A number of Republican hawks who blasted Barack Obama for years for kowtowing to tyrants have had to twist themselves into some interesting contortions to defend Donald Trump’s warm embrace of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un this week, but this response from Sen. Tom Cotton, one of the GOP’s emerging leaders on foreign policy, in an interview with Hugh Hewitt stands out:
Hewitt: To the people who are declaring, last question, Senator Cotton, that Donald Trump gave away too much with the flags and the handshake, what’s your response?
Cotton: There is a school of thought that the United States should not sit down, that the United States president should not sit down with two-bit dictators. I think there’s some validity to that school of thought with the exception once those dictators have nuclear weapons. You know, countries like Iran and Cuba and other two-bit rogue regimes don’t have nuclear weapons, yet. They can’t threaten the United States in that way. Once North Korea had nuclear weapons, once they have missiles that can deliver them to use, I would liken it to past presidents sitting down with Soviet dictators. It’s not something that we should celebrate. It’s not a pretty sight. But it’s a necessary part of the job to try to protect Americans from a terrible threat.
The message to these two-bit dictators is pretty clear: If you want the U.S. to take you seriously and treat you with respect, get your hands on some nuclear weapons as quickly as possible.
In the lead-up to the summit, there was much discussion of the “Libya model” for nuclear disarmament, referring to Muammar al-Qaddafi’s 2003 agreement to give up its WMD program and allow inspections in hopes of better relations with the West. From now on, we may see references to the “North Korea model,” in which an isolated pariah state suffers through years of threats and sanctions while building a nuclear program, only to be embraced by the international community, led by the United States, once it finally gets its hands on a bomb.
Consider the fates of several longtime U.S. adversaries so far this century. Saddam Hussein gave up on his nuclear weapons program in the 1990s, only to be overthrown and killed several years later under a new U.S.
president. Qaddafi voluntarily halted his program in 2003, only to be overthrown and killed several years later under a new U.S. president. The Iranian government signed a deal to halt its nuclear program and permit inspections in 2015, only to see that deal torn up a few years later by a new U.S. president.
North Korea, by contrast, successfully built a rudimentary nuclear deterrent, capable of striking its neighbors, U.S. forces in the region, and possibly the U.S. mainland. Lo and behold, Kim not only got a high-profile sit-down with the president of the United States—an unthinkable event for his father or grandfather—he was also vociferously praised by the president for his intelligence and toughness, the latter referring to his regime’s sickening human rights abuses. With nuclear weapons at your disposal, it seems, you can literally get away with mass murder.
Yes, in order to get his historic photo-op, Kim had to commit to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” but as has been extensively discussed this week, it’s not clear what that promise means, when denuclearization will happen, or how it will be verified. The world’s five original nuclear powers—the U.S., Russia, U.K., France, and China—are all formally committed to denuclearization as well, but no one is holding their breath for them to actually give up their bombs. North Korea’s long-term goal has been to win acceptance as a nuclear power. The longer Kim goes without giving up his weapons, the more that status will be accepted. U.S. sanctions may still be in place, but with Trump declaring the country “no longer a nuclear threat,” neighbors like China are likely to let up on pressure against the regime. Longtime rival South Korea is moving rapidly to normalize ties. Eventually, North Korea could come to be seen as a country like India, Pakistan, and Israel—states whose nuclear status is formally condemned but widely accepted as fact.
Since the Trump-Kim meeting, there’s been some discussion of whether Trump would ever sit down to cut a similar deal with Iran. But the message this week to anti-American leaders from Tehran to Havana to Caracas to Damascus is that you’re far better off cutting a nuclear deal with Washington after you have the nukes.