Even when President Trump does the right thing, it still feels wrong.
The "right thing" in this instance is his decision to meet suddenly over the weekend with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea. It's the kind of move that runs afoul of all the conventional wisdom about America's foreign policy, but who cares? The president did not get Kim to give up his country's nuclear weapons — although there is now talk of a deal about freezing North Korea's arsenal at current levels — but every moment spent pursuing peace, even elusive peace, is a moment not spent waging a disastrous war.
"I'm really the opposite of a warmonger," Trump proclaimed to South Korean business leaders over the weekend.
That sounds good. Still, it's hard to watch Trump's interactions with Kim and have a not have a bad taste in your mouth, isn't it?
Kim is a ruthless, murderous dictator — the son and grandson of ruthless, murderous dictators. That's not necessarily a reason to object to the weekend summit: You don't have to like somebody in order to do business with them, but you do need to have mutual interests. Kim has an interest in making sure the U.S. doesn't try to end his reign; the U.S. has an interest in limiting the threat posed by North Korea's nukes. Given a chance to make a deal that would end that threat, most U.S. presidents would do well to hold their nose and take the meeting.
What makes Trump's interactions with Kim so distressing is that he doesn't hold his nose. Instead, the president often gives Kim the diplomatic equivalent of a sloppy, wet kiss — and if you object to that imagery, remember that Trump himself has described his relationship with Kim as a kind of romance. At a West Virginia rally last year, Trump said: "I was really being tough — and so was he. And we would go back and forth," Trump said. "And then we fell in love, okay? No, really — he wrote me beautiful letters, and they're great letters."
Indeed, Trump seems to relish any interaction with Kim. Why? Because Kim has figured out how to flatter Trump's ego. The weekend summit may well have been the result of Kim's flattery: Just a few weeks ago, Trump showed Time magazine reporters a "birthday letter" written by Kim and delivered "by hand" to the president. Trump was plainly thrilled. "It's pretty good, right? I mean this is pretty good," he told the reporters (before threatening them with prison if they published the letter's contents).
Kim knows Trump needs coddling. He needs to be loved and praised. Of course, this is probably true of most politicians, but Trump's need for flattery is excessive, more than merely a personal quirk: His personal neediness is now the lodestar of American foreign policy. As a result, old friends and allies are held at arm's length, while rivals and tyrants get the red carpet treatment from Trump.
Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister, has proven himself to be a master of the flattery approach: He hangs out at Mar-a-Lago and even nominated Trump for a Nobel peace prize. While Trump has taken digs at Japan's supposed advantage in trade now and again, he has so far avoided adding that country to the list of opponents in his global trade war.
Then there's Iran: Logically, there's no reason American policy should be tougher on Iran and kinder to North Korea. The latter country possesses nuclear weapons; the former doesn't. Yet Trump actively scuttled an Obama-era agreement to limit Iran's access to such weapons — the kind of agreement he can't seem to get from Kim. But there are no love letters coming from Tehran, and it seems unlikely that there ever will be. So tensions and talk of war continue to rise in the Persian Gulf.
In the best scenario, the American president — any American president — would be able to do business and pursue peace with Kim without seeming to endorse or make excuses for the North Korean dictator's criminal tendencies. It's difficult to find the right balance between pragmatism and idealism; Trump, as usual, ignores the balance entirely, completely beholden to Kim's flattery.
In North Korea, things have worked out peacefully — for now. That's a good thing, even if Kim gets a propaganda boost from it and even if the underlying goal of denuclearization will probably remain out of reach. But it's difficult to celebrate the lowering of tensions when you come to this frightening realization: America's foreign policy and national security are contingent, in part, on the thickness of President Trump's very thin skin.