Two weeks ago, Bill Clinton, the former U.S. president and husband of
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, visited North Korea. He met with dictator
Kim Jong-il and secured the release of two American journalists who had been
held there for months.
This past weekend, Sen. Jim Webb traveled to Myanmar on a trip through
Southeast Asia. Webb -- who likely knows more about the region than anyone else
on the Hill -- has long criticized U.S. sanctions on Myanmar. He met with the
head of the country's military junta and leading dissident Aung San Suu Kyi.
And he secured the release of an American who had been jailed for breaking into
Suu Kyi's compound, where she is on house arrest.
The Obama administration and U.S. news outlets have described these two
missions as "private diplomacy." Webb and Clinton are both foreign-policy
heavyweights outside the administration. Their stature and connections provided
them with the latitude to make entreaties to these rogue, adversarial
governments. They offered nothing in terms of aid or support or promises of
policy-change -- they did not represent the Washington, of course. But they offered
good press and a thread back to the capital -- which proved enough for the
strongmen, Kim and Shwe.
Clearly, though, the word "private" is not totally accurate here. Both did
it with the administration's nod and help.
The Washington Post wrote of
"The trip came about only after weeks of back-channel conversations involving
academics, congressional figures, and senior White House and State Department
officials, said sources involved in the planning. North Korea rejected the
administration's first choice for the trip -- former vice president Al Gore." The
Wall Street Journal reported
that the White House approved Webb's mission -- and he used a military plane for
All of which leaves me a bit queasy, though ultimately hopeful, about this
rash of private diplomatic missions.
Part of me thinks the White House shouldn't be in the lame business of
disavowing trips it clearly had a hand in making. Further, I worry the United
States gave up an opportunity to publicly demand something out of Yangon. Clinton
herself has said the United States would consider trading an easing of
sanctions for the release of Suu Kyi. Webb may have made some headway towards
that goal. But to hear Clinton or Obama comment on it would have doubtless
brought a sense of urgency to the issue and shined a brighter spotlight on what
the junta needs to change.
On the other hand, both the United States and the rogue governments got what
they wanted. The U.S. gave up virtually nothing, got its citizens back, and won
some good press for its diplomatic successes. Myanmar and North Korea got, for
a moment, to look magnanimous and reasonable -- tempered by the stories about
their human-rights abuses, and the fact that Washington did not send interlocutors
with actual foreign policy power (Clinton herself, or a committee chair, say) to
confer with them.
I suppose these carefully charted and subtle missions proved to work fine. To
consider them isolated incidences or unqualified successes (or failures) would
be the worst misjudgment -- foreign policy is always about carrots and sticks,
and back and forth. This White House gets that really well.