The Roots of Washington's Failures in Dealing with Rogue Regimes

The United States has had a lousy track record in dealing with rogue regimes for at least the past three decades. There are very few successes that Washington can claim in its attempts to wean such rogue states back into the council of civility, especially from among rogue Islamic states and/or liberation movements. Why is this so? Is American diplomacy inherently inept? Does the American Foreign Service mis-train its recruits? Why can't the U.S. Department of State get it right? Why is American foreign policy such a dismal failure when dealing with Islamic and/or totalitarian rogue regimes?

The primary source of failure starts with the inability to comprehend the mentality -- the worldview -- of Islamic and/or totalitarian regimes. Most Americans approach politics with a Western mentality, which accepts that diplomacy is the art of political horse-trading. That is to say, in the West, we conceive of everything as having a market value -- all is for sale if one can only find the right price. The Islamists, on the other hand, are true believers, and there is no price that can be put on their beliefs. We approach them as if we're meeting in the marketplace, and they approach us as if we're meeting in a mosque. And if our foe is not Islamist, but rather some other form of totalitarian regime, we fail to recognize that its highest (and sometimes sole) priority is self-preservation. In short, we are speaking totally different languages, even when conversing in a common tongue.

Ancillary to our primary problem is our Western tendency to Pollyannaish optimism that everyone is ultimately working to improve the world, and that it's only unfortunate misunderstandings that prevent successes in diplomacy. We are often woefully naïve when it comes to understanding our enemies and their motivations. We fail to comprehend what they say, and we are very often far more trusting of them than the record of their history warrants. Put succinctly, we fail to do adequate homework to truly understand what motivates and drives our foes.

If we add to these deficiencies in American diplomatic efforts the fact that very few of our diplomats can speak and also read Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Pashto, or Korean, we may begin to see why we seem so woefully uninformed of what the other side really thinks. Unless we are able to access the native speech and writing of our adversaries, we act like one blindfolded swinging at a piñata. That is no way to conduct the vital business of protecting our country from those that would like to do it and us permanent damage.

One other deficiency comes to mind as well. How many of our diplomats or Foreign Service personnel have bothered to read the primary documents of the other side? If we're talking about anything Islamic, it is imperative to have a degree of familiarity with the Koran as well as the outlines of Shari'a law. If we are talking of Hamas, one should be very familiar with the Hamas Charter as well. If we are talking about the Islamic Republic of Iran, one had better understand Khomeini's doctrine of Velayat-e Faqih and comprehend the methodologies of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and VEVAK (the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, Iran's version of the KGB). The same applies for all our Taliban and al-Qaeda enemies as well, and all the other jihadi groups and movements worldwide. If we don't know what they stand for, we will not be adequately prepared to counteract their moves against us. How many Middle East experts have read the Syrian Constitution? How many are capable of analyzing the writings and statements of Nouri al-Maliki? How many know what Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad say in Arabic? Until we are capable in such areas, we will not succeed in forging the alliances that will strengthen us and help defeat our foes as we will not be able to distinguish who is really our friend and who is once again pulling the wool over our eyes.

Those who handle our foreign policy must be able to comprehend adequately the threats that emanate from those rogue regimes and their terrorist proxies by having a comprehensive and broad training in the beliefs, methodologies, and mores of our adversaries. Diplomacy today must be more than the art of cutting a deal; diplomats and Foreign Service personnel need to be much more than glorified used car salesmen. They need to be specialists in all the areas mentioned above. Today's world is much too dangerous for our diplomatic corps to be playing a game; our continued existence as a civilization requires that we make the right decisions in foreign policy. And that is possible only when we understand in depth with whom we are dealing.

Rabbi Daniel M. Zucker is founder and Chairman of the Board of Americans for Democracy in the Middle-East. He may be contacted at