Partisan Hypocrisy on Diplomacy Undermines Strategic Foreign Policy

Now that some of the dust has settled from President Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, it’s worth taking stock of the politics surrounding it. As The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart points out, many Democrats and progressives have oddly decided to be staunch critics of the summit, harping on its limited achievements, the vague aspirations of denuclearization without concrete steps to get there, Trump’s bizarre obsequiousness in courting Kim, and this administration’s clear lack of preparation for such high-stakes diplomatic negotiations. These are all legitimate criticisms, by the way, but given how dangerously close the Trump administration came to potentially catastropic escalation only a few months ago (admittedly, a crisis of Trump’s own making), diplomacy, no matter how maladroit, is clearly preferable and should not be dismissed out of hand by those on the left.

However, the abject hypocrisy of the right is even more appalling. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell praised the summit as “an historic first step in negotiations.” House Speaker Paul Ryan articulated his “hope that the president has put us on a path to lasting peace in the Korean Peninsula.” Fox News host Laura Ingraham hailed  the summit as “like Gorbachev and Reagan,” to which Senator Lindsey Graham, who has argued for war and against diplomacy more often than most of his colleagues, approvingly replied, “Trump has done something no other president has done, he’s doing everything he knows how to avoid a war.” Graham went on to applaud Trump’s pledge to discontinue U.S.-South Korean military exercises: “this may be the last best chance in our lifetime for peace, and this is a bold move by the president.”

Those who follow politics in Washington, DC can see right off the bat how radical a departure all of this is from typical GOP talking points. It’s not hard to imagine the hysteria that would erupt if President Obama shook the hand of Kim Jong Un, praised the dictator’s leadership qualities, and sympathized with Pyongyang’s unease over U.S. military activities in Northeast Asia.

But to really get a flavor for it, behold this mashup of Fox News personality Sean Hannity, whose power to shape conservative views across the country should not be underestimated, railing against Obama’s nuclear diplomacy with Iran in 2013 while praising Trump’s summit with North Korea. Trump, Hannity says, “deserves a lot of credit for being willing to talk to somebody that everybody thought would be a bad idea,” adding that he sees “a lot of parallels between President Trump and Ronald Reagan.” But in 2013, he pilloried Obama’s diplomacy with Iran as “showing a lot of weakness” by “catering to the world’s dictators,” labeling Obama “literally, the Neville Chamberlain of our time.” 

Republicans and conservatives opposed diplomacy with Iran because, they said, America shouldn’t negotiate with enemies, we should batter them into submission. Now, they have apparently abandoned that principle. They also opposed the Iran nuclear deal on grounds that it was too narrow and failed to include non-nuclear issues, such as Iran’s regional behavior and its human rights violations. Now, with North Korea, they are singing a different tune. 

So far, North Korea has done little more than offer token concessions while keeping their nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities intact. By contrast, Iran forfeited 98 percent of its stockpile of enriched uranium, gave up thousands of operating centrifuges, acquiesced to severe technical restrictions on various aspects of their program for 10-25 years, and submitted to the most intrusive inspections regime in the world. And that was before they enjoyed a single day of sanctions relief.

It’s not just the GOP and conservative media that is shamelessly flip-flopping like a fish out of water. The Trump administration itself has had to engage in these contortions. Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal on the basis that it was a weak giveaway to Tehran, though the likelihood of getting a more stringent agreement on North Korea is extremely remote. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton each have a long pedigree of opposing negotiations with rogue states in favor of an uncompromising hardline approach. Now, apparently, not so much. Last year, the Trump administration obstinately rejected perfectly reasonable Chinese proposals for a “freeze-for-freeze” option with North Korea, in which, as a first-step to build confidence for negotiations, Washington would agree to suspend provocative military exercises with South Korea in exchange for Pyongyang halting its nuclear and missile tests. Now, that is roughly administration policy. 

Duplicity has always been a part of American politics. And, these days, we seem to be experiencing a truly unprecedented level of it under a president that tells outright lies as a matter of routine. The intensity of this particular moment in U.S. history can make the partisanship presented above seem mild and downright ordinary by comparison. But this kind of base dishonesty regarding core questions of war and peace makes it close to impossible to carry out foreign policy in a strategic way. I appreciate Republicans’ newfound support for diplomacy, but it is rather obviously a feature of their servile kowtowing to President Trump, not a considered position that can reliably outlast this brief moment.

The United States is remarkably insulated from foreign threats and has enormous leverage to engage in any negotiations with adversaries. Wherever and whenever diplomacy can reduce the risk of conflict, it should be pursued with confidence and vigor. Both parties must recognize the successes that peaceful engagement has yielded over the past half century of U.S. foreign policy, and the comparatively ruinous failures wrought by hardline militarism.