Bill Clinton's successful mission to North Korea presents a "win-win" situation for President Obama. Never mind the nay-sayers, such as the neo-conservative former ambassador John Bolton, who has accused the administration of practically consorting with terrorists by engaging with the unpredictable Kim Jong-il. Contrary to Mr Bolton, who forgot in his previous incarnations working for George Bush that actions have consequences, President Obama has demonstrated that he is a serious strategic thinker, and by dispatching the former president to Pyongyang he has his eye on the long term.
The benefits for Obama outweigh the disadvantages, not least because Clinton will come back with a first-hand appraisal of the mental and medical condition of the "Dear Leader", who seemed wizened and frail in the TV footage. That is an intelligence bonanza that money can't buy.
Secondly, he eyeballed the North Korea leader in the type of conversation that only (former) leaders can have, in an attempt to winkle out the information that has eluded the world since Pyongyang pulled out of a negotiated nuclear disarmament process and returned to its threatening posture through a series of nuclear and missile tests: what does North Korea want? Is it the direct dialogue with Washington that has been refused until now, or is there more? Aid? Legitimacy? What is going on in the mind of the leader of the world's most secretive state?
Third, beyond this North Korean trip lurks President Obama's nuclear disarmament agenda. This concerns his negotiations with Russia, which in turn are part of his long-term strategy to put pressure on Iran – and others who might be tempted to go down the nuclear arms route – to give up its suspected nuclear weapons programme. The matter is urgent because, according to the UN nuclear watchdog, the Iranians already have enough low-enriched uranium to switch to a military programme and produce a small bomb if they decided to break out of UN safeguards and follow North Korea down that road. The contested re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has done nothing to assuage Western fears.
Governments around the world are already preparing for the next major opportunity to turn the screws on Iran. Although Washington is talking about harsh economic sanctions that could be discussed with its partners at the end of next month if Iran fails to halt its uranium enrichment programme, all eyes are on a global review conference of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) next spring. The last such conference, four years ago, collapsed in acrimony as non-nuclear states rallied behind Iran. The argument centres on whether the "recognised" nuclear powers have done enough on their side of the treaty's "grand bargain" to take steps towards nuclear disarmament. At the conference in 2005, non-nuclear weapons states insisted that they had not.
The big five hope that, in the next few months, they will have done enough to build up their credibility so that Iran will be subjected to a sustained push from the rest of the world to back down.
All looks quiet on the surface, but the nuclear powers – who also happen to be the permanent five security council members – are already paddling frantically. The British government last month issued a "Roadmap to 2010" in which it called for Israel to join the NPT, something the Israeli government has refused to do. But the Prime Minister's hint that he would put the renewal of Trident on the negotiating table was more significant, and clearly linked in private briefings to the NPT negotiations. Hopefully he will be more forthcoming at a nuclear security conference convened by President Obama next March, and encourage fellow nuclear weapons states to follow suit.
President Nicolas Sarkozy of France last year announced reductions in the French nuclear arsenal and has highlighted the near completion of the dismantling of fissile material production facilities. Russia and the US have embarked on negotiations to replace the START treaty on strategic nuclear arsenals in the hope of reaching agreement by December when the existing pact expires.
As with the Clinton mission, there have been voices in Washington accusing Obama of giving in to the Russians. But this view again neglects the fact that the American president has his eye on the bigger prize – a reduction of the global nuclear danger and successfully persuading states such as Iran to curb their nuclear ambitions. He has pledged to work towards Senate ratification of the treaty banning underground nuclear test explosions, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. And he is to address the UN security council on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation at the United Nations on 24 September, after delivering his address to the General Assembly.
And so, to Bill Clinton, aka the UN envoy to Haiti, who suddenly popped up in Pyongyang. As president, he had earlier harboured hopes of visiting North Korea where he sent his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, in 2000. It is no accident that not only John Podesta, Mr Clinton's former chief of staff, but David Straub, a former head of the Korea desk at the State Department, were part of his delegation.
The downside, of course, is that it can be argued that once again the North Koreans are being rewarded for bad behaviour and nuclear blackmail. And imagine how the Japanese must feel, without a Clinton who will fly to North Korea and bring back the remaining abductees stolen from their families by North Korean spies.
But by initiating this dialogue, Obama could bring predictability to a situation that has inflamed Asia and stirred fears that, amid its secretive succession rites, the North Korean regime could lash out in dangerous ways. Obama has reached out to his former antagonist in order to play to Mr Clinton's strengths. And he may have taken another step along the road to nuclear disarmament. Believe me, the Iranians are watching.
Anne Penketh is Washington Program Director for the British American Security Information Council (BASIC)Reuse content