Bill Clinton, the roving ambassador, still has a role.
Posted August 10, 2009
When Hillary Clinton was running for president she said she would use her husband Bill as a "roving ambassador." It was a good idea then, and it's a good idea now. Former president Clinton, whose visit to North Korea won the freedom of two captured American journalists, may be the most prolific peacemaker of all time. Most remember the handshake between Rabin and Arafat on the White House lawn (Clinton, standing between the two men, physically pushed them together), and some recall that he brought peace to Northern Ireland and stopped the genocide in Bosnia, but few have any idea how ubiquitous a force for peace the Clinton really was. During his presidency Clinton appointed an unprecedented fifty-five special envoys to virtually every troubled region in the world. He helped avoid nuclear war between India and Pakistan and worked to reduce tensions between Greece and Turkey. He also played a central role in resolving lesser known conflicts, for example, helping to negotiate an end to the disputes between Peru and Ecuador, and between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Anywhere on planet earth where there was conflict, the hypomanic Clinton was personally involved performing some kind of intervention.
And in the final years of his presidency, the former president yearned to travel to North Korea to clinch a deal that would have curbed its nuclear program. He simply ran out of time, and relations between America and North Korea have steadily deteriorated since he left office.
Clinton's unique ability in this area is rooted in his psychology. Because he played the role of peacemaker in his troubled alcoholic family, it is a role he is driven to perform. He physically stopped his step-father from beating his mother, but never lost empathy for the man who he had every reason to hate. Even as a child, Clinton was known to routinely break up school yard fights as early as kindergarten.
As part of the research for my book, In Search of Bill Clinton, I traveled to Northern Ireland where I met with most of the players in the Irish peace process, as well as speaking to the senior official in the Clinton administration involved in the negotiations. Clinton's natural intelligence, curiosity, and empathy gives give him an almost uncanny natural ability to master the details of every local conflict and makes people on all sides feel that he both cares about them and "gets it." His capacity to form relationships with people who were deemed unreachable is profound. All agreed that he charmed them, understood them, and made them feel he cared—even the Unionists, who had every reason to hate him believing he was sympathetic to the Catholic cause because he needed the American Irish Catholic vote.
To give themselves plausible deniability, the Obama administration has described this as a private mission, and emphasized it was "100 percent about the journalists." But The New York Times said the visit "opened a diplomatic channel to North Korea's reclusive government." Korean state-run media described the three-hour talk with Kim Jong il as "wide-ranging." Anyone who has spent time with Clinton will tell you he is incapable of having a conversation which is not wide-ranging (and long-winded). "It would be someplace between surprising and shocking if there wasn't some substantive discussion," said Robert L. Gallucci, who negotiated with North Korea in the Clinton administration. It is no accident that Kim Jong Il sent his top nuclear negotiator to meet Clinton at the airport.
Can the world's most seductive man connect with one of the world's most paranoid leaders? If he can't do it, nobody can. What role, if any, Bill Clinton will play in the Obama administration has been an open question. But Obama, who has shown he is not afraid to work with a team of rivals, has smartly chosen Bill to do what Bill does best.
John Gartner, Ph.D. is author of In Search of Bill Clinton: A Psychological Biography and part time assistant professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins.