Bob Ray Sanders: Dennis Rodman could teach the U.S. about diplomacy

09/12/2013 12:00 AM

09/11/2013 6:13 PM

The heavily tattooed, multipierced Dennis Rodman, a former professional basketball player, made his second trip in a year to North Korea last week to visit his “friend,” young dictator Kim Jong Un.

Rodman’s arrival took on added significance as it came soon after North Korea canceled a visit by a U.S. envoy hoping to secure the release of jailed American Kenneth Bae, a missionary who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for so-called hostile acts against the state.

Although declaring he was no diplomat, Rodman was seen by Bae’s son as possibly having the best chance to bring his father home, according to the Guardian newspaper. But the flamboyant basketball Hall of Famer said he simply was in North Korea to see his friend “and start a basketball league over there or something like that.”

During his first visit to Pyongyang in February, Rodman was seen hugging and enjoying the company of the authoritarian ruler, including taking in a basketball game with him. Saying he wanted to show that Americans can get along with North Koreans, he returned with a message from Kim for the president of the United States.

“He wants Obama to do one thing: Call him,” Rodman said in a television interview, later expressing frustration that the president wouldn’t sit down and talk to Kim.

Well, Obama isn’t likely to have a summit anytime soon with the dictator, especially after tensions flared earlier this year when North Korea performed a nuclear test, the United Nations imposed more sanctions against the country, and Kim threatened to attack U.S. military bases and South Korea if there was any attempt by its “enemies” to retaliate.

But wouldn’t it be good if archenemies could sit down and talk, using diplomacy rather than artillery as their weapons? If Dennis Rodman can figure out how to have a conversation with Kim, surely a real American envoy ought to be able to find a way to communicate with him.

And, no, diplomacy doesn’t always work, as we have seen in Syria, where there have been plenty of discussions with President Bashar Assad. Those talks didn’t keep him from waging war on his own citizens. Now, the U.S. is on the verge of launching an attack on that country’s military arsenal in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons.

Before being elected, Obama said he would be willing to talk to anyone. Perhaps now is the time to start doing that, without all the preconditions this country usually insists on before engaging in diplomatic dialogue with nations that are sworn enemies.

There’s talk among some in Washington that we ought to bomb Iran because it is close to developing nuclear weapons. That country has a new president, who by no means is the supreme power there, but whose election should offer an opportunity for a new, more conciliatory relationship between the United States and Iran. We’ve missed such opportunities in the past.

The same could be said of Cuba, which is in the process of change – slow, deliberate change for sure, but change nonetheless. Our country’s harsh treatment of that little island nation for more than half a century borders on the ridiculous.

Embargoes and sanctions against Cuba should have been lifted long ago, but U.S. presidents have been too stubborn or politically afraid to initiate any meaningful talks with Fidel Castro or his brother Raul, who succeeded him as president. Instead, they hoped and waited for Fidel Castro to die, something the long-lasting dictator has refused to do.

I’m sure there are those who consider me naive or weak, or both, for thinking diplomacy would stand a chance with some of our nation’s more strident enemies.

Perhaps so, but we won’t know if it will work until we try.

Surely somewhere within our government we have envoys and leaders who are at least as versed in diplomacy as an ex-basketball player.

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