Earlier this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told an audience in the United Arab Emirates that Iran is not interested in peace between Israel and the Palestinians. She may well have added that Iran probably isn't interested in having its own peaceful relations with much of the Western world, including the United States, and that this isn't likely to change through negotiations.
Within a few hours, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that North Korea is about five years away from developing an intercontinental ballistic missile that would pose a direct threat to the United States. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il also seems uninterested in meaningful negotiated settlements.
While many people in the United States, in the aftermath of a tragedy in Tucson, are pondering how to identify and neutralize deranged people who may pose threats to innocent people, the United States and its allies continue dealing with the age-old, and potentially far more dangerous, problem of how to handle nation states that act irrationally and may pose threats to the world.
The two situations are not entirely unrelated, and neither one lends itself to any clear-cut solutions. Jared Lee Loughner, the alleged shooter in Tucson, was suspended from Pima Community College after several run-ins with police for, among other things, disrupting classrooms and the library. He was told he could not be reinstated unless he had an opinion from a mental health professional indicating he no longer posed a threat to himself or to others, according to a story in Inside Tucson Business.
This was a form of sanction. Iran and North Korea have faced various sanctions of their own for bad behavior, including efforts to build nuclear weapons. In the case of North Korea, its recent attacks on a South Korean island and warship have led to little more than exasperated warnings that South Korea and its U.S. ally have just about had enough. While the North has been making regular offers recently to resume negotiations with the South, the South has said it would do so only if the North can demonstrate its sincerity.
Military solutions to either problem would open up a host of other potential troubles, intensified by the potential nuclear threats the two nations are developing.
In her comments in Abu Dhabi, Clinton said she believes sanctions are working in the case of Iran. "They have made it much more difficult for Iran to pursue its nuclear ambitions," she said.
Whether this is true depends on the reliability of U.S. intelligence, which has been problematic in dealing with these closed societies. When he ruled Iraq, for instance, Saddam Hussein convinced much of the world, and apparently even those around him, that he possessed weapons of mass destruction. Even when the truth could have saved his regime, he preferred the facade.
As former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain learned long ago after believing he had negotiated peace with Adolf Hitler, negotiations are futile when it comes to leaders and regimes who have an immovable and violent agenda. Sanctions didn't stop the alleged Tucson shooter. Perhaps only close supervision could have done so.
And as Clinton no doubt understands, only a united and equally immovable resolve by the rest of the world, led by key allies such as China and Russia, can keep such actors in check on the international stage.