August 6th, 2009
02:44 PM ET
5 years ago

Analysis: Bill Clinton as a diplomatic fix-it man

WASHINGTON (CNN) - It was a heartwarming sight: Laura Ling and Euna Lee landing on U.S. soil and being reunited with their families.

Then, after an appropriate amount of time for hugs and kisses, Bill Clinton appeared, descending from his movie-producer friend's plane like an angel from heaven.

An emotional Ling practically referred to the former president as a messiah, describing to the media and well-wishers waiting at the airport how she and Lee thought they were being sent to a hard-labor camp, only to walk through a door to find Clinton. The crowd broke into loud applause.

For all of those who wondered what Bill would do in Hillary Clinton's diplomatic world, wonder no longer.


As details of the Clinton mission came out, it was revealed that the North Koreans themselves asked for Clinton, promising amnesty for the women upon delivery of the former president, whose visit eluded them while he was in
office. The deal was done even before Clinton stepped on the plane.

So what is next for Bill Clinton?

If the mere thought of a meeting with him is enough to move a regime notorious for never moving, can the Obama administration use that star power to rescue three American hikers who ventured into Iran and are believed to be held
by Iranian authorities? Can Clinton head off two Russian attack submarines cruising in the Atlantic off the East Coast of the United States?

Former presidents are used as envoys and undertake humanitarian missions all the time.

Then-President Clinton used former President Jimmy Carter to travel to North Korea in 1994 to negotiate the end to the first nuclear crisis. Clinton and his predecessor, George H.W. Bush, were tapped by Bush's son, then-President George W. Bush, to lead relief efforts to help Asian and African nations devastated by the 2004 tsunami and again in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina.

But the relationship between Bill and Hillary Clinton and President Obama is complex, to say the least. After a bitter-fought battle during the Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton supporters were looking for a robust role for her in exchange for her support of Obama, with many even suggesting her as a possible candidate for vice president.

That idea was short-lived. The Obama team wanted Hillary far from the West Wing. And they wanted Bill even farther.

When Obama tapped Hillary to be his secretary of state, there was no shortage of critics who asserted that her husband's global foundation and role as a high-paid public speaker would present a conflict of interest. The Clintons agreed to strict rules of the road to avoid such conflicts going forward.

However Hillary never demurred in her praise for what her husband has accomplished, both during his eight years in the White House or post-presidency. Hillary herself has said she considered her husband a trusted adviser and could even consider him using him where appropriate. He is a former president, after all.

Bill Clinton has largely stayed out of the limelight, quietly continuing his globetrotting on behalf of the world's poor and downtrodden. In May, United

Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon appointed him as the United Nations' special envoy to Haiti in an effort to refocus international attention on the Caribbean country's deep economic problems and environmental decay.

But with the success of his North Korean mission so quick and easy, it's conceivable that Bill Clinton could add the role of "diplomatic cleaner" to his resume - a version of Harvey Keitel's role as Winston Wolfe in the movie "Pulp Fiction" - a fixer of messy problems, which he solves with a combination of stylish charisma and lucid thinking under pressure.

The Obama administration has no shortage of messy foreign policy problems that Hillary Clinton knows could use a Winston Wolfe.


Filed under: Bill Clinton
soundoff (53 Responses)
  1. Joe Fattal

    So it was very emotional, not for me anyhow. Only few weeks ago we were in a position to tell the North Koreans what we want from them. Now its the North Koreans that will tell the US what they want. That is not diplomacy, this is pure stupidity on the counts of two not so so knowledgelable journalist that couldn't tell where is North Korea from China.

    August 6, 2009 03:32 pm at 3:32 pm |
  2. They call me "tater salad"!

    Well I'm sure glad that we can afford to focus our time and energy on making the rest of the world a better place! What we need is someone to step up and play "domestic" fix it man! I think diplomatic policy can sit on the back burner for a minute while we take care of things on the domestic front! Sound like a plan?

