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Defeatist Democrats Should Give Trump a Chance on North Korea

They've become so negative they're starting to sound like Republican Iran deal critics.
Chuck Schumer Nancy Pelosi

Ask President Donald Trump whether there is a comprehensive denuclearization and peace deal to be had with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and he will usually fall back on his rhetorical crutch: “We’ll see what happens.”

Ask a Trump administration official if there will be progress, and the answers will be all over the place, from “Well, that’s the plan” to “Absolutely, the president is a master negotiator.” After yesterday’s diplomatic impasse in Hanoi where Trump walked away from the table without so much as a general framework, however, hardliners in his administration are even less likely to give North Korea the benefit of the doubt.

Regardless of what happens in Vietnam, though, the response from Democrats has been the same from the start: abrasive, negative, and highly partisan. Democrats view this president much like Republicans viewed Barack Obama: arrogant, too self-confident, a danger to the American constitutional republic. Yet if Democrats aren’t careful, they could fall into the same trap that Republican lawmakers willingly stepped into when the Obama administration was engaging in tough nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Between the fall of 2013 and the summer of 2015, the GOP did almost everything it could to trip up the Obama White House as it conducted perhaps the most significant nuclear diplomacy since the Reagan administration. Some of the Republican concerns were legitimate, involving issues like the pace of diplomacy, the early economic sanctions relief, and the temporary nature of the final agreement. Yet a sizable chunk of the animus was directed at President Obama personally, motivated by the GOP’s desire to prevent a Democratic president from pocketing a historic foreign policy accomplishment. GOP hawks, of course, denied that they were seeking a political victory. But those denials became easier to dismiss as time passed and Republican antics on Capitol Hill grew more ridiculous.

Some GOP lawmakers, like Marco Rubio, were thinking about running for president and therefore had an added incentive to play to the base and fight Obama. Some lived in a perpetual state of hypnosis, deadly convinced there was such a thing as the perfect deal and that all the Obama administration had to do was stiffen its spine. Others weren’t supportive of any diplomacy with Iran, viewing the mullahs as so maniacal that anything short of Tehran’s full capitulation would amount to a Neville Chamberlain moment. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas was a prime example of this strain of thought. The junior senator from Arkansas organized a letter to Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei from the Senate GOP conference that all but dared the supreme leader to walk away from the talks.

What does any of this have to do with the Trump administration’s current diplomacy with North Korea? Not much on its face. The U.S.-North Korea talks are different in form, substance, and character than Obama’s diplomacy with the Iranians. But there is one similarity: in both cases, the opposition party was prepared to use high-stakes diplomacy as a political weapon in Washington’s never-ending partisan war.

Democrats have a right to be doubtful of the president’s diplomatic strategy. Trump has never been involved in this kind of make-or-break diplomacy before. He has a tendency to disregard expert advice and throw his advisors’ scripts in the trash. He makes decisions seemingly at the spur of the moment, such as when he accepted a request from Kim last June to cancel U.S.-South Korean military exercises for the duration of the talks. Nothing in his 40 years in real estate dealmaking comes close to the significance of nuclear summitry. Indeed, it’s quite understandable why Democrats are nervous about the whole thing; Republicans on Capitol Hill are nervous too.

Yet there is a big difference between having genuine fears about the pace and substance of the talks and rushing on television to stick a knife into the president’s gut. Senior Democrats are doing the latter. Senator Robert Menendez, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is mouthing talking points that could just as well have been written by the Democratic National Committee. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is speechifying that any goal short of Pyongyang’s complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization “would make North Korea stronger and the world more dangerous”—despite the fact that to expect Pyongyang’s full nuclear disarmament after the Hanoi summit would be about as sane as expecting pigs to grow wings.

Then there is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who reportedly met with South Korean lawmakers weeks ago. She dismissed Trump’s entire diplomatic effort with Kim Jong-un as a shiny object to distract from the president’s own ineptitude. And of course, the picture wouldn’t be complete if Hillary Clinton didn’t have something to say: “If [Trump] can put lipstick on a pig and he can say ‘OK this is what we’re going to do with North Korea’ and he keeps saying it over and over again…he wins the news cycle. And that’s really what he lives for.”

Will all of this pessimism bear out? It very well could. We simply don’t know where U.S.-North Korea diplomacy is going, and we definitely don’t know whether it will be successful. The talks in Hanoi lend credibility to the view that Kim is only willing to go so far. While he may be open to shutting down some testing facilities and capping his future bomb-making capability, he doesn’t appear especially interested in giving away the nuclear warheads he already possesses.

But whether or not Democrats want to admit it, the process now underway is the furthest the U.S. has gotten with the North since 2007, when the Bush administration managed to get the Kim regime to agree in principle to the dismantlement of its plutonium reactor in Yongbyon (that deal would later collapse due to disagreements over verification). The White House ought to be given the time and space it needs to do the hard work necessary to have a chance at getting North Korea to denuclearize.

Republicans failed the test in 2015 and exposed themselves to the entire country as partisans. If Democrats aren’t careful, they will fail today’s test.

Daniel R. DePetris is a foreign policy analyst, a columnist at Reuters, and a frequent contributor to The American Conservative.



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