The List

Innocents Abroad

When celebrities do diplomacy.

Dennis Rodman's recent visit with Kim Jong Un set a pretty high bar for weirdness, even by North Korean standards. It's rare enough for a U.S. citizen to get a sit-down with a North Korean leader, let alone a flamboyant former NBA star known as "the Worm" accompanied by an entourage consisting of the Harlem Globetrotters and the staff of a Brooklyn hipster magazine.

But Rodman's just the latest in a long tradition of unlikely Americans making forays into diplomacy. Here are some of the most interesting:

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Jane Fonda in Vietnam

During a 1972 trip to Vietnam -- with the U.S. war still raging -- "Hanoi Jane," as she came to be known, was photographed sitting on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft battery. The Barbarella star and heir to one of Hollywood's legendary acting families was surrounded by opposition troops who serenaded her with a song about the day "Uncle Ho" declared the country's independence. She returned the favor by struggling through a rendition of "Day Ma Di," a song written by anti-war South Vietnamese students that she had memorized before the trip.

Fonda was harshly criticized for the photo, which she now says she will "regret to my dying day." She was surrounded by North Vietnamese photographers as soon as she got to the site, and now believes that they invited her as a propaganda stunt.

She may not have meant to pose for the photo, but her comments are harder to defend. Fonda was angered by the U.S. government painting what she thought was a distorted picture of how the North Vietnamese abused U.S. prisoners of war, and lashed out in one of her 10 Radio Hanoi broadcasts by calling those POWs "liars, hypocrites and pawns." She claims that the Nixon administration sought to charge her with treason, but could find no evidence.

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Shirley Temple in Ghana and Czechoslovakia

The former child star was a rare celebrity who became an official ambassador. Temple retired from films when she was just 22 years old and, 17 years later, jumped into the world of politics by running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as a California Republican. She lost the bid, but was appointed five years later by President Gerald R. Ford to be the U.S. ambassador to Ghana, which she called "the best job I ever had."

She served from December 1974 through mid-1976 and 13 years later was named U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia, where she watched the Velvet Revolution begin from Wenceslas Square in Prague.

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Muhammad Ali in Iraq

Ali had been making international headlines for activities unrelated to boxing since 1966, when he said he would refuse to serve in the Vietnam War. An outspoken political activist, Ali converted to Islam in 1967, winning millions of fans in the Muslim world.

His global following came in handy in 1990, just before the first Iraq war, when Ali traveled to Iraq in an attempt to negotiate the release of 15 American hostages who had been seized by the Iraqi government as an insurance policy against the impending U.S. invasion.

At first, then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was unwilling to meet with Ali, so the three-time world heavyweight champion walked the streets of Baghdad followed by scores of fans. Eventually, Hussein took notice of those crowds and sat down with Ali, who walked out of the meeting with a deal to release the Americans.

Camera crews captured grateful hostages thanking the star after their release, though he demurely told them, "I don't need publicity for helping people. Then it's no longer sincere."

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Sean Penn in Venezuela

Sean Penn has supported the now ailing Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez since he was first elected in 1999, earning him the description of "communist a--hole" from one of his co-stars and the ire of more than a few Americans.

Chávez may have called former president George W. Bush "the devil" and claimed that the United States gave him cancer, but that didn't stop Penn from recently describing him as "one of the most important forces we've had on this planet." The actor has said that anyone who calls Chávez a dictator should be thrown in jail, and declared that the only reason Americans view him as such is because they have been "hypnotized" by the mainstream media. Before the Venezuelan president was hospitalized again, Penn could be found fist-bumping his friend at a campaign rally last August.

The Hollywood icon has made waves elsewhere in Latin America as well. He recently jumped into the contentious debate between Britain and Argentina over the Falkland Islands, known locally as the Malvinas. He accused Britain of having a "ludicrous and archaic commitment to colonialist ideology" during a meeting with Argentinean President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, then promptly said that "true dialogue" was the only way the two countries could solve the problem.

But Penn's international work hasn't always involved stepping on someone's toes. He is also "ambassador at large" in Haiti, where he founded the J/P Haitian Relief Organization after the earthquake there in 2010. The charity does everything from remove rubble to supply Haitians with medical supplies.

