Exorcising Chamberlain’s Ghost

Tuesday, August 4, 2009, may be the day that, after eight long years, the United States decided to return to practicing diplomacy. We took eight years off – the Bush Doctrine and all that. Sure, Sarah Palin hadn’t the slightest clue what that was – but everyone else knew all about that. We go it alone, we wage war against nations who, though they aren’t doing anything much now, might do something against us in the future – that’s preemptive or perhaps prophylactic war, and thus forbidden under international law and generally considered bad form. But what are they going to do, sue us? And anyway, you’re either with us or against us, and thus there’s no point in all that diplomatic nonsense. When Israel went to war and bombed the crap out of Lebanon, and we and the Israelis maintained this was really a war against Syria, those nasty devils in de facto control of much of Lebanon at the time, or so we thought, someone asked Secretary of State Rice if we would talk with the Syrian government. She said no – “If they wish to be a stabilizing force, they can certainly do it. They know what to do.” There was no point in talking. And in regard to such places as North Korea, or any piddling little country run by ugly and evil and nasty and smelly little fools and despots, Dick Cheney was always muttering, as he did, that we don’t talk with such regimes, we remove them. It was all broad-shouldered, muscular, in-your-face contempt for those who weren’t us. Others comply, or they face the consequences. It was uniquely American, or perhaps a subset of that, Texan.

It wasn’t always so. There was Ben Franklin charming the pants off the French, sometimes literally, and of course Jefferson in Paris – you might have seen the movie. And we’ve always had a state department, even if for those eight Bush years almost all of its traditional tasks were assigned to Defense, where Rumsfeld would handle things in his own unique way. Scoffing at “the old Europe” was one thing, but having the United States Army handle slapping Iraq back together after we had thoroughly disassembled it – everyone from Major on up suddenly organizing elections and negotiating local and regional disputes and such, without anyone from State within ten thousand miles of the place – was a stretch. The military became the de facto State Department, day in and day out doing what they were never trained to do, and doing it well enough, for the most part. Those guys get the job done.

But it was an odd time. Colin Powell and then Condoleezza Rice seemed like window dressing. Just why did we have a state department at all?

But of course the model everyone used back then was Neville Chamberlain – diplomacy done badly. He gave the Sudetenland to Hitler and said, because he did, we’d have peace in our time – and look what that led to. But there’s a danger in extrapolating from failure, in judging a process by someone who performs the process poorly. You get easily confused. Diplomacy can also be done well – Henry Kissinger (maybe), Dag Hammarskjold, Raoul Wallenberg, Talleyrand, and of course George Mitchell and what he did in Northern Ireland. But you had people looking back at Vietnam – we could have won if we took off the gloves and fought for real, and Kissinger should have never sat down with them in Paris. Contempt for diplomacy was the order of the day.

But diplomacy has always had people suspicious of the whole business as if it’s some sort of mind game or conjuring trick. Henry Kissinger called it “purposeful ambiguity” – and smiled. Daniele Vare says “diplomacy is the art of letting someone have your way.” All that sounds sneaky, but the idea to handle sticky problems, or maybe even solve them, without arousing hostility.

It’s not magic, or some arcane art, and it’s almost never appeasement, unless done by fool. And it can be done well:

South Korea – North Korean leader Kim Jong Il issued a “special pardon” freeing two jailed American journalists after talks with former U.S. President Bill Clinton, North Korea’s official news agency announced Wednesday.

Clinton, who arrived in North Korea Tuesday on an unannounced visit, met with the reclusive and ailing Kim for talks described by Pyongyang as “exhaustive.” It was Kim’s first meeting with a prominent Western figure since his reported stroke nearly a year ago.

The release of Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were arrested March 17 near the China-North Korea border, was a sign of North Korea’s “humanitarian and peace-loving policy,” the Korean Central News Agency reported.

State media said Clinton apologized on behalf of the women and relayed President Barack Obama’s gratitude. The report said the visit would “contribute to deepening the understanding” between North Korea and the U.S.

Put aside all the talk on the cable news shows that Clinton had an agenda opposite President Obama – he and his wife were taking over and this was their first move, to show up Obama. The cable folks are like that – everything is junior high intrigue. And speaking with people that don’t like us sometimes gets things done, no matter what Bill Kristol and the neoconservatives say.

The key one of those reacting to this was John Bolton:

The point to be made on the Clinton visit is that the knee-jerk impulse for negotiations above all inevitably brings more costs than its advocates foresee. Negotiating from a position of strength, where the benefits to American interests will exceed the costs, is one thing. Negotiating merely for the sake of it, in the face of palpable recent failures, is something else indeed.

