Trump’s Outreach to Rogues Follows in Obama’s Footsteps

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- There was a time in Washington when the establishments in both major parties believed that a meeting with a U.S. president was something a foreign adversary had to earn. Unless concessions are offered and conditions are met, the leader of the free world should avoid parleys with rogues. Think of George W. Bush’s refusal for America to enter nuclear talks with Iran until it stopped uranium enrichment.

This was a hot-button issue back in 2007 and 2008 when an upstart Democratic senator named Barack Obama proposed that if elected president, he would meet with leaders of Iran, Cuba and North Korea in his first year. His opponents pounced. Hillary Clinton said she wouldn’t want a meeting with such dictators to be “used for propaganda purposes.”

In his recent memoir, Obama’s deputy national security adviser and speechwriter, Ben Rhodes, described the reaction to his critics from inside the bubble. The campaign team was reading a news story in which Madeleine Albright, formerly Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, criticized Obama’s naive offer. Obama responded, according to Rhodes, by pounding his open palm on a table to emphasize every syllable: “It. Is. Not. A. Reward. To. Talk. To. Folks.”

Fast forward to 2018 and it’s fair to say that Trump takes the Obama view of talking to bad guys. After all, Trump met North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un in Singapore. He met with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. If aliens threatened to vaporize Los Angeles, Trump would first tweet some threats and insults and then a few days later propose a summit on a neighboring planet.

Now the president says he is open to talks with Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, without preconditions. “If they want to meet, I’ll meet,” he said at a joint press conference with Italy’s prime minister.

Anyone who has paid close attention to Trump’s Iran policy should not be surprised. As I wrote last week, Trump has consistently said he wants to negotiate a new deal with Iran’s leaders nowthat he has withdrawn the U.S. from the one negotiated by Obama.

What is interesting is not the desire for a meeting, but rather its potential substance. Trump says he has no preconditions for a meeting. However, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo proposed some when asked about this Monday by CNBC.

“If the Iranians demonstrate a commitment to make fundamental changes in how they treat their own people, reduce their malign behavior, can agree that it’s worthwhile to enter into a nuclear agreement that actually prevents proliferation,” Pompeo said. “Then the president has said he is prepared to sit down and have the conversation with him.”

With that mention of how the Tehran regime abuses its own people, Pompeo added a new requirement to his own list of preconditions for talks. In a May 21 speech laying out U.S. demands for Iran, he focused on the regime’s support for terror, missile testing and nuclear program. Even a speech earlier this month at the Reagan library, which highlighted the stolen wealth of Iran’s leaders, did not link the regime’s treatment of its own citizens to U.S. outreach.

The questions here are whether Trump would go ahead with direct talks even if Iran meets none of Pompeo’s stipulations, and whether he would bring up these issues if he did so.

There is also an irony to Trump’s desire to talk with rogues. In his two terms, Obama largely made good on his campaign promise. He traveled to Cuba and met with Raul Castro. He hit the reset button with Russia. He helped bring Myanmar into the community of nations. And while he pressed Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, in 2013 for a face-to-face meeting at the United Nations, he had to settle for a phone call.

Now Obama’s successor, who withdrew the U.S. from his nuclear deal, wants a meeting with the man who denied one to Obama.

Given the Tehran regime’s current legitimacy crisis, it’s a possibility. Rouhani is desperate. Even before severe sanctions on Iran's oil exports and banking system formally kick in, the value of the rial is in free fall. The demonstrations and strikes that began late last year continue to roil Iran’s ruling class. A meeting with Trump could be a lifeline to an Iranian president who has failed to deliver the prosperity and reforms he promised in his campaigns in 2013 and 2017.

Whatever happens, it’s a moment worth marking. Eleven years ago, Washington’s foreign policy establishment believed U.S. presidents shouldn’t meet with foreign adversaries until they changed their malign behavior. Obama as a candidate challenged that consensus and as a president he changed it. Trump this week was just following his lead.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast, and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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