Did US President Barack Obama score a great victory for the United States by
concluding a deal with Russia on Syria’s chemical weapons or has he caused
irreparable harm to the US’s reputation and international position? By what
standard can we judge his actions when the results will only be known next year?
To summarize where things now stand, last Saturday US Secretary of State John
Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov concluded an agreement
regarding Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. The agreement requires Syria to
provide full details on the size and locations of all of its chemical weapons by
this Saturday. It requires international inspectors to go to Syria beginning in
November, and to destroy or remove Syria’s chemical weapons from the country by
Obama and Kerry have trumpeted the agreement as a great
accomplishment. They say it could never have been concluded had the US not
threatened to carry out “unbelievably small” punitive military strikes against
the Syrian regime in response to its use of Sarin gas to massacre 1,400
civilians in the suburbs of Damascus on August 21.
And then there is the
perception of an “Iran dividend” from the US-Russian deal. Just two days after
last Saturday’s agreement, speculation mounted about a possible breakthrough in
the six party negotiations with Iran regarding its illicit nuclear weapons
According to Der Spiegel, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani may
consider closing down Iran’s illicit uranium enrichment facility at Fordo under
IAEA supervision in exchange for the removal or weakening of economic sanctions
against Iran’s oil exports and its central bank.
The White House has not
ruled out the possibility that Obama and Rouhani may meet at the UN General
Assembly meeting later this month. These moves could pave the way for a
reinstatement of full diplomatic relations between the US and Iran. Those
relations were cut off after the regime-supported takeover of the US embassy in
Teheran in 1979.
Obama’s supporters in the US media and Congress have
hailed these developments as foreign policy victories for the United States.
Thanks to Obama’s brilliant maneuvering, Syria has agreed to disarm from its
chemical weapons without the US having had to fire a shot. The Iranians’
increased willingness to be forthcoming on their nuclear program is similarly a
consequence of Obama’s tough and smart diplomacy regarding Syria, and his clever
utilization of Russia as a long arm of US foreign policy.
For their part,
critics have lined up to condemn Obama’s decision to cut a deal with Russia
They warn that his actions in that regard have destroyed
the credibility of his threat to use force to prevent Iran from developing or
deploying nuclear weapons.
To determine which side is right in this
debate, we need to look no further than North Korea.
In April 1992 the
IAEA concluded that North Korea was hiding information on its nuclear program
from the UN and declared it in breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty it
signed in 1985. In March 1993 North Korea announced its intention to vacate its
signature from the NPT. Later that year, it later offered to begin negotiations
related to its illicit nuclear program with the US.
began in early 1994, after the US canceled planned joint military exercises with
South Korea as a goodwill gesture to the North. The talks led to the
Agreed-Framework Agreement concluded later that year under which North Korea
agreed to shutter its nuclear installation at Yongbyon where it was suspected of
developing plutonium based nuclear weapons. In exchange the US and its allies
agreed to build light water nuclear reactors in North Korea, and to provide
North Korea with oil for energy production until the reactors were up and
In November 2002 the North Koreans acknowledged that they were
engaging in illicit uranium enrichment activities. In January 2003 Pyongyang
announced it was withdrawing from the NPT.
In February 2005 it announced
it possessed a nuclear arsenal. And on October 9, 2006, North Korea launched its
first test of a nuclear bomb.
The US suspended its talks with North Korea
in 2003. It responded to the nuclear test by renewing those negotiations just
weeks after it took place. And in February 2007 the US and North Korea reached
an agreement under which Pyongyang agreed to close down Yongbyon in exchange for
a resumption of shipments of free oil.
In September 2007, against the
strenuous opposition of then secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who was the
architect of the US’s renewed push to cut a deal with North Korea, Israel
destroyed a North Korean built nuclear reactor almost identical to the Yongbyon
nuclear reactor in the Syrian desert. Had it become operational, Syria would
likely have developed a nuclear arsenal by now.
In June 2008, the North
Koreans demolished Yongbyon’s cooling tower.
Amidst fears that North
Korea had reopened the reactor in the fall of 2008, the US removed North Korea
from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.
months later, in April 2009, Pyongyang resumed its reprocessing of spent fuel
rods for the production of plutonium. And the next month it conducted another
In 2010, North Korean scientists at Yongbyon told Siegfried
Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory that the
plutonium reactor had been shuttered.
Later in 2010, the North Koreans
began open enrichment of uranium at Yongbyon.