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Nicolas Cage in Uganda and Kenya

When Cage was appointed as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the organization's Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa demonstrated a knowledge of the eccentric star's oeuvre, saying, "The Lord of War has become a messenger for peace, the Bad Lieutenant has turned into a good cop, and the inmate from Con Air has become a champion of prison reform."

The actor visited Uganda for eight days in November 2009 to highlight human-trafficking problems that help spread HIV, and learned about how child soldiers there are recruited. He also stopped in Kenya, where he visited a prison full of dancing Somali pirates.

Nearly a year later, at a United Nations conference against organized crime in Vienna, Austria, Cage said, "Through working with UNODC, I've come to understand who the world's real heroes are. I've seen the brave souls working on the frontlines, operating under the most difficult circumstances and with very limited resources."

Cage now knows a little more about limited resources. Around the same time he was in Uganda and Kenya, the world discovered he had bankrupted himself during a spending spree that included 15 homes and a fleet of Rolls Royces.

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Mike Tyson in China

In December 2010, Iron Mike visited Tianjin to promote the World Boxing Organization and the Tianjin International Boxing Exhibition -- only, he didn't really know much about what he was promoting, or why he was doing it. About a month prior to the visit, Tyson had already called himself a U.S. ambassador, but the trip had no real agenda. When a reporter asked him what the itinerary looked like, he said, "Yeah, tell me. I'm pretty interested."

He didn't seem to know much about the job parameters of his self-appointed position, either. "I didn't even know what an ambassador really was," he said at the time. "When I think of ambassadors I think of living off government money and jet-setting with girlfriends."

That comment wasn't the best start to his term as unofficial ambassador, but Tyson gave it another swing. "Didn't you guys have an altercation with the Japanese people at one time?" he asked Gary Yang, an executive with Tianjin International Sports Development. "Here's what you do: You go looking for a Chinese fighter who will beat the evil Japanese guy and get revenge. That will sell."

Yang hoped Tyson could bring even greater popularity to amateur boxing in China, where Yang says the former heavyweight title-holder is "above Muhammad Ali."

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The List

Scare Cuts

From an emboldened Iran to unsafe beef, the eight most hysterical warnings about how automatic spending reductions could harm U.S. national security.

Batten down the hatches! This week, Barack Obama joined the growing list of national security officials forecasting dire risks to the country's defenses if $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts are allowed to take effect March 1. In a speech on Tuesday at Virginia's largest industrial employer, Newport News Shipbuilding, the president said sequestration would damage the nation's economy and naval readiness. "The threat of these cuts has caused the Navy to cancel the deployment or delay the repair of aircraft carriers," he said. "Another might not get finished. Another might not get started at all."

The remarks added to a media blitz by officials including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, and outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta who've offered a range of doomsday prophecies if Congress allows the automatic spending cuts known as "sequestration" to take effect.

Politically, the warnings are designed to ostracize Republicans who refuse to raise government revenues in a deal to avoid sequestration. But in practice, the dire predictions have come under scrutiny from independent and partisan critics who argue that they're baseless, or at least exaggerated. In other cases, Republicans have joined the chorus of warnings about specific earmarks in GOP-controlled districts going on the chopping block. So what's the nation supposedly in store for?

Drug Smuggling

In an overlooked alert, the Obama administration warned that sequestration could force a 25-percent reduction in what the Coast Guard does, "including everything from setting navigational aids to fighting drug smuggling and illegal aliens." Of course, the threat of drug smuggling has been used before -- and not in the most convincing way. In its Office of Management and Budget sequestration report, the White House warned that the National Drug Intelligence Center would lose $2 million of its $20 million budget. But it turned out, embarrassingly, that the National Drug Intelligence Center wasn't even functioning anymore -- it was closed on June 15, 2012.

Unsanitary Food 

The threat of hazardous meats jeopardizing the nation's security has entered the sequestration fray thanks to a Republican on the House Agriculture Committee. Last week, Rep. Michael Conaway (R-TX) sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack warning of the risk to consumers if sequestration forces furloughs of meat inspectors. "This decision, if implemented, could disrupt the flow of commerce and the lives of millions of Americans, starting with meat and poultry industry and ending at America's dinner table," Conaway said. "According to the American Meat Institute, furloughing FSIS inspectors is estimated to cost $10 billion in production losses to the industry. This industry and American consumers depend on the services provided by FSIS inspectors to ensure a safe and healthy food supply."

