Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Clinton's North Korean Mission

Politico has a pretty good summary of reaction & opinion regarding Bill Clinton's successful negotiations that resulted in the release of two U.S. journalists. The more skeptical view from the right is probably best expressed by former Bush administration official Dan Senor, who said,

“It’s unlikely that [dictator] Kim Jong II would have agreed to a pardon [of the journalists] without something tangible in return. No matter how justified, given the lives on the line, those tangibles may make some people nervous, especially among our allies in the region.”
If there is a standard view on the right, this may be it: happiness that Clinton succeeded in freeing the two women, but worry about what we gave the North Koreans, and concern about setting a bad precedent. John Bolton of course is far more negative, but Bolton's views tend to be foreign policy outliers.

My take is as follows. In circumstances where U.S. citizens are seized by third-rate countries, I generally favor making a bloody, lasting example of the country in question. It would be nice if most states understood that molesting U.S. citizens would bring extremely negative consequences. But that clearly isn't practical with regard to North Korea. And even if it were, there is no chance a weak Democratic president with a Democratic Congress would ever contemplate the type of punitive action that might serve as a useful example. Under the circumstances, a Bill Clinton-led negotiating mission was probably one of the best options. And it succeeded. Given what we know at present, I believe criticism is misplaced.

The Obama administration denies that there was any quid pro quo, and there's really no reason to assume that there had to be one. The U.S. wasn't under any obligation to negotiate in good faith with hostage takers. Obama is not exactly known for his honesty, and if Bill Clinton is breathing, he's lying. I can't think of anyone better to flatter the North Koreans, tell them things they wanted to hear, free the hostages, and bring them home. Until we see actual evidence that the U.S. made concessions, why assume any?  No matter what Clinton told them, the Obama administration can deny any North Korean interpretation, or simply refuse to honor any promised concessions exacted under the duress of a hostage situation. Unless further information comes to light, at this point I have to say congratulations to Bill Clinton for freeing the journalists -- at a cost of nothing more than empty talk (a Clinton specialty).

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