The Obama administration has trapped itself into a completely predictable diplomatic melodrama, with Russia playing the protagonist, Syria the helpless damsel in distress, and America the preening bully. Secretary of State John Kerry has agreed with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's plan for weapons declarations, U.N. resolutions, inspections, and international removal of Syria's chemical weapons.
Too bad President Obama didn't meet first with scarred veterans of America's unending diplomatic roundelay with North Korea, whose refrain is "this time they can be trusted." The president might have been more wary of jumping into another game where the odds are stacked against him.
President Obama snidely dismissed his Syria critics as more interested in "style" than policy. But perhaps it is the president who is outmatched, while those skeptical of such negotiations are basing their position on the history of U.S. dealings with untrustworthy regimes.
In this case, North Korea provides a rich, if cautionary, case study on the limits of dialogue and the impotence of great powers not willing to make credible threats or exact real punishment on recalcitrant regimes.
Back in 1994, then President Bill Clinton was reportedly on the precipice of an airstrike on North Korea's nascent nuclear weapons program. But he pulled back, thanks to the diplomatic intervention of former President Jimmy Carter, the John Kerry of his day. The world has been treated since to an endless series of bad-faith negotiations and a fully nuclear North Korea with long-range ballistic missile capability.
Just as the Bush administration foolishly did with North Korea, the Obama administration is surrendering the threat of the use of force in Syria. Bullied by diplomatic matchmaker Vladimir Putin, the White House is reduced to mouthing threats for domestic public consumption. Yet now trapped into diplomatic dialogue, there is almost no chance the U.S. administration will contemplate the type of military strike the president was loath to order earlier.
The world community is also playing the Russian tune: the draft U.N. resolution written by France took out any mention of the use of force to ensure Syrian compliance. Instead, what is currently being circulated laughably contemplates "further necessary measures," which undoubtedly means further meaningless U.N. resolutions.
In another similarity with North Korea, it is estimated that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has up to 50 chemical weapons sites and perhaps more. But trusting a murderous tyrant to disclose all his most feared weapons was proven a dead end in North Korea, where the Americans belatedly discovered Pyongyang's secret uranium enrichment program in 2002, in addition to its continuing prohibited work on plutonium and missile programs. In 2010, visiting Americans were shown another secret uranium processing centrifuge program, again undetected by Western intelligence agencies.
The lesson is simple: Dictators holding weapons of mass destruction will do everything in their power to hide whatever they can. And when the supposedly impartial umpire to 'resolve' such crises is that state's main sponsor and benefactor, as Russia is for Syria and China is for North Korea, then you can be sure that the trusting Americans will be taken for multiple rides.
Indeed, current plans, undoubtedly pushed by Moscow, give Damascus months before allowing international inspectors inside the country. Already there are reports that Assad is moving truckloads of chemical weapons to Iraq, where some believe a portion of them may have come from in the first place, in the days before George Bush's attack on Saddam Hussein. Hiding weapons in the middle of a civil war won't be that difficult, and declaring certain areas "too dangerous" for inspectors to visit will serve to further frustrate their efforts.
Syria's leader can learn quite a lot from North Korea, which apparently even provided Damascus with technology for a nuclear reactor, before the Israelis bombed it in an airstrike back in 2007. Even young North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has stuck his finger in Barack Obama's eye, by successfully launching ballistic missiles in contravention of a 2012 agreement and by conducting his country's third nuclear test. Delay, obfuscation, and outright lying are all part of Negotiating with America 101.
And how is North Korea going now? Last week, in the middle of the Syrian drama, satellite imagery indicated that Pyongyang is restarting its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, which has produced weapons-grade plutonium that the North uses for its bombs, and which it shut down in 2007. America's envoy to Pyongyang, Glyn Davies, sounded less than outraged, stating that it was a "misstep" and a "very serious matter." Such statements don't even rise to the level of a diplomatic tongue lashing.
Instead, Mr. Davies indicated that Washington was interested in yet another round of the failed Six Party Talks, as long as they were "meaningful, authentic, and credible." Perhaps to save time, talks over Syria could be rolled into the North Korean negotiations. That way, Washington's own missteps can be undertaken more economically.