There are some things you have to hear twice before you can believe them, like Dennis Rodman in North Korea. The proverbial loose cannon meets the quintessential loose cannon. Rodman in North Korea, as a guest of state no less. At first blush, it seems so bizarre. But then the more you think about it the more you realise there are few families more bizarre than the Kim dynasty in North Korea and there are few athletes in the history of sports more bizarre then basketball Hall-of-Famer Rodman.
So in that context, this meeting makes perfect sense. Far more disorienting than the sight of Rodman sitting next to the country's young leader Kim Jong-un at a basketball game was the footage of Rodman being interviewed by George Stephanopoulos on ABC's Sunday news show This Week. Traditionally, the Sunday morning new shows on the US networks are drier than the Gobi Desert. Both the ponderous hosts and their guests swell with Washington-style significance as they discuss issues like national security and fiscal cliffs. But here was a smiling Rodman, his face full of ornate piercings wearing a baseball hat and sunglasses and a jacket decorated with dollar bills, being grilled by a suddenly aggressive Stephanopoulos.
Because he is a Beltway insider, boyish George has been known to go easy on some of his cronies in the past. But with Rodman, he was a veritable pit bull, attacking him for not calling Kim out on his regime's atrocious record on human rights and its constant threats against the US. "Do you think you have a responsibility to ask him about that so you aren't perceived as propping up his regime?" Stephanopoulos asked. Rodman said he obviously did not condone or approve of those things but claimed it was just a friendly encounter. "The one thing he did was treat me like a friend," he said.
The truth of the matter is Rodman had no idea he was going to meet Kim. He was with the Harlem Globetrotters on a goodwill mission and unwittingly, according to him, found himself in the middle of it all because Kim was a huge fan of basketball and in particular of Rodman's old Chicago Bulls team.
The condemnation was swift and furious. NBA commissioner David Stern was livid and called Rodman's favourable comments on Kim ridiculous while adding he should have only done the trip "in conjunction with the State Department with an agenda". Pious political commentators were much more outraged. "There is nobody at the CIA who could tell you more personally about Kim Jong-un than Dennis Rodman," according to former deputy assistant secretary of state Colonel Stephen Ganyard. "And that in itself is scary."
Well, it's certainly not Rodman's fault. If a washed-up basketball player personally knows more about the dangerous leader of a rogue nation than a powerful, multibillion-dollar government intelligence agency, then it's time for a massive shake-up at the CIA.
Once again, the powers of sporting diplomacy are being dismissed. One year after Japan withdrew from the League of Nations in 1933, Babe Ruth toured the country in a hugely popular baseball goodwill tour and met smitten members of the country's royal family. A few years later when hostilities between the US and Japan were rising, Ruth was recruited to make a personal appeal to the emperor.
Sadly, he couldn't prevent a war but a little more than 30 years later the friendship forged between an American table tennis player and one from China at the world championships in Japan was the catalyst for ping-pong diplomacy and the opening of China to the world. In 1990, Muhammad Ali flew to Iraq on a peacemaking initiative at the invitation of Saddam Hussein and managed to secure the release of 15 US hostages. Rodman is clearly not in that class; he is still much more about promoting himself than saving the world, but opening doors is still opening doors.
These leaders may be despotic and deluded but at their core they are still fans like you and I. If that shred of normality is the only gateway to a meaningful discourse and saving lives then why wouldn't you pour through it like lava streaming from a volcano? It's not like traditional diplomacy and endless threats have been working. Rodman has made more significant inroads with the leader of North Korea than any US diplomat over the past 50 years. He shouldn't be apologising for that. The power brokers in Washington should.