Thursday, May 4, 2017
No US President Should BOW or SCRAPE
When, during a presidential debate in 2007, Barack Obama said he would agree to meet the world's worst dictators "without precondition," he was rightly chastised for it.
His error was not in believing that negotiation and diplomacy have a role to play, or that it is sometimes necessary for America's president to grip the hand of an odious head of state to improve relations and make the world a better place.
It was, rather, Obama's profligacy with the prestige of the office he sought and his naive overconfidence in the power of his personality and good intentions to persuade the world's worst rulers to reform. His suggestion that he meet with the tyrants of Tehran suggested he thought it acceptable to use the leverage and prestige of the presidency cavalierly rather than with care and proper preparation.
Like Obama, President Trump is overconfident of his ability to persuade and cut a deal. In consequence, he seems not to think carefully before suggesting he will meet with the world's tyrants and rogue leaders, presumably taking the attitude that there is much to gain and nothing to lose.
But this is not true. There is much to lose. It is not for nothing that American presidents are traditionally referred to as the leader of the free world. What the free world is these days is not as clear as it was a generation ago, but it is still just as obvious who has the top job in it.
Most foreign leaders crave an audience with the president. They rush to be the first to meet him after he is sworn in, so they can preen about being at the front of the line. If the president himself seems to deprecate the prestige of the office, offering meetings to dictatorial riff-raff without precondition, he cheapens one of his most valuable assets.
Trump has been criticized for cozying up to foreign tyrants. He said it would be "an honor" to meet North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, "a smart cookie" who holds his benighted people in the world's most brutal and hermetically sealed prison state. Trump also extended a White House invitation to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has carried out extra-judicial killings of his own people.
Kim is the despotic ruler of a nuclear- and repressive government that detains as many as 200,000 of his own citizens in camps. Duterte rose to power by pledging to kill all the drug dealers and users in the country. After succeeding in killing thousands, international human rights organizations are weighing whether to label his exploits "crimes against humanity."
It may be a good thing for Trump to meet Duterte, for the Philippines is crucial to America's diplomatic efforts to control North Korea. But this can be achieved without going immediately for the pomp and circumstance of a White House reception. And any meeting should be set up on the understanding that Trump will confront Duterte on his shabby human rights record.
It may even, at some point, become advisable to meet Kim Jong Un. Although that possibility seems exceedingly remote, one cannot dismiss it entirely because presidents have shaken hands with some of the world's greatest killers in order to secure the strategic needs of the U.S. and its allies. But it will never be an "honor" to meet the North Korean potentate, merely at most a loathsome necessity. Suggesting it would be an honor is an echo of Obama's excruciating bowing to foreign monarchs early in his presidency. The president shouldn't bow to anyone, and it's an honor for them to meet him, not the other way around.