It was only a year ago that high-profile Democrats and liberals were terrified by the prospect of Donald Trump starting a war with North Korea. Now it seems the only thing that scares them more is the prospect of peace.
With a week to go until Trump’s historic meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Singapore, top Senate Democrats have signed on to a letter laying out a set of stringent demands they insisted must be met for them to support a deal. These demands include, among other things, complete denuclearization, as well as “anywhere, anytime” inspections.
Trump accused Democrats of “rooting against” the negotiations, and it’s hard not to see it that way. An immediate agreement on full denuclearization, for instance, is a tall order given that North Korea’s leadership has seen what’s happened to other states that agreed to give up their WMDs. MIT political scientist Vipin Narang called the demands “delusional” and compared them to something John Bolton would have written, while Arms Control Today’s Kingston Reif called the letter an “ill-advised attempt by the Dem leadership to get to the right of Trump,” laying out an “aggressively maximalist standard” that, if applied to Iran, would have ruled out Obama’s nuclear deal with that country.
But the Democrats’ actions are right in line with the peculiar transformation that many prominent liberals have been undergoing in recent months on the subject of Korea. Initially terrified that an inexperienced and unstable president might drag the US into another war, since March they’ve seemed more concerned by the opposite prospect: that the hapless, bumbling Trump might actually achieve something that eluded earlier presidents, reaching some kind of breakthrough in negotiations. So they began deploying hawkish attacks against the talks.
When Trump first agreed to the summit with Kim, Rachel Maddow called it a “gift” to the North Korean leadership, which has “dreamed” of forcing the US to “acknowledge them as an equal.”
“Maybe every other previous US president who decided not to meet with the North Korean dictator only did so because they were too dumb and not savvy enough to know how to pull off a meeting with the North Koreans safely and to our country’s advantage,” she said sarcastically.
For the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof, it was a “dangerous gamble and a bad idea,” a “gift,” and a “mistake” to “give that away without getting anything back at the beginning” — citing in particular the three Americans held prisoner in the country. (The three were released a few months later). NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell likewise called it “a very big gamble” that exchanged the “prestige of a meeting” for nothing, and warned North Korea might be building more weapons as the talks unfold.
Jeremy Bash, Obama’s former Pentagon and CIA chief of staff and a military-industrial complex beneficiary, declared it a “major concession.” One MSNBC guest had a different objection to the high-level talks: “It proves that North Korea is a real state. It is distinct from South Korea. It’s independent. It’s a real country.” (Apparently North Korea wasn’t a real country until Trump decided to talk one-on-one with its leader despite its UN membership).
Since then, the objections have only become more petty. After assailing Trump for childishly name-calling Kim throughout 2017, Democrats now started attacking him for calling Kim “very honorable.” Evelyn Farkas, deputy assistant secretary of defense under Obama, charged Trump on MSNBC with “fawning over the North Koreans,” while Jeremy Bash, fresh from defending an admitted CIA torturer, criticized Trump for praising a “murderous, thuggish regime.” Nancy Pelosi reportedly said Kim would be having a “giggle fit” after Trump cancelled the summit, and that the letter Trump received from the dictator was “kind of like a valentine.”
It’s not hard to see what’s going on here. Democrats and liberal commentators are so deeply invested in their anti-Trumpism that they’ve lost the ability to interpret the world through any other prism.
Would any of these commentators have lodged the same objections had it been Obama, not Trump, who who was offering to meet one-on-one with a hostile leader? The answer is surely no: Obama famously spent the 2008 campaign telling crowds that he would gladly meet with “adversaries” without preconditions — a constructive stance for which he was pilloried by the Right. Now, those right-wing objections have been flipped around and retooled by Obama’s defenders for use against their current political adversary. It’s either rank cynicism or cognitive dissonance — and at this point it’s hard to know what’s worse.
Is it ideal that America’s first summit meeting with a North Korean leader is being spearheaded by Donald Trump? Of course not. And chances are that Trump’s ultra-bellicose coterie of advisers will still end up nixing any wide-ranging deal. But surely Trump’s clumsy attempts at diplomacy are vastly preferable to the tit-for-tat war of words and military provocations that characterized the first year of his presidency and terrified the world. And apparently the US public agrees: polls have consistently shown overwhelming support for the summit.
For Democrats to wage a public relations campaign to undermine negotiations intended to defuse a dangerous nuclear standoff is not just hypocritical but irresponsible. To be sure, if Trump does end up securing an agreement with North Korea, he will no doubt make political hay of it. So what? A world where Trump gets to brag about his dealmaking skills is surely preferable to a nuclear war.