Friday, August 7, 2009

Politics: Nobody Knows What Happened

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Yesterday, I was asked what I thought about President Bill Clinton's recent trip to North Korea. I didn't have much of an answer. We really don't know what happened. The only facts that are clear are that Clinton did travel to North Korea and met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, that Kim subsequently pardoned US journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee who had been held for five months and sentenced to hard labor for entering the country illegally, and that Ling and Lee returned with Clinton to the United States. It is entirely possible that there isn't anything else to the story other than those facts. It is also entirely possible that Clinton also made specific promises to North Korea that prompted the subsequent actions by Kim. We don't know, and we may never know. It may not end up mattering very much--the only thing that clearly matters is that the two US citizens are no longer in a North Korean prison.

That's why I was so upset that the BBC decided to interview former United Nations ambassador John Bolton after Clinton's return to the United States. True to the form that made Bolton so controversial when he was nominated to the UN post by then-President George W. Bush (and notably never confirmed--he served only as a recess appointment), Bolton claimed in a Washington Post op-ed piece that the Clinton visit was "poorly thought-out gesture politics" "rewarding dangerous and unacceptable behavior." Bolton believes that now all nuclear states will take US hostages and use them to gain the audience of former US presidents to get whatever it is they wanted from the United States. To Bolton, who denies the label neoconservative but seems to think like one, the action diminished the strength of the US and severely damaged its ability to deal with rogue states like North Korea.

The only problem with all this is that the Obama administration claims that Clinton traveled as a private citizen. While it would be reasonable to assume he had an official mandate, it is not inconceivable that he simply traveled because it had been communicated that his presence would be required to get the incarcerated US citizens released, so Clinton made the trip and they were released. We don't know that it wasn't that simple. I don't know if it was or not, and neither does John Bolton.

The day after the BBC ran the Bolton interview, they aired angry feedback from listeners that thought the inclusion of Bolton was inappropriate. In this case, I have to agree--Bolton is basically a discredited figure after his failure to win Senate confirmation to the UN post. While criticism of the Clinton trip to North Korea was appropriate to air, turning to a figure with limited credibility like Bolton was not the right way to bring it out. I'm used to being disappointed with John Bolton--I'm not so used to being disappointed in the BBC.

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