Thursday, August 06, 2009

How the conservative critics of Clinton's trip to North Korea are both heartless and stupid

By Michael J.W. Stickings

I tweeted a bit on this last night, but I must stress again: The right's response to Bill Clinton's trip to North Korea to free the two American prisoners is simply appalling. Apparently, Krauthammer, Bolton, Morris, and their cruel and unusual ilk would rather Laura Ling and Euna Lee have rotted away in a totalitarian labour camp.

They claim, without actually knowing any of the specifics (they're full of idle, partisan speculation, as usual), that the U.S. must have given up too much to secure the prisoners' release (more on this below), but what they can't abide, and will not acknowledge, is that Clinton, Gore, and Obama actually succeeded. Had Bush done something like this, they would have kowtowed before his diplomatic ingenuity with genuflective obeisance. Forget, as Jon Stewart rightly noted last night (hilariously, and with indignation), that Iran-Contra was an egregious and illegal diplomatic quid pro quo. Forget that famous shot of Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam, or Reagan's support for any number of tyrannical regimes around the world. What these conservatives want us to believe is that Clinton's trip, along with whatever concessions were required to secure the release, was an expression of American weakness, and that, basically, the U.S. should have sacrificed the two women for the sake of its own image (and for the neocon agenda).

This is silly. First, what exactly do they think the U.S. gave up? A lot, according to Krauthammer, who doesn't have a clue (again, speculation). (What, did Clinton give them Mississippi or something? Did he promise them some of the Wall Street bailout money?) But is the U.S. really so incredibly weak that it can afford to give up nothing? Hardly. It is possible to negotiate from a position of strength, which is precisely how the U.S. ought to approach North Korea. (Indeed, diplomacy now would allow the U.S. to take a harder line, if necessary, down the road, especially if/when international support is required for sanctions.)

Second, did the trip grant North Korea any of the legitimacy in the international community it so desires? Look, whether we like it or not, North Korea is a sovereign state. Either you deal with that fact, or you don't. If you don't, all you have is your bullying righteous rhetoric, which won't do anything to help solve the problem, which is not just that North Korea is a totalitarian regime that brutalizes its own people but that it is a relatively powerful nuclear state with the capacity both to disseminate its technology to more formidable foes and to destabilize the region (not to mention to retaliate against South Korea and possibly Japan in the event of an American attack).

The only viable solution rests with serious diplomacy, and what is important here is not what Clinton may or many not have been authorized to give up (such as an apology) for the sake of the release but what a gesture of good will his trip may have signalled. Fred Kaplan has more on this at Slate. Just as Jimmy Carter's trip to Pyongyang in 1994 paved the way for the Agreed Framework, which could have been effective had Bush not dismantled it, Clinton's trip may pave the way for serious diplomacy between the U.S. and North Korea down the road. In that sense, the trip may have been not just about the release of the two journalists but about the bigger picture of relations with North Korea, specifically focused on its nuclear program. The release was obviously a good in and of itself, but there is now the possibility that the whole incident could have provided the opportunity for progress with respect to one of the world's most pressing crises.

No wonder conservatives are aghast. They want nothing to do with such diplomacy, for any sort of negotiation, let alone a one-on-one deal, between Washington and Pyongyang. But what other options are there? It will be diplomacy, and a deal, or it will be nothing -- and, if it's nothing, the problem only gets worse.

These conservatives aren't just heartless, they're stupid.

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