Enrichment activities have
doubled in scale since 2010. US experts now assess that with 4,000 centrifuges
operating, North Korea produces enough enriched uranium to build three uranium
based nuclear bombs every year. On February 12, 2013 North Korea conducted a
third nuclear test. Experts were unclear whether the tested bomb a
plutoniumbased or uranium-based nuclear weapon.
On September 11, the
media reported that the latest satellite imagery indicates the North Koreans
have resumed their plutonium production activities at Yongbyon.
the media claim that this represents an abrogation of the 2007 deal, it is
unclear why that deal was considered in place given that North Korea began its
reprocessing activities in April 2009 and tested another nuclear weapon the next
Although it issued a strong statement condemning the reopening of
the plutonium operation at Yongbyon, the Obama administration remains committed
to the sixparty talks with North Korea.
When viewed as a model for
general US-non-proliferation policy, rather than one specific to North Korea,
the North Korean model involves a rogue state using the Chinese and Russians to
block effective UN Security Council action against its illicit development and
proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Faced with a dead end at
the UN, the US is forced to decide between acting on its own to compel a
cessation of the illicit behavior, or to try to cut a deal with the regime,
either through bilateral or multilateral negotiations.
Not wishing to
enter into an unwanted confrontation or suffer domestic and international
condemnations of American unilateralism, the US opts for diplomacy. The decision
is controversial in Washington. And to justify their decision, the champions of
negotiating deals with rogue proliferators stake their personal reputations on
the success of that policy.
In the case of Rice, her decision to open
negotiations with North Korea following its nuclear test was staunchly opposed
by vice president Dick Cheney. And once the policy was exposed as a failure
first by the intelligence reports proving that North Korea was proliferating its
nuclear technologies and know-how to Syria, and then with its early suspension
of its agreement to the 2007 agreement, rather than acknowledge her mistake, she
doubled down. And as a consequence, under the nose of the US, and with
Washington pledged to a framework deal to which North Korea stood in continuous
breach, North Korea carried out two more nuclear tests, massively expanded its
uranium enrichment activities, and reinstated its plutonium production
Just as importantly, once the US accepted the notion of talks
with North Korea, it necessarily accepted the regime’s legitimacy. And as a
consequence, both the Clinton and Bush administrations abandoned any thought of
toppling the regime. Once Washington ensnared itself in negotiations that
strengthened its enemy at America’s expense, it became the effective guarantor
of the regime’s survival. After all, if the regime is credible enough to be
trusted to keep its word, then it is legitimate no matter how many innocents it
has enslaved and slaughtered.
With the US’s experience with North Korea
clearly in mind, it is possible to assess US actions with regards to Syria and
Iran. The first thing that becomes clear is that the Obama administration is
implementing the North Korean model in its dealings with Syria and
With regards to Syria, there is no conceivable way to peacefully
enforce the US Russian agreement on the ground. Technically it is almost
impossible to safely dispose of chemical weapons under the best of
Given that Syria is in the midst of a brutal civil war,
the notion that it is possible for UN inspectors to remove or destroy the
regime’s chemical weapons is patently absurd.
Moreover, since the
agreement itself requires non-compliance complaints to be discussed first at the
UN Security Council, and it is clear that Russia is willing to do anything to
protect the Syrian regime, no action will be taken to punish
Finally, like his predecessors with regard to Pyongyang,
Obama has effectively accepted the continued legitimacy of the regime of Bashar
Assad, despite the fact that he is an acknowledged war criminal.
the case with Pyongyang and its nuclear brinkmanship and weapons tests, Assad
won his legitimacy and removed the US threat to remove him from power by using
weapons of mass destruction.
As for Iran, Rouhani’s talk of closing Fordo
needs to be viewed against the precedents set at Yongbyon by the North Koreans.
In other words, even if the installation is shuttered, there is every reason to
believe that the shutdown will be temporary. On the other hand, just as North
Korea remains off the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism
despite the fact that since its removal it carried out two more nuclear tests,
it is hard to imagine that sanctions on Iran’s oil exports and central bank
removed in exchange for an Iranian pledge to close Fordo, would be restored
after Fordo is reopened.
Like North Korea, Iran will negotiate until it
is ready to vacate its signature on the NPT and test its first nuclear
The critics are correct. And the danger posed by Obama’s decision
to seek a false compromise rather than accept an unwanted confrontation
following Syria’s use of chemical weapons will only be removed when the US
recognizes the folly of seeking to wish away the dangers of weapons of mass
destruction through negotiations. Those talks lead only to the diminishment of
US power and the endangerment of US national security as more US enemies develop
and deploy weapons of mass destruction with the sure knowledge that the US would
rather negotiate fecklessly than contend responsibly with the dangers they