Why Not Kill Dictators with Kindness?

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A year ago in Tehran, I noticed a defiantly goofy graffito inscribed on the wall of the old U.S. embassy building, the compound where the American hostages were held in 1979: ON THE DAY THE U.S. WILL PRAISE US, WE WILL MOURN. This was an official slogan — in Iran, as in America, graffiti are the work of miscreants, but in Iran the miscreants run the country — and it was an unintentionally revealing one: the mullahs are terrified of better relations with the U.S. Without the Great Satan, they have no excuse for, and no way to divert attention from, the dreadful brutality of their rule. A wicked thought occurred to me at the time, and recurred last week, as the Bush Administration continued its foolish refusal to meet with the North Koreans: Why not do the one thing that would most discomfort, and perhaps even destabilize, the precarious regimes of the Ayatollah Khamenei, Kim Jong Il and — for that matter — Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi? Why not just say, "We hereby grant you diplomatic recognition, whether you like it or not. We're naming an ambassador. We're lifting the embargo. We're going to let our companies sell you all sorts of cool American things like Big Macs and Hummers. This doesn't mean we approve of the way you run your country, but it's silly for us to deny that you're in charge ... for now"?

Diplomacy is rarely so rash. And yet, "It would certainly catch the mullahs by surprise," says Azar Nafisi, an Iranian dissident who is a fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "It would drive them crazy," she adds, laughing, "the thought of having an American embassy in Tehran again, with lines of people around the block, trying to get green cards. There is a theory that American cultural and economic power is so insidiously attractive that opening up to the U.S. would be the death of these regimes. I've heard it called the Fatal Hug."


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The arguments against Fatal Huggery are obvious. Why encourage and legitimize evildoers? Why allow Kim Jong Il — the Michael Jackson of world leaders — to succeed with nuclear blackmail? Why reward the Iranians for their support of Hizballah? Fair points, all. But there is a problem: the current American policy of nonrecognition isn't working, and it may well be counterproductive. "What's the hardest job for a tin-pot dictator in the information age?" asks Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "Keeping his people isolated from the world. Why should we be making life easier for Fidel Castro or Kim Jong Il?"

The U.S. is the only major country that indulges in diplomatic ostracism (although most Arab states don't recognize Israel). This policy was invented, appropriately enough, by the arch-idealist Woodrow Wilson, who said that diplomatic recognition should depend on the "existence of a just government ... resting upon the consent of the governed." Wilson refused to recognize the Soviet Union in 1917. That ban was lifted in 1933, but Wilson's policy was resurrected in 1949 when the communists conquered China. America's nonrecognition of China, which lasted nearly 30 years, was an unmitigated disaster. "If we had not ostracized the Chinese, we might have avoided the war in Vietnam," says a prominent Republican foreign policy expert, referring to the American misreading of China's control over the Vietnamese communists (China and Vietnam proved to be mortal enemies). "But when has it ever helped to refuse to talk? Why voluntarily reduce your influence over an adversary?"

The China policy was just the start. By the time Jimmy Carter became President, the U.S. refused to recognize 17 countries. Conservatives took a hard line in most cases; liberals acquiesced, for fear of being called softies. The hard-liners were reinforced by ethnic lobbyists for China, Cuba and Israel, who worked to pass economic embargoes that can't be undone without further legislative action. In the past two decades, human-rights groups have also joined the coalition of the unwilling-to-recognize. In most cases, the motivation is honorable — all of these regimes are terrible — but the overall pattern is hypocritical: Why shun Iran and yet recognize Saudi Arabia, which also funds terrorism and denies human rights? Why recognize Pakistan, which produces nuclear weapons and helped create the Taliban, and not recognize Libya, which has been trying to cultivate our approval for almost a decade? Does anyone actually believe we would be in worse shape now on the Korean peninsula if we were talking to the North Koreans?

Talking to evildoers is the essence of realpolitik, and realpolitik seems in bad odor these days. Last week George W. Bush announced himself as the most exuberantly idealistic foreign policy President since Woodrow Wilson. Bush's vision of a sudden flowering of post-Saddam Middle Eastern democracy has no historical precedent. If issued from the mouth of, say, Ted Kennedy, it would have been denounced by conservatives as fantasy. Is Fatal Hug diplomacy any more improbable than what the President has already proposed?