When candidate Barack Obama said in a 2007 debate that he’d meet with the leaders of rogue states—including North Korea—without preconditions, critics pounced: Fox News host Sean Hannity ripped his “lack of foreign policy expertise” and called the idea “disturbing” and “naive.” His Democratic primary rival, Hillary Clinton, called him “irresponsible and frankly naive.”
Months into Obama’s presidency, Republicans ripped him again when he exchanged pleasantries briefly with Hugo Chavez, the late dictator of Venezuela, on the margins of a Latin America summit. One Republican senator called it “irresponsible” for the president to be photographed “laughing and joking” with an anti-American leader like Chavez.
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It was all part of a pattern: Obama would argue that it was more effective to bring even the most hostile and isolated of America’s enemies in from the cold than to constantly threaten them with war, and Republicans would bash him for his supposed naivete. Obama shrugged off the attacks. As he explained his thinking in a 2015 interview with Fareed Zakaria: “You don’t negotiate deals with your friends. You negotiate them with your enemies.”
Obama took the most heat for his outreach to Iran—long perhaps the most cartoonish of American adversaries, with its funding of suicide bombers and chants of “Death to America.“ Forty-seven GOP senators even sent Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, a letter in 2015 warning him that any deal with Obama over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program might well be oveturned by a future president. Republicans fumed that Obama seemed friendlier to Khamenei than he did to Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister whose vocal opposition to the nuclear talks fueled GOP arguments that the deal was fatally flawed and weak. Often, the very idea of talking with adversaries was painted as inherently soft. Sen Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) was typical when he blasted Obama’s plan for “a nuclear arms control agreement with a sworn enemy.”
Flash forward to today, and what are Republicans saying about the current president’s willingness—eagerness, even—to cut a nuclear deal with the most roguish leader of them all, North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un?
Not much—only Lindsey Graham, the relentlessly hawkish South Carolina senator, has been critical of Trump’s overtures to Kim, saying he expected Tuesday’s summit to fail. Eighteen House Republicans have even suggested that Trump already merits the Nobel Peace Prize for agreeing to sit down with his North Korean counterpart. And Hannity? He said that Trump’s mere “willingness to meet with North Korea is a huge foreign policy win.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell probably spoke for many Republicans when he gave Trump a mild warning last week: “You have to not want the deal too much. If you fall in love with the deal, and it’s too important for you to get it, and the details become less significant, you could get snookered.”
This, needless to say, is not how things would have gone down with a Democrat at the helm. As the foreign policy scholar Tom Wright recently put it on Twitter: “If a President Bernie Sanders were doing exactly what [Trump] is doing on North Korea (summit, praising Kim, weird letters, trying to pull troops out, sidelining Japan), the Congress would be going haywire, considering impeachment, emergency veto proof measures, etc.”
And yet Democrats have largely welcomed Trump’s North Korea diplomacy. Sure, they leaven their comments with wonkish concerns about the details of a possible agreement to curb Kim’s nuke program. But the most strident political criticism has come from the small community of North Korea experts, who have watched the Kim regime dupe past American presidents and worry that Trump won’t have the grasp of detail necessary to avoid the same fate. (The most prominent of these, Jeffrey Lewis of the Monterey Institute, has called Trump’s summit diplomacy a “goat rodeo.”)
Several Obama administration officials I spoke with, including Jake Sullivan, the former State Department policy planning chief and national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, were circumspect in their critique of Trump’s summit with Kim. All doubted that Trump will strike a truly serious bargain, but most expect him to reap political benefits from the pageantry of the summit no matter what. And they don’t seem prepared to get payback from the Obama years: When I asked Sullivan if he would criticize Trump for, say, shaking hands with Kim, he paused thoughtfully for a few seconds and then said, “No.”
The irony of Trump imbibing from Obama’s philosophy of reaching out to enemies was not lost on them, either. If anything, Trump has taken Obama’s teachings to an extreme—extolling Kim as “honorable” and “smart,” pointedly refusing to criticize the North Korean leader’s abysmal record on human rights and promising to make his country wealthy in the event of a grand bargain. Where Obama hailed Iran’s cultural history, Trump extols the “industrious” and “great” North Korean people.
Trump has even managed to turn the boring stuff of world-leader summitry—usually a tightly scripted, rigidly controlled affair in which the outcome is largely determined in advance—into a dramatic event more akin to a prize fight than a nuclear negotiation. And he’s tried to turn his reported lack of preparation or interest in the gritty details of uranium enrichment and ICBM throw weights into a strength, touting his flexibility and fingertip feel for a deal. “I think I’m very well prepared,” the president said last week before setting out for the Group of Seven summit in Canada. “I don’t think I have to prepare very much. It’s about the attitude.”
Most presidents are careful not to set too high a bar for themselves before embarking on difficult, if not impossible, tasks like cutting a (good) deal with North Korea. Yet Trump has toggled between setting wildly unrealistic expectations for the summit and seemingly remembering that he’s not supposed to raise hopes too much. “I believe we’re going to have a terrific success,” he said last week before adding, “or a modified success.”
All of it—the historic nature of a summit between a volatile American president and a little-known North Korean dictator, the uncertainty of what Trump will do once he’s in the room with Kim, the potentially nuclear stakes of a failed deal—has made Tuesday’s meeting the most closely watched, and hotly anticipated, summit since Ronald Reagan sat down with Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik in 1986.
Whether he succeeds or fails, to his supporters, is almost beside the point—the president is making diplomacy great again. When Trump landed in Singapore, touting the “excitement in the air” despite not setting a foot outside, his former communications staffer Jason Miller tweeted, “Clinton couldn’t do it. Bush couldn’t do it. Obama couldn’t do it. Trump IS doing it!”
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