The GOP Loves Diplomacy—When It’s Not a Democrat Doing It

A future Democratic president might never be able to hold summits like Singapore if partisan domestic politics keeps savaging the negotiations, like the GOP did to Obama on Iran.



I hope, for the sake of our country and the people of both Koreas and the broader world, that President Trump actually succeeds in Singapore. All liberals should hope this. First, because it would be good for the world. And second, because trust me, we don’t want to be like them.

I think you know who I mean, and I think you know exactly what I mean. I sometimes hate to lapse into the “imagine if Obama or Clinton” trope, because I admit it’s overused. But it’s overused for a reason: It’s useful. And especially so in this case, as I’ll explain.

So: Imagine if Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton had staggered toward a summit with North Korea in exactly the way Trump has. They would have been absolutely savaged. Meeting a murderous dictator with no thought, no preparation, no preconditions?

I seem to remember Republicans tearing into Obama repeatedly over Iran. They made repeated claims that Obama was betraying and isolating our friends and giving comfort to our enemies in his half-cocked pursuit of the history books. It wasn’t true. I was only half a fan of the Iran deal: I thought that it was solid on the question of delaying Iran’s nuclear capability, and indeed Iran abided by the agreement’s terms the whole time. However, it gave Iran and its agents too much leeway to meddle in the region. There are good reasons to think that Iran really wanted the money, not the nuclear capability, and the nukes were just the best way for them to get the rest of the world to the table.

So I don’t think the Iran deal was without some downsides. But it wasn’t was ill-considered or done in haste or consummated at Obama’s whim. It was painstakingly negotiated for months. Ernest Moniz, the chief U.S. negotiator in Switzerland, is a brilliant man and was a model public servant. You can agree or disagree with the attempted strategy of using a carrot rather than a stick as the better way to deal with the mullahs, but even if you disagree, you cannot say that Obama’s decisions were rash or ill-conceived, or that the document was sloppily put together.

The right wing is still after Obama about Iran, by the way, even after Trump has withdrawn the U.S. from the deal. First, there was a charge that the Obama administration gave Iran $400 million in exchange for the release of some prisoners (“ransom,” some called it). Not true. Just last week, they seized on an AP story about a Republican congressional report accusing the Obama administration of lying to Congress about the release of up to $5.7 billion to Iran through U.S. banks. Though it does sound like the administration was far too eager to please Iran here, the AP report says this wasn’t illegal. But tell that to conservatives today. Trump, of course, wants Robert Mueller to investigate it.

What the Republicans have done in regard to Obama and Iran is to try to criminalize a policy dispute, and before that, undercut a U.S. president trying to negotiate an international treaty. Remember the letter to the ayatollah that Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton drew up and circulated back in 2015, getting 46 of his GOP colleagues to sign? It warned the regime that Congress or a future president could renege on any deal made by the Obama administration. That was certainly mutinous and arguably treasonous. Retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton told The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart at the time: “I have no issue with Sen. Cotton, or others, voicing their opinion in opposition to any deal to halt Iran’s nuclear progress. Speaking out on these issues is clearly part of his job. But to directly engage a foreign entity, in this way, undermining the strategy and work of our diplomats and our commander in chief, strains the very discipline and structure that our foreign relations depend on, to succeed.”

In other words, they came within a hair’s breadth of preventing a sitting president from carrying out his foreign policy. They didn’t succeed, but that was obviously the attempt.

Now, let’s circle back to “imagine.” Imagine if Obama had done everything with respect to North Korea exactly as Trump has done it. That he’d barged into the White House press room, as Trump did on March 8, basically announcing the summit without even telling his relevant Cabinet officials. That he’d sometimes said this will be great, and other times said well, who knows, it may or may not happen. That he’d elevated Kim Jong Un on the world stage in the disturbing way that Trump has. That he’d canceled it in a fit of pique. Then uncanceled it. To say nothing of blowing up our relationships with our allies on his way to Singapore.

It’s not merely that they would have been apoplectic. They would have found a way, I believe, to force a cancellation of the summit. Assuming they controlled the Senate, they would have gone the Cotton letter one better and sent Kim a letter assuring him that they, the undersigned, would not be signing a treaty of any kind consummated under these conditions.

We’ve reached a point, in other words, where the right-wing message machine has now completely descended into serving as an arm of state propaganda, and indeed wields such power over elected Republicans that it practically defines the terms of propaganda that party officials then follow. It raises the question of whether a future Democratic president will ever be able to negotiate a peace, or whether any such effort will be thwarted by the right for partisan domestic advantage.

I don’t want to be like that, so I wish Trump success. But we can wish him success for the world’s sake and still understand the grotesque irony of him and his aides saying these shocking things about our friends (a “special place in hell” for the prime minister of Canada?!?) and him sucking up to Vladimir Putin and making nice with the world’s thuggiest dictator. All while Republicans cheer.