Bush’s Passive Appeasement

Steve Andreasen was director for defense policy and arms control on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.

On his trip to Europe a few weeks ago, President Bush went over the top when he stuck the “appeasement” label on the 1945 Yalta Agreement. Historians attacked, jumping to defend Churchill and Roosevelt’s realpolitik decision to cede parts of Eastern Europe to Stalin after World War II. But the danger to Bush in leveling an appeasement charge isn’t that his reading of history might be proved wrong, it’s that his own policies might be examined through the same lens -- in particular, his policies in response to the nuclear threats posed by North Korea and Iran.

The textbook case of appeasement -- an active effort to make concessions to an aggressor nation in the hope of avoiding conflict -- was Britain’s Neville Chamberlain agreeing in 1938 that Adolf Hitler could have parts of Czechoslovakia. The important lesson: It is better to confront the aggressor head-on than delay conflict.

No one can accuse the Bush administration of making an active effort to appease North Korea or Iran. In fact, the administration has gone to great lengths to avoid even the appearance of “giving in” to Pyongyang or Tehran, refusing to engage in direct negotiations regarding their nuclear programs. Without negotiations, the reasoning appears to be, there can be no concessions, no agreement and no appeasement.

Or can there be? The administration seems to have forgotten the part about meeting the aggressor head-on. Indeed, the administration’s approach might be called passive appeasement -- and the absence of energetic diplomacy or credible military threat may be just as injurious to U.S. interests as an active agreement recognizing renegade nations as nuclear powers.


Take North Korea. In 1994, the Clinton administration made it clear that Pyongyang would not be allowed to reprocess fuel rods from its nuclear reactor to produce plutonium for weapons. A “red line” was drawn, not to be crossed, on pain of military force. That catalyzed the 1994 Agreed Framework, which froze North Korea’s reactor, fuel rods and reprocessing capabilities in place.

During the latter half of the 1990s, it turns out, Pyongyang violated the accord and began a secret program to produce enriched uranium for nuclear arms -- a clear violation of the framework, which was crafted to ensure a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. When the U.S. got wind of it and confronted North Korea in October 2002, North Korea kicked out international inspectors and went back to producing plutonium for arms. The Bush administration’s response to this provocation? On the military side, North Korea shrewdly timed its actions to coincide with the administration’s decision to put Iraq on the front burner. With the U.S. deploying roughly 300,000 troops, six carrier battle groups and 15 air wings to deal with Iraq, the administration has had few sabers available to rattle in Asia.

As for the U.S. diplomatic response, it might best be described as asleep at the wheel. The Bush administration rejected North Korea’s demand for bilateral negotiations, agreeing only to six-party talks (Russia, China, Japan and South Korea in addition to the U.S. and North Korea). In the absence of meaningful U.S. incentives, it’s an approach that has gotten nowhere.

Because of a lack of assertive diplomacy, the most isolated, dangerous regime on the globe has been permitted to increase its nuclear inventory. Only now -- when North Korea appears ready to stage a nuclear test -- is the administration considering establishing its own red line, backed by threats of negative consequences. But bilateral negotiations with the North apparently remain off the table.

Iran too has shown a willingness to stiff-arm the international community over its nuclear capacity. As with North Korea, the Bush administration has limited military options for going head-on with Tehran.

But unlike North Korea, Iran -- which does not yet possess nuclear arms -- could lose much from international opprobrium. To help the Europeans talk Tehran into giving up its program to produce enriched uranium, the United States has offered only modest incentives to Iran (like spare airplane parts). Now Iran has signaled that it may deal, but it wants a solid aid and security package in return. Washington must engage in the process to ensure that negotiations result not in appeasement but a verifiable halt to Iran’s nuclear program.

Sixteen years after Yalta, President John F. Kennedy gave his own short course on avoiding appeasement: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” Let’s hope that’s a historical lesson President Bush gets right.