American foreign policymakers used the terms "rogue," "outlaw," and "backlash" states virtually interchangeably after the Cold War. As early as July 1985, President Reagan had asserted that "we are not going to tolerate … attacks from outlaw states by the strangest collection of misfits, loony tunes, and squalid criminals since the advent of the Third Reich," but it fell to the Clinton administration to elaborate this concept.
Writing in the March–April 1994 issue of Foreign Affairs, Anthony Lake cited "the reality of recalcitrant and outlaw states that not only choose to remain outside the family [of democratic nations] but also assault its basic values." He applied this label to five regimes: Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, and Libya and claimed that their behavior was frequently aggressive and defiant; that ties among them were growing; that they were ruled by coercive cliques that suppressed human rights and promoted radical ideologies; that they "exhibited a chronic inability to engage constructively with the outside world"; and that their siege mentality had led them to attempt to develop weapons of mass destruction and missile delivery systems. For Lake, "as the sole super-power, the United States [had] a special responsibility … to neutralize, contain and, through selective pressure, perhaps eventually transform" these miscreants into good global citizens.
The first Bush administration had agreed with Lake's analysis and in 1991 adopted a "twowar" strategy designed to enable U.S. forces to fight and win two regional wars simultaneously against "renegade" nations. The second Bush administration emphasized the urgent need to develop a national missile defense to protect the United States from weapons launched by rogue states. In short, the "outlaw" nation theme pervaded U.S. foreign policy throughout the post–Cold War era.
Critics seized on these terms as inherently fuzzy, subjective, and difficult to translate into consistent policy. Although Lake had defined rogues as nations that challenged the system of international norms and international order, disagreement existed about the very nature of this system. For example, whereas the Organization for European Security and Cooperation (OSCE) and UN Secretary-General Annan advocated international norms that would expose regimes that mistreated their populations to condemnation and even armed intervention, others argued that such norms would trample on the traditional notion of state sovereignty. Nevertheless, the State Department sometimes included Serbia on its outlaw list solely because President Milosevic had violated the rights of some of his nation's citizens, and NATO undertook an air war against him in 1999 because of his repression of an internal ethnic group.
In theory, at least, to be classified as a rogue, a state had to commit four transgressions: pursue weapons of mass destruction, support terrorism, severely abuse its own citizens, and stridently criticize the United States. Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Libya all behaved in this manner during at least some of the post–Cold War era. Yet the inclusion of Cuba, which certainly violated human rights and castigated the United States, was put on the list solely because of the political influence of the American Cuban community and specifically that of the Cuban American National Foundation. Moreover, in 1992 Congress approved the Cuban Democracy Act, which mandated secondary sanctions against foreign companies who used property seized from Americans by the Castro government in the 1960s. Attempts to implement this law outraged some of Washington's closest allies, and President Clinton, while backing this legislation as a presidential candidate, tried hard to avoid enforcing it. On the other hand, states like Syria and Pakistan, hardly paragons of rectitude, avoided being added to the list because the United States hoped that Damascus could play a constructive role in the Arab-Israeli "peace process," and because Washington had long maintained close relations with Islamabad—a vestige of the Cold War.
The United States employed several tools to isolate and punish rogue states. Tough unilateral economic sanctions, often at congressional behest, were imposed on or tightened against Iran, Libya, Cuba, Sudan, and Afghanistan. Air-power was used massively against Serbia in 1999 and selectively against Iraq for years after the conclusion of the Gulf War in 1991. Cruise missiles were fired at Afghanistan and Sudan in retaliation for terrorist attacks against U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in September 1998. The Central Intelligence Agency supported a variety of covert actions designed to depose Saddam Hussein, while Congress approved the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998 aimed at providing Iraqi opposition groups with increased financial assistance. Several leading Republicans who would occupy high positions in the George W. Bush administration publicly urged President Clinton in February 1998 to recognize the Iraqi National Congress (INC) as the provisional government of Iraq. Some of these critics, including Paul Wolfowitz and Robert Zoellick, hinted that U.S. ground forces might ultimately be required to help the INC oust Saddam. In all of these anti-rogue efforts, however, Washington found it exceedingly difficult to persuade other nations (with the partial exception of Britain) to support its policies of ostracism and punishment.
