The Call

The limits of engagement

The limits of engagement

By Ian Bremmer

The George W. Bush administration learned the limits of a policy approach to America’s antagonists (like Iran and North Korea) that relies almost exclusively on political pressure and economic coercion. Even as Washington issued warning after warning, Iran made enormous progress toward a nuclear capability, and North Korea amassed a small nuclear arsenal.

But the Obama administration is now learning the limits of constructive engagement. Iran is ignoring U.S. calls for an end to a crackdown on Iranian demonstrators, and North Korea is threatening the United States with a "fire shower of nuclear retaliation." What do we learn from this? That, as time passes, U.S. policymakers have less and less ability to influence events within isolated countries and the choices made by their leaders.

In fact, events inside Iran over the past two weeks represent something close to a worst-case scenario for Washington. Since Obama became president, his tactical approach to Iran has been governed by a simple principle: Don’t do or say anything that will help Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad use Washington to rally support. That was a wise choice, but one that came to nothing because, as Joseph Stalin once observed, "It’s not he who votes that counts but he who counts the votes."

Obama responded to the stolen election and the protests that followed with characteristic caution, using vivid language of condemnation only after the level of violence in Tehran demanded it. But it will be harder now to make the deal he wants over Iran’s nuclear program, because whatever he offers Iran will open him to charges of "appeasement," and because Iran’s weakened government will likely respond to U.S. warnings with renewed belligerence.

On North Korea, whatever the president’s approach, uncertainty within that country is generating a level of anti-American vitriol that’s unusual even by North Korean standards. Kim Jong-Il has apparently tapped his 26 year-old son, Kim Jung Un, to succeed him. Whether this latest of the Kims will actually rule or the North Korean military will wield new power within a kind of dictatorship by committee, we can only guess. But it’s clear that, for the moment, U.S. officials can plan for various contingencies and respond to events, but can’t do much to influence what comes next.

The Obama approach to these problems is to try to keep as many options open as possible. That might help to protect him against the charges of hubris that rained down on Bush-era neocons, but it also allows others who don’t play by the same rulebook to outmaneuver him. Political decision-makers inside Iran and North Korea are now defining the terms of their engagement with the United States.