Talking to Tyrants

In August, high-ranking U.S. officials and politicians met with five of the world’s most repressive and dangerous regimes. What did they accomplish?

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
(FILES) This file photo taken on August 4, 2009 and released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (R) posing with former US president Bill Clinton (L) in Pyongyang. Former president Bill Clinton flew out of North Korea on August 5, 2009 with two US journalists sentenced to long jail terms after securing a pardon for them from leader Kim Jong-Il, Clinton's spokesman said. AFP PHOTO / KCNA VIA KOREAN NEWS SERVICE (Photo credit should read KNS/AFP/Getty Images)


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Date: Aug. 4

Who met: Former U.S. President Bill Clinton and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il

Issues: Imprisoned journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee

What was accomplished: After months of careful planning and back-channel negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington, Kim agreed to release two U.S. journalists his regime had been holding since March in exchange for a meet-and-greet with Bubba. The Obama administration insisted the visit was purely a humanitarian one focused on Ling and Lee, but as former North Korea negotiator Robert Gallucci told the New York Times, “It would be someplace between surprising and shocking if there wasn’t some substantive discussion between the former president, who is deeply knowledgeable about the nuclear issue, and Kim Jong Il.” And Clinton did debrief top White House officials about his conversation with Kim.

Whatever the two men talked about, there has been a noticeable change in behavior from North Korea since Clinton’s visit. The regime, which seemed to be intentionally ramping up tensions with its southern neighbor and the United States, has made a number of conciliatory gestures in August, including restarting talks over family reunions and trade with South Korea and inviting U.S. envoy Stephen Bosworth to Pyongyang for talks. Whether Kim’s new mood will last and whether it has anything to do with Clinton’s visit are certainly open questions, but there does seem to be more of a basis for progress than a month ago.


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Date: Aug 14

Who met: U.S. Senator John McCain and Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi

Issues: Trade and terrorism

What was accomplished: The idea of a U.S. senator meeting with the “mad dog of the Middle East” would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, but this month former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain led a four-member congressional delegation to meet with the colonel in his tent near Tripoli. “Late evening with Col. Qaddafi at his ‘ranch’ in Libya – interesting meeting with an interesting man,” McCain tweeted the next day. Libyan state media reported that McCain had praised Qaddafi’s leadership role in Africa and expressed his support for expanded U.S.-Libyan ties.

Several weeks later, McCain said that he had warned Qaddafi not to give a “hero’s welcome” to freed Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi. Qaddafi apparently did not take the senator’s advice and set off a wave of international protests after organizing public celebrations for Megrahi’s return. Relations between Libya and the West, which had been thawing since Qaddafi abandoned his nuclear program, now seem to be returning to a state of tension.


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Date: Aug. 14

Who met: U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon and Vladimir Makei, chief of staff to President Aleksandr Lukashenko

Issues: Human rights and restoring diplomatic relations

What was accomplished: Gordon’s visit was a rare contact between the United States and the country frequently described as Europe’s last dictatorship. Aleksandr Lukashenko’s government expelled American diplomats from the country in 2008 in response to U.S. humanitarian sanctions. But since then, perhaps due to an increasingly fraught relationship with the Kremlin, Lukashenko has been working to improve relations with the West. Before visiting, Gordon he was encouraged by “positive steps” the country was taking toward becoming more democratic and was interested in seeing whether further progress could be made.

Following what the Belarusians called a “detailed exchange of opinions” between Makei and Gordon, the two countries agreed to resume regular diplomatic contact. There has been no change in the formal diplomatic relationship; as for reinstating an ambassador in Belarus, Gordon says “the ball is really in [Minsk’s] court.” Gordon also ruled out lifting sanctions until the Belarusian government’s human rights practices improve. The assistant secretary also met with members of Belarus’ heavily outgunned political opposition during his trip.


TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

Date: Aug. 15

Who met: U.S. Senator Jim Webb and Burmese leader Than Shwe

Issues: Political prisoners John Yettaw and Aung San Suu Kyi

What was accomplished: Webb, who heads a Senate subcommittee on East Asian affairs and is a longtime advocate of easing sanctions on Burma, made a surprise stop in Burma and became the first U.S. representative to meet with reclusive junta leader, Gen. Than Shwe. The Obama administration welcomed Webb’s trip, saying, “It is important for the Burmese leadership to hear of the strong views of American political leaders.”

Webb managed to secure the release of Yettaw, a U.S. citizen who had been sentenced to seven years of hard labor for an unsanctioned meeting with imprisoned Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Webb also pressed Shwe to overturn Aung San Suu Kyi’s sentence of 18 months of house arrest. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has suggested that the United States might be willing to ease sanctions on Burma if Aung San Suu Kyi is released. Webb also got the change to meet with the famous Burmese dissident herself, who is reportedly rethinking the effectiveness of international sanctions on the junta. After the trip, Webb said that the Burmese government doesn’t seem to understand the degree of international concern about Aung San Suu Kyi’s case but described Yettaw’s release as something “we should be grateful for and hopefully build upon.”


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Date: Aug. 24-29

Who met: New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcón

Issues: Trade

What was accomplished: Richardson is no stranger to negotiating with dictatorships, having met with the likes of Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il, and Fidel Castro in the past. On this most recent visit, Richardson did not get to meet with either Castro brother and was not sent as an official U.S. envoy, describing his trip as a trade mission for New Mexico. But the governor does plan to brief the Obama administration on his meeting with Alarcón and used the trip as an opportunity to call for a reset of U.S.-Cuban relations.

Richardson believes this is the “best atmosphere I’ve seen in many years” for U.S.-Cuban talks, but urged both sides to take concrete steps to normalize relations, including easing travel restrictions for diplomats and lifting trade sanctions on biotechnology products. Richardson also urged the Cuban government to release political prisoners. Richardson says he received a “positive message” in a letter from Fidel during his visit. Some political observers have speculated that Richardson, who was nominated for commerce secretary but withdrew due to corruption allegations in New Mexico, is angling to take over the Obama administration’s Cuba portfolio.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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