Barack Obama is more impressive than him on stage when delivering a speech, and his biography is more fascinating, but all things being equal, there is nobody quite like Bill Clinton. The picture of the former president sitting alongside the despotic leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il, in Pyongyang on Tuesday was worth more than a thousand words in a diplomatic briefing. This is how one conducts diplomacy: getting on a plane and departing in order to talk with the other side, president to president, as if they were old acquaintances.
North Korea was the most painful point on the world map for the Obama administration. Not only did Kim ignore Obama's proposal for dialogue, but he also embarked on an aggressive campaign that included a nuclear test and the launch of missiles that threatened South Korea and Japan.
Kim did not hesitate in humiliating Obama. He made a mockery of the threat of additional sanctions against his impoverished country. It is impossible to intimidate even those who are hungry when they are harmed with nuclear bombs and missiles.
What did Kim want to achieve? The simple answer is attention. The nuclear weapons and the arms which he sells to other rogue states are a source of power for North Korea, a nation that is at the bottom of global indices in virtually every other aspect of life. The special arms and the domestic repression enable the "democratic people's republic" in Pyongyang to withstand the pressures and incentives from abroad and to preserve its unique character and independence vis-a-vis the prosperous South Korea and free-market China. Kim is ill and preoccupied with grooming a successor. This, apparently, is a good reason to make some noise.
Kim, though, also failed in this respect. The nuclear tests only aroused more anger and alienation in the U.S., harmed Obama's prestige, and did not encourage him to pursue a policy of dialogue. Edward Luttwak, one of America's foremost strategic experts, proposed that the administration cut off all contact with North Korea. The freeze in ties from the Bush presidency has spilled over to the Obama era.
Then a gift fell in Kim's lap in the form of two American journalists who were arrested and sentenced to 12 years in prison. Their arrest garnered more attention than all the missiles and nuclear installations put together. This time, we were dealing with a human interest story that anyone could relate to. This was an opportunity to start a dialogue over an issue that enjoys near wall-to-wall agreement and to do so by dispatching Clinton to North Korea. John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the UN and a spokesman for the right on foreign affairs, blasted the trip to Pyongyang as a capitulation to a dictator.
From the few bits of information that have emerged from the trip, one may glean that the Koreans welcomed Clinton, a president with whom they had reasonable relations. They would not agree to host Clinton's former vice president, Al Gore. The White House kept a distance so that it could portray the trip as a humanitarian endeavor rather than a diplomatic mission that would focus on missiles and weapons. But Kim received Clinton with a respect that is befitting heads of state. The North Korean leader announced that the two men discussed a number of issues - namely political and diplomatic in nature.
After Clinton returns to Washington, Obama ought to ask him: Bill, how do you do it? How do you work your charms that cause them to fall in love with you? If Obama listens and internalizes what the former president has to say, perhaps he will succeed in other areas, chief among them the Middle East.
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