Opinion

Guess who's coming to a White House dinner? Dictators and despots

Trump and Kim shake hands for a historic first

President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shook hands in Sentosa Island, Singapore on Tuesday ahead of the first summit between a sitting US president and a North Korean leader.
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President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shook hands in Sentosa Island, Singapore on Tuesday ahead of the first summit between a sitting US president and a North Korean leader.

Kim Jong Un just got one of the most coveted invitations for any foreign leader — a White House visit. If the Singapore Summit delivers results and continues to serve President Trump politically, that door will stay open and the invitation will remain valid. That would make Kim the latest in a string of despots and dictators who over the years get to pose for an Oval Office grip and grin.

Washington, D.C., is no stranger to accommodating the dangerous and despised and Kim would feel right at home in a city that bends to the brutal and barbarous. The capital has never reflected the homegrown values of heartland America or the general piety of her people. It is guided by a moral compass that sometimes points to True North. More often than not, however, that “compass” resembles a moral weathervane. Cynicism is an established trait in the nation’s capital, where power is the currency of the realm and no amount of moral outrage will change the political need and diplomatic necessity to practice the unsatisfying art of the possible.

So strike up the band and hang the bunting for the next state visit by a foreign deplorable.

Richard Nixon brought in the menacing and murderous Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu to the White House. He also went to the Romanian capital, Bucharest, for a visit and a state dinner. Ceausescu was a Communist vampire who knew how to play the United States against Russia and China. His was not a powerhouse nation, but it was located in the heart of Central Europe and a country whose military withdrew from the command of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact.

In secret meetings with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who served under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, Romania assured the U.S. it did not have nuclear weapons on its soil, offered verification assurances, and received U.S. guarantees that it would not be militarily targeted by America or NATO. Nixon took advantage of the established opening and used Romania as a channel to Moscow, a conduit for Jews leaving the USSR and emigrating to Israel, a wedge within the Warsaw Pact, and a means to suss out China’s intentions and nascent activities in Europe.

I covered the end of the Cold War and the Romanian revolution for Newsweek in 1989 and reported on Ceausescu and his evil wife as they were summarily judged, tortured and killed on Christmas day. The sick feeling in the pit in my stomach returns every time I think about my mixed reaction — one of both horror at the savagery of the Ceausescus’ demise and relief that they were dead and no longer a menace to humanity. I’ve never felt more conflicted about a news event I covered.

Ceausescu was as bad they come and yet this murderous man was able to help lower the temperature during the Cold War. Nixon treated him as a statesman, peer, and friend. The monster visited the White House.

There are plenty of reasons to disparage Kim’s invitation to the White House. Ask Otto Warmbier’s family. Kim has practiced murder, rape, gulags, nuclear blackmail, starvation policies, foreign kidnapping, entrapment, torture. Most leaders know that to achieve a greater global good and a better outcome, they need to hold their own nose while getting ready to hold a despot’s hand.

Trump may be feeling less conflicted about the trade-off and less personally tortured about the tactic because he is a cold-eyed and calculating dealmaker. In a weird way, this is the most honest approach that a modern U.S. president has taken. With no pretense towards moral superiority and no interest in asserting human rights or invoking democratic values, Trump is free to pursue his own America First policy without resorting to acrobatic justifications for his actions or descending into moral relativism. In public, the human empathy gene seems entirely absent in his constitution. How U.S. citizens feel about that icy persona and Trump quality depends partly on their partisan heart and voting record.

Trump’s worldview seems to be defined strictly by power and interests. His diplomatic calculations are measured by material power. Does a state have a lot of money, guns, and people? That matters in Trump’s calculus. All else is fluff. Democracy, universal human rights, alliances, friends — that is all fluff that can be leveraged in the art of deal making. When Trump insists that human rights need to be respected or hostages need to be released, he appears to be using these less tangible, non-material issues strictly as expendable deal points that give him more leverage to negotiate towards his desired outcome.

Verifiably getting rid of North Korean nukes is worth a photo-op underneath a portrait of George Washington and maybe even a Kim sleepover at Blair House. The thought of it makes me cringe, but not every president depicted on the White House walls will be rolling in his grave. After all, more than one dictator has dined in the State Dining Room under Lincoln’s painting and his watchful eye.

Ultimately, I’ll take no nukes over existential heartburn.

Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D. is a senior fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at markos@stanford.edu or on Twitter @KounalakisM.

The White House mixes propaganda and Hollywood in trailer-styled video that preceded Tuesday's summit meeting in Singapore between President Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong Un.

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