Max Boot, the noted Washington Post columnist, and “Jeane Kilpatrick senior fellow for National Security Studies” at the Council for Foreign Relations, thinks Donald Trump is betraying American values by meeting with Kim Jong-Un.
Such a meeting, Boot says, would mean “giving the worst human-rights abuser on the planet what he most wants: international legitimacy.”
Let’s unpack that one for a minute. We’re worried now about giving human rights abusers legitimacy?
The idea that we don’t legitimize human-rights abusers is a laugh-out-loud joke everywhere outside America. You could fill a book chapter with the history of the friendly relations between American presidents and just the foreign dictators who are credibly reported to have eaten other human beings.
Here’s a cheery letter from Gerald Ford inviting Central African Republic dictator Jean-Bedel Bokassa (the remains of 30 people were found in his crocodile pond upon ouster) to Washington.
We helped install Idi Amin, too. He later denied rumors of cannibalism, saying human flesh was “too salty,” but he had other equally upsetting hobbies. We’ve supported a couple of generations of Nguemas in Equatorial Guinea, both of whom – uncle Macias and nephew Teodoro Obiang – reportedly ate their political enemies.
This is in addition to the countless Batistas and Suhartos and Diems and Marcoses and Pinochets who were just murdering thieving monsters we legitimized not by sitting down with them at the negotiating table, but by making them allies we showered with things like arms and money.
The problem with Trump is that he’s too stupid to be embarrassed by such relationships. He constantly makes all of Washington look bad by jumping too enthusiastically in bed with the blood-soaked juntas and anti-democratic governments we more quietly embraced in the past.
Over the weekend, for instance, Trump horrified progressives when he called for the death penalty for drug dealers, an idea he said he got from Chinese President Xi Jinping. “I don’t know if this country’s ready for it,” Trump moaned.
This is monstrous, of course, and God help us if we actually try to enact this policy.
But the fact that we’re so tight with repressive China to begin with is on Trump’s predecessors, who should have taken a harder line on human rights issues a long time ago.
For decades, American officials in both parties have overlooked China’s horrific record on human rights. Both continually lobbied for China to keep receiving Most Favored Nation status and other trade benefits, largely because corporate donors wanted it.
The real measuring stick we use when it comes to determining whether a foreign regime is irredeemably monstrous or an important ally is whether the leaders we’re talking about are our bastards, or their own bastards – puppets, or free-lancers.
Dictators who take the throne with our backing get weapons and cash. The ones who do it without our backing usually find themselves getting a nice healthy dose of regime change sooner or later.
Sometimes the offender starts out as an American lapdog only to leave the kennel and instantly become a Dangerous International Human Rights Offender.
Manuel Noriega was on the CIA payroll until 1988, but later became disobedient and found himself holed up in a nunnery listening to invading American troops blaring “I Fought the Law” (the Clash version, in a nice detail) as they waited for him to surrender.
Saddam Hussein was another friend-turned-target, as was Diem and a few others. The line between friend and pariah in our foreign policy is incredibly slim. It really has nothing to do with anything beyond the political utility, to America, of the regime in question.
This is why the debate over Trump meeting with Kim Jong-Un is so absurd. The crime here isn’t meeting with a dictator – we snuggle up to worse creeps all the time – the crime is meeting with an out of pocket dictator.
Rachel Maddow last week struggled to articulate why she was so opposed to negotiations with North Korea. Her basic take seemed to be “Nobody has ever met with the dictator of North Korea, therefore nobody should ever meet with the dictator of North Korea.”
A lot of self-described progressives seem to be agreeing with her. This is interesting, since the same idea was incredibly popular among the same audience not long ago.
On July 23rd, 2007, at the Citadel in South Carolina, Democratic presidential candidates held the first presidential debate of the 2008 election cycle. In it, an audience member asked if candidates would be willing to meet with leaders of countries like Syria, Iran, and North Korea.
“I would,” Obama said. “And the reason is this: the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them, which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of [the Bush] administration, is ridiculous.”
As a colleague pointed out to me over the weekend, this was one of the moments that first endeared progressives to Barack Obama, precisely because it defied bipartisan Washington consensus. True to form, after that debate, both Hillary Clinton and George Bush (“Some seem to think we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals”) ripped Obama’s naiveté.
The idea that the United States does not negotiate in public until the enemy has already surrendered in private has long been a bedrock principle in D.C.
It’s one of the reasons why people in other countries hate us so much. It’s also why our “peace proposals” so often read like ultimatums.
A classic example was the Rambouillet deal presented to Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic agreed to the key principle of an independent Kosovo, but didn’t want the deal secured by NATO troops, as outlined. He preferred the occupying troops fly under a U.N. or an OSCE flag. We told him to take the deal or be bombed.
He wouldn’t budge, we bombed him, and our news media consistently misreported this war-starting sequence of events. The New York Times went so far as to say Milosevic “absolutely refused to entertain an outside force in Kosovo.”
The current consensus on North Korea is basically the same. It’s said repeatedly we shouldn’t countenance a meet with the mad dictator until the mad dictator agrees in advance to surrender. Doing anything else makes us look weak, and gives a PR win to a murderous autocrat. And we wouldn’t want that!
The flamboyant horribleness of Trump is allowing warmongering, democracy-hating hacks on both sides of the aisle to rewrite history. They’re penning a new creation story that dates America’s embrace of murderous dictators to Trump’s election.
“Another morning in America,” sighed Paul Krugman, after Trump invited Egypt’s ruthless Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to Washington last year, and called him a “fantastic guy.” Politico chimed in: “Critics worry the president has a love for tyrants and little interest in promoting human rights and democracy.”
What these people left out of their outrage is that we’d been supplying Sisi with jets and missiles since the Obama years. As The Intercept pointed out, exactly the same thing happened when Trump and Tillerson cozied up to the repressive Bahrain regime (who began receiving arms from us in 2015).
One of the constant themes we hear on social media and from pundits is that the press has to go the extra mile to avoid “normalizing” Donald Trump. The problem is that when it comes to embracing autocratic regimes, Trump actually is normal. We should be ashamed not just of him, but of the decades of votes we cast for politicians who did the same things.
We helped create the pre-condition for Trump by continually spreading the idea that it’s OK to ally ourselves with leaders who abuse their subjects – who push dissenters out of airplanes, electrocute their genitals, bomb women and children, and so on – so long as our economic interests are protected.
I would love to be able to point a finger at Donald Trump and say, “The United States does not sit down with murderous dictators!”
But we can’t say that, can we? Not with a straight face, anyway.