In light of these difficulties, some observers suggested that the United States drop its "one size fits all" containment strategy that allegedly limited diplomatic flexibility in favor of a more differentiated approach that addressed the particular conditions in each targeted nation. Indeed, the Clinton administration adopted this policy alternative with North Korea and, to a lesser degree, with Iran. Faced with the dangers posed by Pyongyang's ongoing efforts to develop nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems, the United States briefly considered air strikes against suspected nuclear facilities or stringent economic sanctions. Yet both options were rejected out of fear of triggering a North Korean invasion of the South. Consequently, the Clinton administration reluctantly entered into negotiations designed to compel Pyongyang's nuclear disarmament. In October 1994 the U.S.–North Korea Agreed Framework was signed, committing North Korea to a freeze on nuclear weapons development and the eventual destruction of its nuclear reactors. In exchange, the United States, South Korea, and Japan promised to provide two light-water nuclear reactors that would be virtually impossible to use to produce nuclear weapons, along with petroleum to fuel North Korea's conventional power plants and food assistance to alleviate near-famine conditions. During the last years of the Clinton administration, relations with Pyongyang warmed considerably. North Korea claimed that it had suspended its missile development program pending a permanent agreement, and Madeleine Albright, now secretary of state, made the first official American visit to North Korea in 2000. Nevertheless, because this conditional engagement with North Korea involved reaching agreements with a regime widely perceived as extremely repressive and untrustworthy, many in Congress attacked this approach as tantamount to appeasement and called on George W. Bush to cease negotiations with Pyongyang. He obliged, announcing that he had no intention of quickly resuming efforts to reach an agreement on North Korean missile development.
Interestingly, despite the budding rapprochement between these two states in the late 1990s, officials in the Clinton administration repeatedly argued that a national missile defense system needed to be constructed to protect the United States against nuclear missile attacks from rogue states such as North Korea. George W. Bush's decision to end talks with Pyongyang suggested to many observers that he preferred to pursue national missile defense. To critics of the rogue state concept, these actions merely reinforced their view that while the concept had proven to be very successful in garnering domestic support for punitive measures, the derogatory nature of the term necessarily complicated efforts to improve relations with states like North Korea.
Similarly, Iran represented another case in which altered circumstances challenged the rogue-state strategy. The surprise election of Mohammed Khatemi to the presidency in May 1997 and his subsequent invitation for a "dialogue between civilizations" led Secretary Albright to propose a "road map" for normalizing relations. Conservative Shiite clerics warned Khatemi against engaging the "Great Satan," but the continued designation of Iran as a rogue state also contributed to the Clinton administration's difficulty in responding constructively to positive developments in Tehran.
The gradual realization that calling states "rogues" might in some cases have proven counterproductive induced the United States in June 2000 to drop this term in favor of the less fevered "states of concern." Secretary Albright emphasized that the change in name did not imply that the United States now approved of the behavior of these regimes: "We are now calling these states 'states of concern' because we are concerned about their support for terrorist activities, their development of missiles, their desire to disrupt the international system." Yet State Department officials acknowledged that the "rogue" term had been eliminated because some of these states—such as North Korea, Libya, and Iran—had taken steps to meet American demands and had complained that they were still being branded with the old label.
Regardless of the terms employed, however, on another level this post–Cold War strategy of regional containment reflected an effort by the United States to define acceptable international (and even domestic) behavior. As a hegemonic state it was, perhaps, appropriate that Washington attempted to write these rules. Yet it inevitably risked exposing the United States to charges of arrogance and imperiousness.