Pardon the juvenile title. I could have used softer language. I could have thought of synonyms for “bad ass” and “tool” but irrevocably something would have gotten lost. The title reflects both the respect I have for former president Bill Clinton and the seemingly boundless loathing I have for former ambassador to the UN John Bolton.
Let’s start with President Clinton. You want to talk about bringing the goods. Five hours in country and he’s met with Kim Jong-Il and secured the release of Laura Ling and Euna Lee. Take that Jimmy Carter (not that I have anything again President Carter). This was reportedly a private trip, though it came with tacit approval of the White House and presumably the State Department. Now the interplay between President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and President Clinton leads to all sorts of arm chair psychology (see Maureen Dowd’s driveling column in today’s New York Times for an example) about how much approval there was, who showed up whom, and if the Clintons aren’t just vying against each other for the limelight. That all seems pretty irrelevant to me and more of the horse race garbage that permeates political news these days.
I think it’s also a real safe bet that Ms. Ling’s and Ms. Lee’s families couldn’t care less about what leader gets the credit for their release. All they know is their loved ones are home and safe. I do have questions about what Clinton said, what, if any, concession he made, and how this visit will impact formal nation-to-nation diplomacy between the US and the DPRK. Maybe there were no deals, maybe Bill Clinton shook Kim Jong-Il’s hand, flashed that natural smile and that’s all it took. I kind of hope so, because North Korea has done nothing deserving of a reward. Answers to my questions will come out sooner or later, but for now it’s great news these two women are free and safe and home. It also goes to show how much a little face time can achieve when you send the right face to the right place.
Turning our attention to Mr. Bolton. He wrote a hastily prepared op-ed in the Washington Post yesterday claiming “the Clinton trip is a significant propaganda victory for North Korea” and that a high-profile, private citizen going to DPRK to try and “secure the release of two American reporters, held unjustifiably by North Korea for nearly five months” is in effect negotiating with terrorists. My first beef with Mr. Bolton is his seemingly dutiful effort to avoid naming the “two American reporters” by name. Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee are real people with real families who have been suffering for a long time. That incredibly human element should not pull us into the weeds, but can not justifiably be denied either. I’ll chalk this up to Mr. Bolton’s repeated inability to appreciate the human impact on his numerous “policy prescriptions.”
My second beef is his characterization of this whole experience as negotiating with terrorists. This was a conference with a nation-state, not some non-state actor or insurgency. The US has largely held to the line of not negotiating with terrorists, but the DPRK is not a terrorist organization. Indeed they can not be classified as a state-sponsor of terrorism (as is often reported) and simultaneously be considered a terrorist organization. This might seem like splitting hairs, but clearly Mr. Bolton is trying to frame this issue as an issue of terrorism thus making it easier to decry any private citizen negotiating with them.
My third and greatest beef with the column is really twofold. One, Mr. Bolton and those of his ilk have absolutely zero credibility in the international affairs realm at this point. Nearly every major policy prescription they advanced has been discredited or abandoned on the grounds it was ineffective or just outright destructive to the goal of securing American and advancing our foreign policy goals. Two, Mr. Bolton has taken more column inches then he deserves to criticize President Obama’s foreign policy, but as an indication of how discredited he is he never offers any alternatives. Are we to do nothing Mr. Bolton while two Americans sit in a North Korean jail facing twelve years of hard labor? Do you honestly believe behind the scenes discussions haven’t been going on between the US and DPRK through a third party trying to secure the release of Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee? What would you have us do Mr. Bolton? Because it is irresponsible to do nothing. Of course when the intellectual framework you have stood by becomes discredited, it can be hard to find a new one to add to the discussion without sounding like the old out of touch pol that you are.
A couple final thoughts: First, why is the Washington Post publishing this guy’s work and with such frequency? I have been disappointed by the lack of intellectual honesty The Post has required of its columnists and contributors, and while no voice should be silenced I would hope The Post would hold to a higher standard.
Finally, despite my disdain for Mr. Bolton and his column, this is a very happy day for two families. The denial of freedom is something many of us will never understand. It will remain something we see on the news through impersonal accounts of detainees in Afghanistan, political prisoners in Iran, journalists in North Korea, and “criminals” in the United States. I have never had my freedom so completely taken away from me as Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee have over these past five months. I am happy they’re safe and that they’re home, and even as we debate what course of action is the best we should never forget the human impact of our policies. I fear for too long the US has with dire unintended consequences. Welcome home Laura Ling and Euna Lee. I hope the United States seems better then when you last saw it.