Who’s in Charge if Diplomacy?

by Victor Davis Hanson

NRO’s The Corner

‘North Korea made a colossal mistake’

One of the stranger aspects of being overseas is following the upside-down logic of the International Herald Tribune, which around January mysteriously morphed from a shrill critic of the U.S. government to its official mouthpiece. In a recent editorial it argued that “North Korea made a colossal mistake by getting off to a bad start with President Obama, who offered the kind of dialogue that President George W. Bush took far too long to embrace.”

North Korea did not make “a colossal mistake,” as the Tribune supposes, but rather, given its nature and aims, scored a coup of sorts by: (1) forcing the U.S. to grovel by sending an ex-president and spouse of the current secretary of state to beg back the hostages; (2) exposing U.S. rhetoric about not negotiating with terrorists to be a mockery (one that is especially galling to our Japanese and Korean allies, who are from time to time hectored by the U.S. not to negotiate with a rogue regime to regain their own hostages); (3) embarrassing the Obama-Clinton team by showing that it has a separate set of rules for Washington insiders such as the ubiquitous and self-righteous Mr. Gore, whose company sent the two journalists into the heart of darkness for no apparent good reason and then relied on possibly compromising U.S. diplomacy to get them back.

I don’t think North Korea sees any of this as “a colossal mistake” at all, but rather as a cheap win-win in every way — and a valuable guide for how to proceed in the future.

Bothersome Questions Still Linger

I think the more we ponder the Clinton trip, the worse it is going to be appraised. We have hostages in Iran. An American soldier is being held by the Taliban. Our allies have hostages in North Korea. So what conditions determined the spouse of the secretary of state to make a special trip to meet demands imposed by the North Koreans kidnappers to release their hostages? Had any of the other detainees in various other countries worked for Al Gore, would they have been accorded such visits (e.g., will Bill Clinton now go to Waziristan to meet the Taliban? Will he go to Tehran to meet Ahmadinejad?)? This issue is strangely omitted in almost all discussions of the trip.

Once we get beyond the emotional high of seeing two young Americans rescued from such a creepy regime, I think we are going to collectively sober up and realize that we just did what we always said we would never do: bargained for the release of hostages from terrorists. Think away the notion of North Korea as a legitimate government, and we are indeed left with begging a terrorist clique, at a critical time in non-proliferation talks, to release those they kidnapped for the purposes of humiliating the United States. What would have been the press reaction had Bush I been asked by someone like Boone Pickens to visit Pyongyang to free two of his company’s kidnapped employees in North Korea with the complicit blessing of  the Bush II administration amid talks about nuclear violations?

©2009 Victor Davis Hanson

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