Reports of Bill Clinton's success in getting Current TV reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee pardoned is welcome. But along with that news will likely come the inevitable media narratives about Hillary Clinton being "upstaged," with Obama possibly getting that treatment himself. There will be questions about whether Obama is allowing Secretary Clinton to do her job, whether this mission was merely another moment of self-aggrandizing narcissism for the former president, and on and on. The Clinton Media Narratives are so codified at this point that we might as well teach them in college English classes.
The truth is that non-administration envoys have been deployed in the past for such diplomatic missions, most notably by Bill Clinton himself. In 1994, Jimmy Carter helped avert a U.S. invasion of Haiti by negotiating the return of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Clinton sent Carter to help defuse the volatile situation in North Korea in 1994, when we almost went to war over their processing of spent nuclear fuel. This kind of job isn't just for ex-presidents: One of Bill Richardson's selling points during last year's campaign was his negotiating of the 1996 release of Evan Hunziker from North Korean custody.
The trick is to send someone who is highly regarded internationally and can flatter the intended target with their presence (This is part of the reason Obama's predecessor wasn't sent). An envoy should also have experience in the region, but not officially serve the administration so their involvement can be downplayed in the case of failure (and as TAP Editor Mark Schmitt pointed out in an IM conversation, unofficial envoys can't promise anything). That the former president isn't part of the administration is key to the strategy.
The inevitable attention on Hillary, and whether she's getting enough credit for her efforts, will miss the point. The objective was to secure Ling and Lee's freedom -- focusing on Secretary Clinton's role, or lack thereof, almost seems like a subtle effort to reinforce the notion that she's so self-absorbed that she can't handle the administration scoring foreign policy successes that aren't directly attributable to her. It also becomes a way for people who actually don't think she can do the job to imply exactly that by projecting those thoughts onto the administration.
Ling and Lee's release is a win for the White House, but now comes the hard part: capitalizing on the brief thaw in relations between North Korea and the United States. Now this is a job for a Secretary of State, not a temporary diplomatic envoy. Or, I guess, possibly, a bomb, if you're John Bolton and every problem looks to you like one of those green bunkers in Space Invaders.
Also, if you're interested in an alternate history of what might have happened, read Spencer Ackerman.
-- A. Serwer