Bill’s Excellent Adventure

Posted December 31, 2009

Categories: Articles, Korea

Jimmy Carter, the saying goes, was destined to be a great former president. The jury is still out on Bill Clinton, but he certainly accomplished his mission to Pyongyang quickly and successfully.

Last week, Clinton flew to North Korea, met with Kim Jong Il, and brought home Laura Ling and Euna Lee, the two journalists who’d been detained since March. The former president, who very nearly visited Pyongyang back in 2000, comported himself with unusual gravity, hardly cracking a smile. And the notoriously garrulous Clinton has kept to the official script that this was a “solely private” undertaking that focused on the journalists and nothing more, though it strains credulity to imagine the former president restricting his long chat with North Korea’s leader to media ethics.

Despite this success, the right-wing media in the United States went after Bill as ruthlessly as the North Korean media pillories imperialists. As Joe Conason points out in Salon, Clinton’s feat should have been a moment to celebrate: “But not for Gordon Liddy, the demented felon and radio bigot who cackled about ‘Ling Ling and Wee Wee being locked up for nine hours in an airplane with Bill Clinton.’ Not for Rush Limbaugh, the obsessive guttersnipe who wondered aloud whether Clinton ‘hit on those two female journalists on the long flight home.’”

Compared to the rabid right, John Bolton only showed a few flecks of foam on his walrus moustache when commenting on Bill’s excellent adventure in North Korea. Bolton, the former UN representative for the Bush administration, has unrestricted access to the opinion pages of the top newspapers these days. As the go-to guy on the right for comment on North Korea, he can be counted on for predictably pugnacious views. He called Clinton’s trip “poorly thought-out gesture politics” reminiscent of the equally malign trip that Jimmy Carter took to Pyongyang in 1994. That Clinton freed two U.S. journalists and Carter managed to avert war between the United States and North Korea doesn’t seem to satisfy Bolton, whose wildly intemperate views during the Bush years should have consigned him to the lunatic fringe rather than the dead center of the media universe.

The liberal pundits applauded Clinton’s efforts, but took pains to emphasize that it’s no time to lessen our newly rehabilitated hard-line position toward perfidious North Korea. “Now it is up to President Obama to make it clear to Pyongyang that it is no longer good enough to make easily broken promises,” The New York Times editorialized (without detailing our own easily broken promises). Tighten the screws, Nicholas Kristof chimed in from the other side of the opinion pages. Finally, in a journalistic trifecta, New York Times reporter David Sanger penned a piece on the new consensus on containment in Washington. Everyone agrees: We can’t let the North Koreans think that sending Bill Clinton — as opposed to a B-1 bomber — is a sign of softness.

It took Maureen Dowd of all people to point out the obvious: “The former Bush bullies have no credibility on diplomacy,” the columnist wrote. “They spent eight years wrecking it, and the score for them on North Korea is 0-6; zero meetings with Kim and enough plutonium for six nuclear bombs.” She didn’t take the next logical step, however, and point out that the Obama administration will have just as little success if it persists with its Bush-style containment policy.

In all the commentary on Clinton’s trip, journalists and pundits spent so much time cataloging North Korea’s sins, they missed several key points.

First of all, the North Korean courts certainly handed down harsh verdicts against the two journalists. But Pyongyang was fully within its rights to detain Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who very stupidly made an illegal crossing into the country. We journalists often raise irresponsibility to the level of moral principle (we must do such-and-such because of the public’s right to know). But Ling and Lee were unusually irresponsible, not just in breaking the law of a country but endangering their contacts in China and upsetting delicate relations between two historic adversaries. Despite some complaints from the two released captives, they were treated quite humanely — particularly if you compare their treatment to how the U.S. border patrol handles Mexicans who illegally cross into this country. I’m very glad that they’re home safe, but frankly it’s up to their journalist colleagues to rake them — and their scoop-hungry handlers — over the coals for misconduct.

Second, North Korea wants to talk. Its demand to talk bilaterally with the United States is nothing new. It has always insisted on face-to-face communications. And, honestly, negotiations have only made progress when they have come after such bilateral talks. But the Obama administration has taken a significant step backward by insisting that North Korea meet certain preconditions before we talk to them. “We’re not going to reward the North Koreans by agreeing to meet with them without some specific actions that they have to take,” State Department spokesman Ian Kelly recently paraphrased the views of his boss, Hillary Clinton.

Third, we shouldn’t assume that North Korea doesn’t want to give up its nuclear weapons. The more we say this in print, the more likely that North Korea will adopt this as a default position.

If Bill Clinton had gone to Pyongyang a decade ago, in the waning days of his presidency, we might be seeing a very different North Korea today. Détente between North Korea and the United States might have made irreversible the country’s economic reforms and its rapprochement with the South. Instead, winter has closed over the hermit kingdom, and the aging hardliners cling to their ideologies like misers clutching worthless banknotes. Bill’s excellent adventure last week was a brief and welcome return of engagement on both sides. It’s now up to Obama to ignore the bogus critics and orchestrate a most excellent follow-up.

