Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Bill Clinton Back to the Future

Off-the-books diplomacy, recalling Bill Richardson's career as an unofficial negotiator with Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic in the Clinton era, is back with the former President himself in North Korea to arrange release of two imprisoned American journalists, employees of a media unit headed by former VP Al Gore.

Bill Clinton's gig is complicated by his wife's status as Secretary of State, giving new meaning to the expression "private channels."

All hands in the White House and State Department are maintaining official silence about the trip, obviously intended to break the stalemate over the Administration's need to act on the imprisonment while stopping short of destroying the possibility of future negotiations with North Korea over nuclear weapons.

Raising the stakes in rewarding blackmail by rogue states is a problematical development. Freeing the two women is a commendable objective but, in the light of North Korea's history of political blackmail, a dubious step that will only continue the cycle of American impotence in dealing with that regime.

Richardson himself, then a Congressman nominated to be UN Ambassador, went to Pyongyang in 1996 to gain the freedom of a young American man, so disturbed that he committed suicide soon after returning home.

The North Koreans, whose foreign policy seems oriented around getting attention on the world stage, will no doubt accept Bill Clinton's trip as the price of freeing prisoners who serve no other purpose for them, but the precedent is unnerving.

Keeping Bill Clinton offstage during his wife's State Department tenure would clearly be a plus for the Obama Administration. Given Al Gore's personal involvement in the current case, wouldn't a former Vice-President's humbling have been a high enough price to pay?

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