A Second Pearl Harbor 

Summoning the memory of the 1941 surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie warned that cuts to the Navy could leave the state's naval base vulnerable to attack. "The plain fact is, that will undermine our capacity for readiness at Pearl Harbor," he told Congress on Saturday. He said the cuts could force a work-time reduction of nearly 19,000 full-time Pearl Harbor workers and made specific reference to the World War II assault. "At Pearl Harbor right now, which I hope everybody can understand symbolizes what happens when you're not prepared," he said, "we'll be laying off 19,000 people."

The reality? A once-in-a-generation surprise attack is probably not a realistic threat, as even Abercrombie later admitted. "I'm talking about institutionally," he said, adding that the cuts wouldn't pose "an immediate threat or anything like that."

An Emboldened Iran 

If Iran isn't afraid of U.S. military might, what's to stop it from developing a nuclear weapon? That's the scare theory proposed by Republican lawmakers who are worried about the redeployment of U.S. aircraft carriers from the Persian Gulf region due to budgetary woes. As it stands, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower will be the only aircraft carrier looming near Iran's shores. (There used to be three.) Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH) on Wednesday accused the administration of believing "we don't have to do anything" to check Iran's nuclear progress. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) made similar remarks earlier this month. "I'm sure Iran is very supportive of sequestration," he said, referring to the budget cuts.

Others have suggested that Republicans are overstating their case. "Most nations, Iran included, don't have any carriers. And aircraft carriers do not travel alone: they travel in battle groups," wrote Wired's Spencer Ackerman. "The Eisenhower's includes eight aircraft squadrons; three guided-missile destroyers; and a guided-missile cruiser. Then there are all of the minesweepers, helicopters and patrol boats already in the region. Pretty much no other navy is capable of keeping that kind of seapower on station in a financial crunch." In other words, it's not as if the Navy is hoisting up a white flag off the Iranian coast.

A Practically Empty Pentagon

Last week, Panetta warned Congress that sequestration could force the Pentagon to furlough the "vast majority" of the department's 800,000 civilian workers. "There is no mistaking that the rigid nature of the cuts forced upon this department, and their scale, will result in a serious erosion of readiness across the force," Panetta said. Of course, if you're picturing vast swaths of empty cubicles, that's probably the wrong visual: The belt-tightening would mean workers lose one workday per week and 20 percent of their pay for 22 weeks starting in April.

A Porous Border

Lock your doors! Cuts to the Department of Homeland Security will reduce personnel guarding the border, Napolitano said yesterday. "I don't think we can maintain the same level of security at all places around the country with sequester compared to without sequester," She said. Specifically, she mentioned a "rollback in border patrol" agent time. "If you roll that back, you make [the area] between the ports of entry less secure than the record security that has been there in recent years," she said. On Tuesday, U.S. officials released hundreds of detainees on supervised leave from immigration detention centers across the country to save money ahead of the sequestration deadline -- a move some Republicans denounced as yet another scare tactic.

A Decimated Air Force

In a detailed rundown of cuts, the Air Force delivered an ominous presentation to Congress earlier this month. As The Air Force Times' Jeff Schogol reported, the presentation said "sequestration would cut about 203,000 flying hours [and] Civilians could be furloughed for 22 days, translating into a roughly 20 percent loss in bi-weekly pay for each furloughed civilian." In all, the report said that it would take six months to recover from the loss of readiness.

A Blow to Disaster Relief

Besides leaving the U.S. vulnerable to a terrorist attack -- a threat Napolitano outlined yesterday -- the Homeland Security secretary also said natural disaster preparedness would be compromised. "It will reduce the disaster relief fund by nearly $1 billion, potentially affecting survivors recovering from Hurricane Sandy, the tornadoes in places like Tuscaloosa and Joplin, and other major disasters across the country," she said. "Threats from terrorism and the need to respond and recover from natural disasters do not diminish because of budget cuts."

Indeed -- if U.S. officials are to be believed -- these threats are only going to increase.

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