    August 6, 2009 03:35 pm at 3:35 pm |
  3. Once You Vote Black

    I wonder if the gaurds use to attack those women at night.

    August 6, 2009 03:35 pm at 3:35 pm |
  4. Steve in Tulsa

    Let's not blow this out of proportion. Bill did a good thing for all involved. He went because the North Koreans rejected Gore as the diplomat, instead asking specifically for Bill Clinton. This was all stated in advance as a condition of release by North Korea.
    Most importantly, if one of these two women was your wife, daughter, sister, etc., would you have complained that someone else should go?
    Bill really had little choice because of that request/demand by the Koreans. Had he declined they would be looking at hard labor for years to come.
    This was humanitarian, not political.

    August 6, 2009 03:36 pm at 3:36 pm |
  5. lila

    Bill and Hillary are going to tag team. good cop – bad cop. It's a pretty smart strategy in truth.

    August 6, 2009 03:38 pm at 3:38 pm |
  6. Claudia in Houson

    It takes a Democrat to fix a mess and it takes a Republican to start a mess.

    August 6, 2009 03:39 pm at 3:39 pm |
  7. elana

    Well instead of putting your "usual political spin" on the news, I believe that credit should be given where credit is due. And I believe that President Clinton's trip to North Korea is only the beginning of the healing between nations. You see, the conservative Republicans ALL live in fear - fear of nukes, fear of terrorists, fear of losing control of the political base (they already have), FEAR, FEAR, FEAR!! They do not have a clue as to what REAL DIPLOMACY is with our alies and other countries because their motto is "My way or the Highway"! I believe President Clinton should be given credit for what he did in bringing Laura and Una back home!! And I believe we shall see positive negotiation between the countries in the near future!

    August 6, 2009 03:39 pm at 3:39 pm |
  8. Brendan H., San Antonio, TX

    I'm surprised they didn't ask Cheney to go. He could have given Kim Jong Il that lesson he always bragged about, eh?!

    Yeah, right!!!!!!!

    I hope he goes to Iran and has the same success. Clinton has the ability to tell Ahmadinejad to go to hell in such a way that he'd look forward to making the trip!!!

    August 6, 2009 03:43 pm at 3:43 pm |
  9. steve

    Giving Bill Clinton a private jet and sending him our to try and pick up a couple hot babes; of course he was going to succeed.

    August 6, 2009 03:46 pm at 3:46 pm |
  10. S Callahan

    Bill did do a good job on this, along with Steven and may others...
    Truthfully, Bill did not look well in his pub photo.....he looked worn...
    I think this jouney should zap his spirit to greater heights and put a smile on his face. ps He is being a dutiful husband, isn't he? :-)

    August 6, 2009 03:51 pm at 3:51 pm |
  11. makesUwonder

    I think Al Gore should foot the bill for this trip!

    August 6, 2009 03:51 pm at 3:51 pm |
  12. Lisa in Shelton

    Cost to send diplomatic envoy headed by former President Clinton to rescue convicted American journalists – probably in the millions

    Cost of not finding a way to make nice with world tyrants – billions and lost American lives too

    Bill Clinton being able to help two lovely ladies at once – priceless

    August 6, 2009 03:51 pm at 3:51 pm |
  13. GAIL

    Republicans had no monitary investments with these two young women....the GOP would have let them rot.

    August 6, 2009 03:57 pm at 3:57 pm |
  14. Lacey

    Proving once again, if you need something done quickly you'd better have a Democrat working on it!

    August 6, 2009 03:57 pm at 3:57 pm |
  15. Diplomacy Trumps War

    It's a great thing that President Clinton did but he did not do it by himself. It took months of behind the scenes diplomacy to make this happen and all parties concerned deserve a HUGE pat on the back! The current administration, the State Dept, Vice-President Gore, and many not-quite-so-high-profile people made this happen.

    I am just floored that anyone would be SO un-american that they would criticize this!

