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O What a Rogue and Peasant State Am I!

The Huffington Post, March 12, 2008

This article was first published on The Huffington Post website.
By Roger Alford

In the famous second soliloquy of Hamlet, King Hamlet is overwhelmed by a feeling of worthlessness and self-pity. He stands alone, grieving his inaction. He wallows and rambles in mindless self-doubt, remonstrating against his own failure. In his mind, he is a pitiful and weak rogue, lacking the gall to live up to his commitment to avenge his father's murder. He makes plans to test whether his revenge is justified, but his actions do not help him achieve his desired end. He finds himself a miserable, melancholy knave.

This scene from Hamlet came to mind yesterday when I attended a fascinating conference at UCLA on the topic of "rogue states." After listening to the discussion, I could not help but pity (and fear) the poor rogue state. They are full to the brim with self-pity, and self-doubt, utterly consumed by their weakness.

Exhibit One was North Korea. The former Thai Foreign Minister, Kantathi Suphamongkhon, presented a wonderful series of vignettes of his visits to North Korea that underscore the pitiful position of poor Pyongyang. The North Koreans display a room full of gifts to the deceased Kim Il-sung to show foreign dignitaries that a nation without friends has so many friends. It is poor and desperately isolated. It treats every issue as an insult, and every diplomatic overture is a potential provocation. If one focused on this abiding sense of insecurity, it is clear that labeling it a member of the "axis of evil" was a profound mistake. It only fortified their sense of weakness and vulnerability. For North Korea, the lesson of Iraq is "We are next, unless we appear strong." Nuclear weapons mollified their insecurities.

Exhibit Two was Iran. Dalia Kaye of RAND emphasized that Iran does not pose a significant conventional military threat to its neighbors, although its assymetric capabilities (such as ballistic missile development) are a concern. Iran is not the former Soviet Union. It is a weak nation attempting to exert political and ideological influence in the region. Unfortunately, the Bush Administration eliminated two of Iran's greatest enemies with its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And yet Iran still has precious few allies abroad and remains hugely unpopular at home. Therefore, we should move away from the rhetoric of regime change and unilaterally tone down our rhetoric on Iran. After all, democracy promotion is not the same thing as regime change. Our goals should be to promote democratic ideals and the rule of law from within.

Pakistan, by all accounts, is a special case. Former Pakistan Brigadier General Feroz Hassan Khan described his country as a deeply troubled one. National survival has been at the core of its mission for its entire existence. It may not be a rogue state, but it is a distrusted and sanctioned ally. It is not an enemy, but an enigmatic and disenchanted ally. When Pakistan cracks down on democracy and liberalism, it feels it must do so because it thinks the very survival of the state is at issue. It generally acts out of weakness and fear. It cannot be both popular and tough, so it opts for the latter when expediency so requires, and garners worldwide condemnation. Frequent terrorist attacks and disputed borders only add to its sense of insecurity.

What was the take-away message for the next administration? Don't feed the insecurities of rogue states. Stop calling them names. The label "rogue state" mistakes the essence of the state for its actions. These nations are in a troubled and precarious state of mind. They are full of self-doubt, prone to rash action, and easily insulted.

If there is one thing worse than a rogue state, it is a failed state. We know how the tragedy of Hamlet ended. When the mad King Hamlet's doubts were eventually confirmed, he achieved his revenge and died in the process. Our goal should be to change the ending.

Burkle Center for International Relations