IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The Clinton tag team is in motion once more

Bill Clinton's North Korean negotiations cast fresh light on a Byzantine, mysterious power that Americans may never fully understand.
Image: North Korea's Kim Jong Il greets Bill Clinton
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, left, speaks with former President Bill Clinton in Pyongyang on Tuesday.KRT TV via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Bill Clinton's North Korean negotiations cast fresh light on a Byzantine, mysterious power that Americans may never fully understand.

The Clintons.

Sure, North Korea is a complicated place, too.

But the history of Bill and Hillary Clinton — their partnership, their marriage, their way of one stepping forward while the other steps back — is lined with mazes worthy of the family franchise that rules in Pyongyang.

Bill Clinton brought some unusual strengths to a round of diplomacy that won the release of two U.S. journalists Tuesday: the cachet of a two-term presidency, a keen understanding of Asia, a history of North Korean outreach and smackdowns, and a gift for gab. Not to mention a wife who is secretary of state.

His drawbacks — that short fuse and oversized ego — were unlikely to be risks in this episode. In high-stakes diplomacy, some things are decided before anything is negotiated, and it was all but certain going in that Clinton would not be empty-handed coming out.

The larger picture
He succeeded in the mission at hand: pardons for journalists sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for illegally entering North Korea.

There is a larger picture: North Korea's defiant expansion of its nuclear program and test-firing of ballistic missiles in violation of U.N. resolutions. The U.S. is simultaneously seeking punishment of North Korea and its cooperation, a dicey balance.

Enter Clinton, greeted warmly and with fanfare Tuesday in that hostile land. North Korea described the talks as "exhaustive," without saying what subjects besides the two journalists might have been discussed.

Whether by happenstance or design, he traveled there while his wife was in Kenya on a seven-nation African tour.

For the moment, he was the one stepping forward, overshadowing her, in familiar tag-team fashion.

The last time Hillary Rodham Clinton gave her husband a mission, the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination she was initially favored to win, it did not turn out well. His loose-cannon exasperation rubbed nerves raw as Barack Obama powered past the power couple to defeat her in the primaries and win the presidency.

In the White House, Bill Clinton's main mission with his wife, health care reform, failed so profoundly in his first year that he wouldn't touch it again for the next seven years and Democrats dropped universal coverage from presidential politics until its comeback in 2008.

Otherwise, it's been a partnership of achievement and resilience, shaken but not broken by the searing impeachment scandal arising from his sexual misbehavior with Monica Lewinsky.

Freelance diplomacy
He was once so deeply in the doghouse that Buddy the dog was the only family member who wanted to be around him, Hillary Clinton said.

In short order, he was back in the thick of their shared ambitions, helping her to become senator from New York.

Now she and he are in the service of her former rival, through her job and his freelance diplomacy.

Bill Clinton's trip had a personal dimension, too: Journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee work for the media company set up by Al Gore, his two-term vice president.

When Bill "Gimme a break" Clinton called candidate Obama's Iraq war position a "fairy tale" and complained that Obama "put out a hit job on me," senior Democrats worried about party unity, and the former president's future as an elder statesman seemed in doubt.

This week's surprise trip was his first with implications for Obama since Clinton's wife became the administration's chief diplomat.

He was uniquely positioned for it as the only recent president who had considered visiting North Korea while in office, and one who had sent his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright. That made him a desirable guest in Pyongyang.

He traveled as an unofficial envoy, with approval and coordination from the administration.

The backchannel genesis of the mission was not immediately clear, whether Obama called on him, North Korea asked for him or his wife suggested him.

In any event, score one for the tag team.


AP National Security Writer Anne Gearan contributed to this report.