    August 6, 2009 03:57 pm at 3:57 pm |
  16. Texas gal

    its only diplomacy when a WHITE guy does ir ! and I am white ! Obama has been preaching diplomacy loud and strong, but, repubs dont want to hear him cause he is half black and they simply cant stand that ! give me a break..Clinton didnt DO sanything Obama couldnt do, he just kinda snuck over there first and did it..glad the gals are home, but, I have faith Obama would have brought them home tOO..

    August 6, 2009 03:58 pm at 3:58 pm |
  17. tom

    I think Korea had a trial for these detainee's. That is more than the Bush administration gave the people in Gitmo. Would the GOP been happier if the Koreans had waterboarded the girls ?

    August 6, 2009 03:58 pm at 3:58 pm |
  18. Vicki/Nebraska

    Leave the Republicans in the dust, they're dried up!!!!

    August 6, 2009 04:00 pm at 4:00 pm |
  19. ANGIE IN PA

    The Obama Administration, Hillary and Bill all worked together and this is what happens when you work together and not try to gain political points good things happen REPUBLICANS LEARN SOMETHING FROM THIS!

    August 6, 2009 04:02 pm at 4:02 pm |
  20. Trade Freedom for Security, Lose Both

    President Clinton is a brilliant leader, respected around the world, socially-mined, and fiscally conservative. Kind of the exact opposite of Obama. Bring Bill Back.

    August 6, 2009 04:07 pm at 4:07 pm |
  21. Shari, NY

    Here’s the chronology:

    Two reporters invited themselves to a place where they were not welcome.

    The Obama administration got on the case as soon as it became an issue (diplomatically speaking).

    A deal was worked out between the two sides and their release pre-arranged.

    The government of the Democratic Republic of Korea (which is the official name of North Korea), specifically requested Bill Clinton’s presence to which he agreed.

    I hardly think that Bill Clinton would fly on a whim without some kind of assurance that his trip would not be be in vain. It would be an embarrassment not only for him but for the USA if he spanned half the globe only to get his tail kicked right back over the Pacific.

    Incidentally, Bill's trip was paid for with private funds, so no need to holler.

    READING MAKETH MAN, AND KNOWLEDGE AND FULL MAN!

    August 6, 2009 04:08 pm at 4:08 pm |
  22. Ancient Texan

    Mr. Clinton performed well; mission accomplished. But can't help wondering what we gave up to N. Korea in exchange.

    August 6, 2009 04:12 pm at 4:12 pm |
  23. Todd

    Mr. Fix-it?? Hardly. Clinton would never have gone over there unless there had been a deal hatched in advance. He's too politically savvy to fall into that trap. If he failed, it would have been a huge black eye. I'm very glad the journalists got home. I worry about what Obama had to promise the Korean Munchkin to secure their release.

    Also, I was hoping the two journalists would have found their own flight home. No telling what favors Clinton would expect for saving them from years of hard labor.

    August 6, 2009 04:20 pm at 4:20 pm |
  24. jt

    These journalists committed a crime and should have had to fulfill their sentences. It's not like they got lost, and accidently wandered across North Korea's border......They illegally crossed the border in hopes of exploiting NK for one of Gore's pet projects.

    Bill Clinton went over there to cover up for Gore at the price of who knows what....

    Don't be so naive to think that Kim Jong Il just handed over girl because he was in awe of the former president.

    August 6, 2009 04:21 pm at 4:21 pm |
  25. Marc

    Joe Fattal? 'Only few weeks ago we were in a position to tell the North Koreans what we want from them. Now its the North Koreans that will tell the US what they want.'?
    Only a few weeks ago?
    Like in the former presidency? The former presidency in which North Korea tested nuclear warfare and missiles?
    And by the way, North Korea DO recognizes that they had the 'bad habit' of kidnapping people from Japan and South Korea, and couldn't care less about what should be done for these poor persons that are still there AGAINST THEIR OWN WILL.
    So you still want to take THEIR WORD that the journalists were in North Korean soil when their ordeal started?
    Not me.

    August 6, 2009 04:21 pm at 4:21 pm |
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