Skip to main content

Review by Sol Schindler

coverDancing With The Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes by Michael Rubin, Encounter Books, ISBN-1-59407-723-X, 2014, 384 pp., $27.99 (Hardcover List).

The United States has a long history of dealing with rogue nations. During Thomas Jefferson’s first term he learned that the Barbary pirates, who ruled supreme in the Eastern Mediterranean, demanded tribute; otherwise they would capture and loot every passing American ship. Since marine commerce was the one thriving industry the young nation had attained, this was a serious threat. The Secretary of Treasury informed Jefferson that it was simply cheaper to pay the tribute, as everyone else did, than to build and equip a naval force that could provide protection. Since his campaign pledge to balance the budget was much on his mind, and building a navy is horribly expensive, the politically correct choice should have seemed obvious. But like most Americans Jefferson hated paying tribute to anyone and chose the ethically correct course of armed protection for legally conducted trade.

Eventually a naval force was organized and sent to the Barbary Coast where the young and dashing Stephen Decatur made a name for himself and the U.S. Navy by soundly defeating the pirates in a series of engagements, which forced the Bey of Tripoli to sue for peace. The cause of international law with Jefferson as its advocate had triumphed.

Two hundred years later history in a way repeated itself. On April 8th, 2009 four pirates in a skiff attempted to seize the M.V. Maersk Alabama, an American cargo ship, about 240 nautical miles off the coast of Somalia. Unfortunately for the pirates an American destroyer met them the next day and three Navy seals killed three of the pirates and sent the fourth back to the United States for imprisonment.

The local reaction to these extraordinary events was generally of relief. The good guys had won and the kidnapped victim rescued. But this is the 21st Century and there was the inevitable counter action, asking were the lives of three boys (the pirates were aged 18-20) worth less than an old and rusting cargo ship? The well-worn arguments of the previous Century also appeared. Mohammed Megalommatis writing in the Somali Chronicle pointed out that piracy was simply the fishermen’s reaction to the West’s abuse of their marine resources, such as pouring toxic waste into their fishing grounds. How else could they gain the attention of the powers that be? Nevertheless, piracy has dwindled off the coast of Somalia.

Michael Rubin, a respected scholar currently teaching at the Naval Postgraduate School, has turned his attention to the larger question of how to deal with nations that resemble pirates in their irrationality, their evasion of the truth when convenient, and, perhaps more true of the modern evil doers than the old Barbary pirates, their complete abandonment of the sanctity of international commitments. In his new book, Dancing with the Devil, he closely examines our relations with rogue states such as North Korea and Libya, with whom we have negotiated agreements.

The People’s Republic of Korea is the state with whom we have tried to negotiate for the longest period of time, dating from the end of the Korean War. Our goal was simply to keep the peace between the two divided Koreas and also to prevent the North Koreans from obtaining nuclear weapons. Our methods were simple. We followed the often-cited Churchillian adage that it is better to jaw-jaw than to war-war. We demonstrated a generous awareness of North Korea’s economic problems, and supplied free—meaning no payment was asked for or expected—large amounts of food, and diesel oil for their generators, so that they did not have to rely on atomic power for electricity. The term bribes was never used for obvious reasons, and care was taken to maintain the momentum of our talks. As a result a kind of peace has prevailed in the area, marred by occasional acts of violence entailing loss of life, almost all on the side of the United States or South Korea. It is presumed through observation of test cases and official announcements that the North has nuclear weapons and the means of delivery. We no longer supply food or diesel oil free of charge.

Negotiations with Libya were a bit more compact and easier to summarize. The Libyan dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, had pronounced the Gulf of Sidra to be Libyan territorial waters. We pointed out that they had always been international waters, we still considered them as such, and accordingly dispatched a small fleet for a brief cruise. Someone in that badly muddled bureaucracy that passed for a government in Libya ordered the Libyan air force to attack the cruising fleet, which they did. Attacking planes were duly shot down and to indicate our displeasure—shades of Stephen Decatur—we bombed Tripoli, allegedly killing a member of Qaddafi’s family. These events so traumatized the Libyan administration that they eventually renounced all weapons of mass destruction and expressed their desire to work in harmony with the West as personified by the United States. This encouraging outcome resulted from our having what the author calls leverage, and our willingness to use it. This can be called the overriding theme of Professor Rubin’s new book. Negotiations are essential. But for us to be successful we must recognize the need for leverage, be aware of what leverage we do have, and finally be willing to use it.

Under our new Secretary of State, John Kerry, this country has been instrumental in initiating a series of international conferences to bring peace to troubled parts of our world. Possibly the most important is the one is that now being conducted with Iran. It is generally recognized that the Iranian ruling class would never have deigned to meet us at the conference table if we had not imposed some rather painful economic sanctions on them, an early use of the leverage Prof. Rubin cites as essential.

When a new administration assumes office in Washington one expects considerable change. The new bright lights taking charge have just won a difficult election—all elections are difficult—are supremely self- confident, and wish to fulfil their destiny. At the same time older hands, either retired or semi-retired, hope that with that self- confidence comes a maturity that realizes that “the Kurds and Wheys”, bitter enemies that they are, have participated in 25 previous conferences to solve their differences with no degree of success and therefore perhaps a 26th conference might not be immediately advisable. What is needed is a thorough knowledge of our foreign policy as formulated by the top stratum of our government, the goals we wish to achieve through any set of negotiations we undertake, and finally the means we have of insuring we achieve those goals while negotiating.

Prof. Rubin has written a book that should help the reader focus on emerging foreign policy problems. To this reviewer he sometimes seems a bit harsh in his commentary. On the other hand one cannot deny failure when it occurs.white star


American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.

imageSol Schindler was born in Sioux City, Iowa in 1924, served in the army (ETO) 1943-46, MA Univ. of Iowa 1951, majored in English, minored in philosophy. USIA 1952-1980 served mostly in Asia, Indonesia, Burma, India, Viet Nam, Pakistan, Korea, with the exception of 3½ years in Yugoslavia. Final assignment, Deputy Chief of Programs, ICS, USIA. Upon retirement worked part time for the State Department, Freedom of Information, 1980-2003. After retirement published more than 100 op eds and book reviews in the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Times, The Mediterranean Quarterly, the Middle East Quarterly, and a number of smaller publications.

Comments are closed.