “the reset,” an Obama/Hillary Clinton policy that gave Putin a fresh start as an equal on the world stage just months after he invaded Georgia. Years that could have been spent deterring Putin’s crackdowns and centralization of power while he still needed foreign engagement were instead spent cultivating a partnership that never really existed. Time that could have been used to establish alternate sources of gas and oil were squandered, leaving Europe vulnerable to energy blackmail.
By 2014, Putin had consolidated power at home completely and, with no significant domestic enemies left and sure he would face little international opposition, he was confident enough to invade Ukraine and annex Crimea. The thousands of dead and hundreds of thousands of displaced people in Ukraine are Putin’s victims, of course, but they must also weigh on the conscience of the bureaucrats, diplomats, and leaders whose cowardice—well-intentioned or not—emboldened Putin to that point.
As recent days and past decades past have shown us, it is easy to paint the critics of nearly any diplomatic process as warmongers. Again, the language of peace and diplomacy is soothing and positive. If we just talk a little longer, if we just delay a little more, if we just concede a little more… To make the peacemonger position even more unassailable, every outbreak of violence large or small can be blamed on the failure of the diplomats to talk, delay, and concede more. And sometimes, to be fair, acceptable compromises are reached and, if not win-win, mutually satisfactory lose-lose agreements can defuse conflicts and avoid bloodshed. Diplomacy is supposed to be the modern way, the civilized way, and it should always be considered first—and second.
But diplomacy also requires a measure of good faith by all parties. It assumes that one side (or both) isn’t lying and cheating. It assumes that there is sufficient coercion and/or self-interest for the deal to hold. A peace treaty assumes that both sides actually want peace; a ceasefire assumes that both sides will cease firing. When these things cannot be assumed, any deal is a likely to be a bad deal. At best it will be meaningless and the regimes operating in bad faith will be quick to exploit the delays and concessions. By signing agreements with regimes that have proven time and again that they cannot be trusted and have no interest in peace or ceasefires, the Obama administration has turned the great game of diplomacy into Russian roulette.
Keeping a firm grip on power is the only thing that matters in a dictatorship. The consequences of losing power in an authoritarian regime rarely involve peaceful retirement and a long life. (Gorbachev is a notable exception, mostly due to his cleverly taking credit for the Soviet collapse he fought so hard to avoid, as well as to the shameful lack of appetite in Russia and the international community for holding Communist leaders accountable.) Both Khamenei and Putin have brutally cracked down on their own people to remove any challenges to their authority. Both rely on vicious propaganda to drum up nationalism and hatred for foreign enemies and “traitors” at home, i.e. anyone who opposes or criticizes the regime. Both wage war and terror on their borders and beyond. Both hold sham elections to provide a distraction for their citizens and fodder for the global press to blather on about the potential for liberalization. And this week, both Putin and Khamenei have been rewarded by President Obama with negotiations that will aid them in causing further suffering to their people and in making the world far less safe. Obama gets his “peace for our time” fanfare and the dictatorships continue with business as usual.
A remark made by Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Moshe Dayan is much repeated by the peacemongers in times like these. In a 1977 interview the renowned military man said that “if you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends.” This is both clever and true, but what has been forgotten is that Dayan continued, “But the question is whom do we want to make peace with—not just who are our enemies.” It’s delusional to think you can make peace with an unrepentant state sponsor of terror like Iran or a Russian regime that is sending tanks across a European border and adopting fascist propaganda.
It is clear that the Obama administration thinks it should and can make peace with anyone, whether they like it or not, and whether or not they actually change their odious behavior. These terrible deals with Cuba, Russia, and Iran—it’s like the old joke about the businessman who sells each unit at a loss but says he’ll make it up in volume. Cuba continues to jail journalists and dissidents. Putin’s forces are still illegally occupying Crimea and waging war in Eastern Ukraine while Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland bullies the Ukrainian government into the concessions that Putin demanded in the latest Minsk ceasefire accord (which his troops ignore, of course).
Iran will dramatically upgrade its ability to support the military wings of Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Houthis in Yemen it has been supplying with weapons for years. There is little doubt Iran will also continue its attempts to develop a nuclear weapon, and even if it fails it is sure to spark a nuclear arms race in the region. Iran’s hardliners have been cemented in power by escaping sanctions while giving up nothing. Calling all of this a triumph for diplomacy is perverse. By the time Obama is polishing his Nobel Peace Prize in his presidential library, the next president will be left facing two aggressive despotic regimes that are stronger and more confident of their invincibility than ever.
Expansionist dictatorships never transform quietly. They most often end in collapse or violent revolution. Comparisons of the Iran agreement to the opening of China in the 1970s are absurd. China would have starved had they not abandoned Mao’s catastrophic plans and built an export economy, something that required formal relations with the free world. In contrast, petro-dictatorships like Iran don’t need their people or to be on good terms with the West—especially not now that the economic sanctions will be lifted.
The casualties that have resulted from weakness masked as diplomacy far outnumber those stemming from being too hasty to confront and deter aggression. The peacemongers should keep that in mind as Iran uses some of its $100 billion in newly unfrozen assets to arm its terror proxies. Before applauding the next ceasefire in Ukraine as progress they should recall what Putin did during the last two. More than anything, before Obama again praises the tyrannical leaders of Cuba, Iran, and Russia for their cooperation, he should remember that some enemies are worth having.
Garry Kasparov is the chairman of the N.Y.-based Human Rights Foundation. His book Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped comes out in fall.