By 1988, the State Department had finally had enough with North Korea. In a decade that began with a North Korean attempt to decapitate the South Korean government on an official trip to Burma and culminated in the bombing of Korean Air Flight 858, there was no longer any reasonable doubt about Pyongyang’s support for terrorist activities. And with that, North Korea was added to the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. It was all pretty straightforward.
In the years that followed, though, the list has evolved from being a way to isolate state-level terrorism sponsors into a source of leverage over them. Contributing to the list’s increasingly vague mission is the fact that successive American administrations appear to view it more as a bargaining chip than a scarlet letter.
North Korea was removed from the list of state terrorism sponsors by George W. Bush’s administration in 2008 as a carrot to encourage the dismantling of Pyongyang’s nuclear-weapons program. Nine years later, North Korea was again counted as a member of the terrorism sponsors’ club, but only because it failed to cooperate with the West’s denuclearization efforts. In the interim, North Korea never stopped providing illicit arms shipments to other state sponsors of terror including Syria and Iran, nor did it stop conducting cyber-attacks against Western targets or conducting reckless insurgent operations abroad.
Now the Trump administration is reportedly contemplating the addition of Venezuela to the list of shameful terror-backing nations and, by the standards applied to North Korea, it certainly belongs there. Venezuela is a brutal police state, and it has cultivated alliances with terrorist and paramilitary groups like Hezbollah and FARC. The Maduro regime, like the Chavez regime before it, has terrorized and repressed the Venezuelan people, and reports indicate that Venezuelan officials helped terrorist suspects evade law enforcement by providing them with passports and identification.
This is all destabilizing and roguish behavior, but it diverges substantially from the kind of terrorist operations sponsored by other members of the State Department’s list like Iran and Syria. And there are several nations that operate in the twilight space between revisionism and terrorism that could meet the State Department’s criteria but which are shielded from that status by the machinations of politics.
After 33 years as a designated state sponsor of terrorism, Cuba was cleared of links to terrorist activity by Washington in 2015. That, too, was likely a politically motivated action taken by the Obama administration amid its unilateral efforts to welcome Havana in from the lingering Cold War chill. But Cuba continues to repress and terrorize its people, too—even more so since the thaw in relations with Washington. And the brief U.S. diplomatic presence on the island was interrupted by a series of unexplained sonic attacks, which forced the U.S. to indefinitely draw down its diplomatic presence in Havana and left Americans and Canadians sickened or permanently injured.
Senator Cory Gardner has made a convincing case for proposed legislation that would label the Russian Federation a state sponsor of terrorism. Moscow has invaded its neighbors, formally or functionally annexed their territory, and engaged in information warfare against NATO allies. It is linked to the operators and arms responsible for the killing of hundreds of Westerners, including Americans, onboard a civilian airliner that was shot down over contested Ukrainian territory in 2014. It is suspected of sponsoring an assassination attempt on British soil using a sophisticated nerve agent, and it has facilitated some of the worst atrocities and human-rights abuses in this century as part of its support for Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime.
China is suspected of engaging in the same sonic attacks that injured American and Canadian diplomatic personnel in Cuba, and it holds nearly one million of its citizens in “re-education” camps. Saudi Arabia’s government has been hit with Magnitsky Act sanctions related to official KSA involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and its inhumane conduct of the war in Yemen is a source of global consternation. Pakistan harbors and defends bloody terrorist groups, including the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, both of which are gradually wresting control of Afghanistan from the Western-backed government in Kabul.
The punitive nature of being listed ensures that no country with any instrumental utility to the United States will find its way onto that register. Likewise, it is clear now that helping the U.S. achieve its strategic objectives—as in the North Korean and Cuban cases—is the fastest way off the list of terrorism sponsors whether you’ve stopped sponsoring terror or not. So, the terrorism list really isn’t about terrorism at all. It’s a list of states that have been excommunicated from the international liberal world order that the United States and its allies maintain. So why not call it what it is?
In 2008, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Daniel Byman suggested the U.S. should create a second list—one for “passive sponsors” of terrorism—but the problem persists. Rogue nations that aren’t quite terrorism sponsors are on the list, revisionist and destabilizing nations that do are not, and American allies are exempt from that kind of extreme sanction no matter how unsavory they may be. What’s needed isn’t a new list but a new name for the old list.
The State Department’s list of terror sponsors has become a list of rogue states. And so, to minimize the potential for hypocrisy, it should be called as much. These are nations that exist outside the post-World War II consensus or that seek to revise it through destabilizing and violent means, whether that violence is entirely domestic or exported. Acknowledging the obvious does not erase the hypocrisy that occasionally accompanies a realist foreign policy, but it does legitimize it. And consistency in the conduct of foreign affairs is a virtue.