The symbolism of a former president going to meet with Kim Jong Il I think is something that benefits Kim Jong Il a lot more than the United States, and it only encourages others to do the same thing," John Bolton, now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, tells Madeleine Brand.
Clinton made an unannounced visit to North Korea on Tuesday and met with Kim. The two journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, were released soon afterward. They arrived Wednesday in the Los Angeles area with Clinton, and were reunited with their families.
Writing in The Washington Post on Wednesday, Bolton called the visit a "knee-jerk impulse for negotiations" and "poorly thought-out gesture politics." He tells Brand that the case could encourage Iran, which arrested three American tourists last week for straying into their territory while hiking in northern Iraq.
"You can bet that in Tehran they watched this little performance in North Korea and are no doubt calculating how they might use it to their advantage," Bolton tells Brand
This criticism has also been picked up conservative pundits like Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. It's true that this trip did absolutely created a propaganda bonanza for Kim Jong Il. It's true that such a trip would likely encourage more such behavior from despots. It's even true that this likely creates a geopolitical moral hazard.
That said, critics ought to know that ultimately the U.S. had little choice but to send President Clinton. First, those two journalists are Americans and they must have the full effort of the U.S. government behind them. Even if you dismiss the humanity of the situation, you'd still have to conclude that it was necessary.
Ultimately, the United States had little choice but to do what we did. Those journalists weren't going to be released without some gesture on our part. We can only assume that this was the smallest gesture we could negotiate. Il knew that he had propaganda material as soon as he captured them. He was NOT going to release them until he got a propaganda coup. That's what he got but without it, those two journalists would still be in a North Korean prison. Even if you were to believe that rescuing the journalists shouldn't be a priority, this was still the best option. If the U.S. government had done nothing, we would have been portrayed as cruel and uncaring of our citizens. The two journalists would have been used for propaganda for many, many years.
The concerns raised by the likes of John Bolton are legitimate. We don't ever want to send someone like Bill Clinton on a mission that allows a despot to use the former president for propaganda. Yet, the U.S. had an obligation, both morally and geo politically, to rescue the journalists. There was simply no other way to rescue them. The U.S. was going to suffer a propaganda hit as soon as they were captured. We made the best of a terrible situation using the former president. The criticism comes from legitimate fears but ultimately, there was no other option.