President Trump loves talking to dictators. By phone, if need be, but in-person meetings with the world’s most oppressive dictators — Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and China’s President Xi Jinping — plainly thrill him. In a pinch, a second-tier autocrat from Egypt, Saudi Arabia or the Philippines will do, but for Trump the more vile the leader and the worse his behavior, the more he delights in meeting with him.
The dictators flatter him, playing on his ego and ignorance. He gives them legitimacy, makes deals in private that his administration can’t unscramble and convinces them that he’s a pushover. But Trump thinks it’s all historic, all a success. (In a new revelation, the nuclear threat that Trump said had been eliminated seems to be growing in North Korea; “Newly obtained evidence, including satellite photos taken in recent weeks, indicates that work is underway on at least one, and possibly two, liquid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles at a research facility on the outskirts of Pyongyang,” according to officials familiar with U.S. intelligence.)
We can hardly be surprised that Trump says he’d be delighted to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani with no preconditions. One can only imagine what lovely things Trump would say about a regime that imprisons Americans, represses its own people, and sponsors Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria. Remember, this was the regime Trump threatened last week (in all CAPS) and deemed so untrustworthy as to necessitate ripping up the Iran nuclear deal. It’s not out of the realm of possibility (no joke) that Iran would give him a worse deal than the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, get him to approve its presence in Syria and get him to praise the regime for its “democracy.” Trump is just gullible enough to think that’s a “win.”
If our European allies are freaked out now (after Trump broke from the JCPOA, fawned over Putin and lambasted the European Union), imagine how they’d feel if Trump were meeting in private with Rouhani. Imagine Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who pushed Trump to back out of the Iran deal, fretting that the unprepared, ignorant president is meeting alone with the country that poses an existential threat to his country. (Suddenly the U.S. embassy move looks awfully unimportant.) Trump is doing what conservatives blasted President Barack Obama for doing — treating Iran like a normal country and giving it legitimacy on the world stage. This is the regime that managed to kill hundreds of American troops in Iraq with IEDs and threatens the destruction of Israel.
Fortunately, the Iranians quickly rebuffed Trump’s suggestion. An adviser to Rouhani — by tweet, no less — said Iran would meet with the United States if the latter returned to the Iran deal.
Listen, there is nothing wrong with leaders of major powers meeting with one another. The problem is Trump — especially when meeting with any significant power alone. Former Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller frets that we are conditioned “to react to the comments and the tweets of the first president in U.S. history who can’t define the national interest unhinged from his own personal or political needs.” He continued, “The offer to meet with Iranian leaders, presumably the Iranian president, is neither new, well thought or well advised. It’s a reflection of Trump’s desire to distract, deflect from his political travails while continuing to dominate the headlines with other news.” He added, “It also reflects the absence of a coherent policy toward Iran.”
Most amusing is to see the right-wing GOP Trump fans — who’d be horrified if any Democrat met with Kim or Rouhani — continue to insist that Trump is “strong” and diplomatically astute. Genius move to go to Singapore! Helsiniki was actually a success! it’s not just sycophants in Congress, like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who haven’t the nerve to push back, but his own previously hawkish advisers, such as national security adviser John Bolton, who would have us believe that Trump is an international star who is reestablishing American prestige. Hardly. If he cannot stop his boss from meeting with the world’s worst thugs, he really needs to quit, if only to preserve a modicum of self-respect.