Did Clinton's and Webb's Trips Legitimize Despots?

Why? Now that Laura Ling and Euna Lee are home from North Korea and John Yettaw has been freed from a Myanmar prison, that's surely the question. Why were three idiots worth rescue missions by a former U.S. president and a serving U.S. senator? They weren't kidnapped; they weren't hostages. All three knowingly broke the laws of the countries they were in, and, in the process, brought harm to innocents. The pair caught inside North Korea put at risk members of the human-rights network that was helping them with their story. (The two have still to give their version of events; Brent Marcus, spokesman for their employer, Current TV, says the network is respecting their request to have time to reunite with their families.) Yettaw's adventure led to a further 18 months of house arrest for the iconic opposition leader, 64-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi, who has already been confined for 14 of the past 20 years.

"I'm not particularly sympathetic," says Ambassador James Dobbins, a former senior State Department official and now director of RAND's international-security programs. "My immediate reaction is to wonder why people can't spend a few years in jail rather than counting on us to rescue them when they do things that are obviously stupid as well as illegal—things for which we would put them in jail in many cases. I can imagine the State Department grinds its teeth in frustration every time they find a new American who's done something stupid and now requires a former president of the United States go rescue them." Not many get such VIP treatment, of course. There are, according to the State Department, 2,652 Americans in jails around the world. (Many doing time for drug offenses.) Why were these three singled out for heavyweight intervention?

The answer is realpolitik. The Obama administration wants lines of communication to the North Korean and Burmese governments. "Humanitarian" missions to free Americans offer Obama an opportunity he wouldn't otherwise have. Clinton's trip to Pyongyang had huge behind-the-scenes help from the State Department, according to a source there who asked to remain anonymous; Webb's trip to Myanmar was blessed by it, according to reports.

Technically, the Logan Act of 1799 makes it a felony for private citizens to insert themselves into relations between the U.S. and other nations. But nobody has ever been prosecuted under this statute. After Jesse Jackson went to Cuba, Central America, and Syria in 1984—he was campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination—President Reagan wondered publicly whether Jackson had breached the Logan Act, but musing was as far as Reagan went. In the vitriolic debate of the 1980s over which faction the U.S. should support in Nicaragua—Sandinistas or Contras—Washington activists on both sides almost certainly breached the Logan Act. One group of liberals so feared FBI investigation that it shredded its files. (Nothing happened.) Since then, it could be argued, the rise of high-powered Washington lobbying firms on lucrative contracts to advise foreign governments has effectively shredded the Logan Act.

But the journeys by Clinton and Webb were clearly kosher because the U.S. government was involved in both. (Webb even flew into Burma on a U.S. Air Force plane.) But that category of intervention—nonofficial trips by current or former senior officials—does raise special problems. "So long as they go basically as facilitators, that's fine," says Ambassador Martin Indyk, who represented Washington in Israel during the Clinton administration. "But as negotiators? That's a different matter."

Yet it was exactly because of this semi-official imprimatur that Clinton and Webb succeeded. Both sides took Clinton's trip very seriously: Clinton had long discussions in Washington, and he took with him David Straub, for years one of the State Department's premier experts on Korea. (Straub, retired from the Foreign Service and teaching at Stanford, could only barely be called an "unofficial" traveler.) And, based on the official photographs, says Jonathan Pollack, a North Korea expert at the Naval War College, Pyongyang was no less serious. Media attention in the West may have focused on how spry North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, looked. But Pollack points to the official standing beside him, Kang Suk Ju. He's Kim's most senior foreign policy adviser—so senior, says Pollack, that U.S. diplomat Christopher Hill, who spent two years in the last administration trying to restart stalled negotiations with North Korea, was never allowed to met him. The North's message couldn't have been clearer: "Engage us at a sufficiently senior level, and we will respond."

The diplomatic kabuki behind Webb's trip was more restrained, but his efforts were just as worthy. Burma was just one stop on a five-nation Asian tour he'd begun to set up well before Yettaw's blunderings. Webb has long been a critic of U.S. sanctions on Burma, a policy in place since the ruling junta annulled the 1990 elections that would have made Suu Kyi prime minister. He has, equally consistently, warned the junta that only Suu Kyi's release could open the door to a new relationship with the United States. Now, as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's East Asia & Pacific subcommittee, Webb had the clout to get the junta's attention. He was granted an audience with its leader, General Than Shwe, and—even more remarkably—allowed a 40-minute session with Suu Kyi herself. The junta seems to have thrown in Yettaw's release as a sort of door prize, since no other high-ranking American has visited in years.

Still, this sort of results-oriented approach can be a double-edged sword. Former president Jimmy Carter alone has shown both edges. His indefatigable mediation efforts around the world have given him unique status: part lone visionary, part loose cannon. When the Haitian military needed to be persuaded to step aside in 1994, Carter was President Clinton's choice to lead a heavyweight U.S. team. On the other hand, when Carter went to North Korea that same year, Pollack says, "He went almost in defiance of the Clinton administration. And he literally made policy on the spot." Carter negotiated the outline of what became the "Agreed Framework" with North Korea and announced it to the CNN crew that had accompanied him, without clearing it first with the White House. Carter's interventions in the Middle East have been equally freelance, and sometimes deeply unwelcome to the U.S.—for example his embrace of Hamas. But, Dobbins says, "On balance even Carter was useful, though he did cause successive administrations some degree of anxiety".

Even "humanitarian" missions, like those by Clinton and Webb, have a calculus behind them. "The upside is that you get your people back, if the trip works," said Ambassador Thomas Pickering, who spoke for America in Russia, India, and Turtle Bay. "A downside is that you may have to pay a political price—the escalating level of visitor, for example—that otherwise could be given later as part of any negotiation." On the whole, Pickering sees benefits. The emissaries can "act as icebreakers." Their observations will be useful, while the contacts they make can come in handy later. And the more they are used, the less likely despotic regimes are to see them as validation so much as Washington's preferred tools—senior enough to carry messages to and fro, while unofficial enough to be disavowed if necessary.

Dobbins points to the other possible downside: "I can see the argument that you're just encouraging these kinds of regimes, and they'll just do it again. And that's probably true. But then, if they do it again, we'll do it again. We've got lots of former presidents, and it's not as if we have to husband this kind of influence. It's a renewable resource." If the last month is any indication, it's one the Obama team intends to keep tapping.