Honduras vs. Colombia

The United States has condemned the military coup in Honduras. This seems like such a simple sentence. And at one level, it’s true. The Obama administration indeed issued statements and shut down aid to the country. But the United States is more than just the Obama administration.

“In the old days, when the United States routinely overthrew governments that displeased it, the Marines would have gone in, as they did in Guatemala and Nicaragua, or the CIA would have engineered a coup by the local elites,” writes FPIF columnist Conn Hallinan in Honduran Coup: The U.S. Connection. “No one has accused U.S. intelligence of being involved in the Honduran coup, and American troops in the country are keeping a low profile. But the fingerprints of U.S. institutions like the NED, USAID, and School for the Americas — plus bipartisan lobbyists, powerful corporations, and dedicated Cold War warriors — are all over the June takeover.”

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has applied a double standard to Colombia, supporting head of state Alvaro Uribe, who has pushed through a constitutional change to extend his power, engaged in dubious vote-buying activities, and is hoping to stay in power for a third term. “If the White House wants to be consistent in its call for democracy today in Honduras, it must exert pressure on the Colombian government to respect democracy, the constitution, and the country’s other institutions,” writes FPIF contributor Juan Masullo in Electoral Hypocrisy in Latin America. “That would mean using its leverage over Colombia to convince Uribe that he shouldn’t change the constitution and then run for a third term.”

R2P and the AU

There’s been a lot of dumping on UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon of late. Jacob Heilbrunn has even made the preposterous (or at the very least premature) argument that Moon is the worst UN head ever.

But FPIF contributor Ian Williams points out that Moon has been an effective advocate of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) against those who insist on the priority of national sovereignty. “Apologists for authoritarian sovereignty imply that they would happily let all murders go unchecked because some states get away with it,” Williams writes in Ban Ki Moon and R2P. “This argument boils down to saying that if the United States can do something, everybody else can as well, an anti-imperialism that ends up playing into the hands of leaders like Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Fidel Castro, and Kim Jong Il. Despite their disparate ideologies, these authoritarian leaders share a deep rhetorical attachment to their countries’ national sovereignty combined with a cavalier disregard for the sovereignty of others, including their own citizenry.” If you’re pressed for time, you can read a 60-Second Expert version of the essay.

One of the latest attempts to assert national sovereignty against the authority of international institutions comes from the African Union (AU). The AU recently passed a resolution that undermines the International Criminal Court (ICC) indictment of Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir by permitting al-Bashir to travel around Africa without fear of arrest. “The AU has declared that it arrived at this resolution through consensus among the members of the AU Assembly,” writes FPIF contributor David Greenberg in AU Declaration Against the ICC Not What It Seems. “However, several reports about the nature of the AU meeting, as well as the behavior of the African members of the ICC, all show that the continent hasn’t turned its back on the ICC or Bashir’s arrest warrant. The ‘consensus’ does not exist. The decision was made through the use of manipulative tactics and bullying from the current chairman of the African Union, Muammar Gaddafi, and without a doubt, from Bashir himself.”

Occupation and Its Discontents

Some of the most profound resistance to America’s current wars comes from the soldiers themselves. FPIF contributor Dahr Jamail has a new book out on the soldiers who are refusing to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. In an excerpt for FPIF, he quotes Iraq War veteran Jason Hurd: “We’re disrupting not only the lives of Iraqis but also the lives of our veterans with this occupation. If a foreign occupying force came here to the United States, do you not think that every person that has a shotgun would come out of the hills and fight for his right for self-determination? Ladies and gentlemen, that country is suffering from our occupation, and ending that suffering begins with the total and immediate withdrawal of all of our troops.”

Occupation has been the single most important cause of the suicide missions that have become a regular occurrence in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Occupied Territories, and elsewhere. “The archetypal modern suicide bomber first emerged in Lebanon in the early 1980s, a response to Israel’s invasion and occupation of the country,” I write in Their Martyrs and Our Heroes. “‘The Shiite suicide bomber,’ writes Mike Davis in his book on the history of the car bomb, Buda’s Wagon, ‘was largely a Frankenstein monster of [Israeli Defense Minister] Ariel Sharon’s deliberate creation.’ Not only did U.S. and Israeli occupation policies create the conditions that gave birth to these missions, but the United States even trained some of the perpetrators. The United States funded Pakistan’s intelligence service to run a veritable insurgency training school that processed 35,000 foreign Muslims to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Charlie Wilson’s War, the book and movie that celebrated U.S. assistance to the mujihadeen, could be subtitled: Suicide Bombers We Have Known and Funded.”

FPIF, August 11, 2009

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