What? We say sorry about the mix up, they say okay, it happens, and the two women come home, and we say thanks. What’s the problem here?

Here’s a video clip of Bolton on Fox News:

BOLTON: But I worry that the outcome is a lot better for North Korea than for the United States. I mean this is a classic case of rewarding bad behavior, the seizure of these two basically innocent Americans. Obviously all of us want to get them out – but we want it done in a way that doesn’t increase the risks in the future for other Americans seized by North Korea, seized by Iran, seized by other despotic regimes and then turned into pawns to get senior officials like former presidents to come and legitimize the regime in order to get them out.

Ah, that’s the problem! They manipulated us into sending a former president over there, and they don’t deserve that – that legitimizes those sneaky little snots.

It does? See Jon Perr:

Jeez, it’s not like Obama sent Clinton there with a cake, a Bible and U.S. weapons, like Ronald Reagan…

Well, go back to 1987:

A retired Central Intelligence Agency official has confirmed to the Senate Intelligence Committee that on the secret mission to Teheran last May, Robert C. McFarlane and his party carried a Bible with a handwritten verse from President Reagan for Iranian leaders.

According to a person who has read the committee’s draft report, the retired CIA official, George W. Cave, an Iran expert who was part of the mission, said the group had ten falsified passports, believed to be Irish, and a key-shaped cake to symbolize the anticipated ”opening” to Iran.

And thus Iran-Contra began – and Perr reminds us that President Reagan was forced to address the nation on March 4, 1987 and admit he had swapped arms for hostages:

A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not. As the Tower board reported, what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages.

Well, the Alzheimer’s was kicking in back then, so maybe he hadn’t lied about it. But that was a mess. And Bolton is upset with Clinton and these two women?

And Perr reminds us of something else:

And in December 1992, outgoing President George H. W. Bush offered Christmas pardons to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and five other Iran-Contra scandal figures. Among them were Elliot Abrams and John Poindexter, men who eight years later reprised their roles in the administration of George W. Bush.

So sure, if you’re in thick with generations of folks who regularly do diplomacy badly, of course you’d think it’s stupid stuff.

Duncan Black puts it better – “When John Bolton saw Bill Clinton go to North Korea, his penis got a little bit smaller. And that’s really what it’s about.”

You remember Bolton’s short and surreal career as our UN Ambassador the Senate would not confirm. Bush liked him because Bolton once said this – “There is no such thing as the United Nations. There is only the international community, which can only be led by the only remaining superpower, which is the United States.” He wasn’t popular there. He was soon gone. And now Clinton does this.

But of course Clinton’s trip was about more than the two women reporters. James Fallows here covers the stories in the Asian press of a meeting between the leaders of North Korea and Burma – nuclear bombs for both, each country building one a year starting pretty soon. That’s a bit of a nightmare.

So this trip was about more, and Fred Kaplan explores that in Clinton in Pyongyang – dismissing the White House claim that was a “private” trip for the sole purpose of getting the gals back:

It is hard to believe, though, that a trip of this sort, by someone of Clinton’s stature, could really be private in the common meaning of that word. It’s also puzzling that Clinton, whose powers as an envoy can be elicited only so often, would be dispatched simply to negotiate the pardoning of a couple of prisoners – though it’s certainly true that, as a practical (and moral) matter, no substantive talks can be held with North Korea until those two young women are released.

The real surprise would be if he weren’t there at least to explore broader strategic issues – and the big strategic issue in that part of the world is the future of North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program and whether there’s some way to resume talks to dismantle it.

And Scott Snyder, the director of the Asia Foundation’s Center for US-Korea Policy – and the author of Negotiating on the Edge about these folks – sends Kaplan an email:

“In North Korea, nothing is separated from politics.” Sending former President Clinton, as opposed to a current high-ranking official, “is a convenient way of acknowledging this truth without having to own it.”

In other words, if things don’t work out as hoped, the Obama administration can disclaim association.

Kaplan says this is how you work with this particular country:

In 1994, during his own first term as president, Clinton sent Jimmy Carter to Pyongyang to explore resolving a crisis over its then-nascent nuclear program, which had very nearly led to war. Carter’s trip was billed as “private,” but he wound up discussing the basic terms of what, several months later, became the Agreed Framework, an accord signed by the two countries that kept North Korea’s plutonium program under lock for the next eight years.

