Shock! Horror! President Donald Trump is actually doing something right.
Sadly, Democrats in Congress are responding in a quite Trumpian way: They seem more concerned with undermining him than supporting a peace process with North Korea. They are on the same side as National Security Adviser John Bolton, quietly subverting attempts to pursue peace.
While international security is complicated, here’s a rule of thumb: When you find yourself on the same side as Bolton, go back and re-examine your position.
Sure, we all wish that Trump treated Justin Trudeau or Angela Merkel with the respect that he now shows Kim Jong Un. Yes, it seems that Trump has been played by Kim. Yet another way of putting it is that Trump is finally investing in the kind of diplomatic engagement that he used to denounce, and that we should all applaud.
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Trump’s newfound pragmatism is infinitely preferable to the threat of nuclear war that used to hang over all of us, so it’s mystifying to see Democrats carping about any possible North Korea deal.
“Any deal that explicitly or implicitly gives North Korea sanctions relief for anything other than the verifiable performance of its obligations to dismantle its nuclear and missile arsenal is a bad deal,” seven Democratic senators, including Chuck Schumer, warned in a letter to Trump this week.
The letter also insisted on “anywhere, anytime” inspections of suspected North Korean nuclear sites, as well as those linked to its chemical and biological warfare programs.
It’s almost unimaginable that North Korea will allow such intrusive inspections – any country would resist having an enemy poke around its military bases, underground bomb shelters and border fortifications. So these Democrats are essentially saying that no plausible deal will pass muster.
“The Democrats have gone overboard in the conditions they listed in the letter,” said Joel Wit, a North Korea watcher at the Stimson Center in Washington. “If they’re serious, it’s a prescription for failure because no one could achieve the conditions. It’s maybe payback for everything they were dealt in the Iran deal.”
“It’s like role reversal,” Wit added. “For years Democrats criticized Republicans for not wanting to engage North Korea. Now that Republicans want to engage North Korea, the Democrats are preparing to criticize them.”
Aside from Schumer, the Democratic senators who signed the letter are Sherrod Brown, Richard Durbin, Dianne Feinstein, Patrick Leahy, Robert Menendez and Mark Warner.
I appreciate that it’s galling for Democrats to see Trump present himself as a great strategist who has forced North Korea to knuckle under. White House aide Larry Kudlow boasted on Fox News: “North Korea coming to the negotiating table has a lot do with President Trump’s very firm stand.”
Poppycock. North Korean leaders have been eager for decades to meet with an American president; it’s just that no previous president agreed for fear of legitimizing the regime. It’s actually Trump who has made stunning compromises – holding a get-acquainted summit with Kim without any prospect of near-term denuclearization.
The real hero here is South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, who shrewdly used the Olympics to kick-start the peace process. Trump and Kim won’t get a Nobel Peace Prize, but if the peace process survives, Moon will be a worthy recipient.
For decades, especially after Bill Clinton’s 1994 “Agreed Framework” with North Korea, it was conservative Republicans who were the spoilers on nuclear deals with North Korea and Iran alike.
This Republican petulance was bad for America. Bolton helped kill the Agreed Framework, so that North Korea hugely expanded its weapons program. Similar petulance led Trump and Bolton to try to destroy the Iran nuclear deal this spring; as a result, Iran this week announced that it was increasing its uranium enrichment capacity. Boy, that went well.
Now a similar partisan petulance seems to be turning some Democrats into spoilers. Trump’s engagement with North Korea has been chaotic and should have begun with working-level talks, but it’s still better for leaders to exchange handshakes than missiles.
Granted, there’s plenty of reason to be nervous about Trump’s deal-making with North Korea, and plans can still collapse. How will Trump manage Kim when he can’t even manage a summit with the Philadelphia Eagles?
Still, even if North Korea won’t hand over nuclear weapons in the next few years, I can imagine it committing in coming months to a sustained moratorium on nuclear tests and long-range missile tests, on production of plutonium and uranium fuel, on transfer of nuclear technology to other countries, such as Syria. North Korea might also destroy an ICBM or two and accept inspectors at its nuclear sites in Yongbyon. Trump and Kim might agree to exchange liaison offices and to declare peace on the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea might well cheat, and these are half-steps, not rapid denuclearization. But half-steps toward peace are better than full strides toward war.