John Bolton still doesn't get this whole diplomacy thing

The former U.N. ambassador was critical of Bill Clinton's trip to North Korea, and hasn't changed his mind

Published August 5, 2009 2:45PM (EDT)

As of Tuesday, John Bolton, who served as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. for a short time during the Bush administration, was very critical of former President Clinton's trip to North Korea.

Clinton had gone there in an attempt to secure the release of two American journalists who'd been detained there, and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor, but Bolton saw serious drawbacks to the approach. In an op-ed for the Washington Post, he wrote:

While the United States is properly concerned whenever its citizens are abused or held hostage, efforts to protect them should not create potentially greater risks for other Americans in the future. Yet that is exactly the consequence of visits by former presidents or other dignitaries as a form of political ransom to obtain their release. Iran and other autocracies are presumably closely watching the scenario in North Korea. With three American hikers freshly in Tehran's captivity, will Clinton be packing his bags again for another act of obeisance? .... These are the consequences of poorly thought-out gesture politics, however well-intentioned or compassionately motivated. Indeed, the release of the two reporters -- welcome news -- doesn't mitigate the future risks entailed ....

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.

Though Clinton secured the two journalists' release, and as of Wednesday morning, they'd been reunited with their families in the U.S., Bolton went even further in other comments. He told Agence France-Presse, for example, that Clinton's trip "comes perilously close to negotiating with terrorists" and adding, "I think this is a win-win for North Korea."

This has been Bolton's stance for some time now -- and it hasn't worked. Indeed, negotiations have. But Bolton wouldn't really know that, because he got himself kicked off the team that took part in six-party talks with North Korea in 2003.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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