Of course Bush suddenly and unexpectedly dumped the Agreed Framework – there was no point in diplomatic agreements and no point in talking at all. The North Koreans tried to use Bill Richardson as a middleman to reopen talks – but Kaplan explains how that was quickly shot down. Cheney and Kristol did not approve, and the North Koreans got nothing.

But of course there’s a new sheriff in town:

And now, it can be inferred, they are probably happy to meet with Bill Clinton, who had, after all, put in place the Agreed Framework. Toward the end of Clinton’s presidency, the two sides were on the verge of signing a follow-on accord to prohibit North Korea from developing or exporting missile technology. But Clinton, understandably, chose instead to spend his final months in office trying to wrap up a Middle East peace treaty – to no avail. (In the first months of the Bush presidency, Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters he would pick up where Clinton left off in North Korean talks, but Bush slapped him down and forced him to retract his remarks.)

In 2004, when Powell resigned, or was asked to resign, people remembered that:

In 2001 Powell became Secretary of State and his troubles began almost immediately. Within weeks, George Bush humiliated his Secretary of State. Powell said the administration would continue the Clinton policy of openness over North Korea.

But in a meeting with the South Korean leader the next day, the President publicly contradicted him.

GEORGE W BUSH, US PRESIDENT: I am concerned about the fact that the North Koreans are shipping weapons around the world and any agreement that would convince them not to do so would be beneficial, but we want to make sure that their ability to develop and spread weapons of mass destruction was, in fact, stopped.

Things were never the same, as a member of the Security Council explained:

After 9/11, things only got worse insofar as Colin Powell’s instincts to work closely with allies, to build a real international coalition behind important administration goals. All those things really went by the boards and he was steamrolled by Cheney and Rumsfeld who felt that the United States should flex its muscle and he exercise its power as it saw fit.

Powell found out they didn’t want a real state department, or anyone practicing that diplomacy foolishness.

But Kaplan notes we’re back in that business, and Kaplan suggests that bringing home the two American women was a precondition for Clinton making the trip. The trip was about other matters, probably, and matters that called for diplomacy:

Beyond this, officials say Clinton is carrying no instructions to offer the North Koreans any deal or exchange on broader issues. In literal terms, this is no doubt true. When Carter went to Pyongyang in 1994, he way overstepped his mandate – he was told only to explore the possibilities of an accord, and he practically wound up negotiating one. President Obama runs a very tight ship. It’s a safe bet that he drew assurances that Clinton would not take Carter’s freelancing as a precedent.

Still, Clinton did meet with Kim Jong-il and with Kang Sok-Ju, a top foreign-policy official whom no American officials have seen for years. Whoever or whatever faction is in control in Pyongyang, they may want to make some kind of deal with Obama. In this latest round of North Korean aggressiveness, China’s leaders, who could usually be counted on to resist demands for severe sanctions, seemed to have been truly shaken. The Kim family’s longtime knack for playing the world’s larger powers off one another may have worn out. They might want to come in from the freezing cold that they would certainly face if sanctions were hammered down hard.

And there is the Burma stuff – nuclear bombs for anyone with a grudge.

But the main issue is getting back to where we were before Bush slapped down and humiliated Colin Powell:

In the 1994 Agreed Framework, the North Koreans put their nuclear fuel rods under international inspection and pledged to dismantle their nuclear program. In exchange, the West was to supply energy assistance, including two light-water nuclear reactors, and the United States was to establish full-fledged diplomatic relations. The West never came through with the reactors or the normalization. By the time George W. Bush finally started negotiations in his last two years, the North Koreans had set off a nuclear explosion and Washington was desperate for a diplomatic success, so the deal was hastily reached, and the loopholes were porous.

So that diplomacy nonsense really does matter now:

Resuming talks is more than useful; it’s necessary. Three previous presidents have learned – even Bush, though tragically too late – that, horrible as the North Korean regime is, it doesn’t seem to be unstable; it’s not about to fall apart; sanctions are difficult to muster, much less administer; military action is unfeasible, given the possibility of devastating retaliation.

So diplomacy is the only way out, but it has to be serious. And this time, the North Koreans have to take the first step. Freeing the prisoners may be just that face-saving gesture. If so, Obama needs to follow up with one of his own – perhaps agreeing to one-on-one talks.

Or we could just bomb them into oblivion, or bomb them enough that their population decides we’re the good guys and rises up and throws the bums out, and invites us in – the current neoconservative plan for Iran.

Or we could do the diplomatic thing we’d suspended for eight years. And it seems we will.

And everyone will hear the story of Neville Chamberlain and the Sudetenland over and over and over. But, you know, he wasn’t the only diplomat in history.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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