It should have been obvious, but I missed it: Steve Bannon has been banished and Dennis Rodman is whispering in the president’s ear. OK, maybe not, but it could explain Donald Trump’s sudden admiration for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whom he recently identified as a “pretty smart cookie.”
Rodman, you'll recall, visited North Korea several times and has proclaimed Kim an “awesome guy,” saying he’d be “a friend for life.” During his adventures in the Hermit Kingdom, Rodman attended and participated in basketball exhibitions for Kim and even sang “Happy Birthday” to him. But at some point, word reached Rodman that Kim isn’t really so awesome. During a 2014 ESPN interview, the mercurial basketball great expressed remorse for comments he made suggesting that Kenneth Bae, an American missionary who was then being held captive by North Korea, was somewhat responsible for his fate. After his public ordeal, Rodman said he wanted to “just do happy things,” which apparently included maintaining his friendship with Kim.
Trump’s recent praise of Kim’s leadership, as well as his White House invitation to Philippine President Rodrigo “Rody” Duterte, indicates a pivot for Trump away from tough talk toward a softer voice. One day he was talking about possible military action against North Korea; the next, he’s practically pinching Kim’s dimpled cheeks.
Trump sounded almost proud of Kim, who was in his 20s when he took over the family business in 2011 upon his father’s death. Trump praised him for holding things together, which, he indicated, is hard to do. But Kim found a way, notably by starving his people and killing his opponents. Among his victims was his own uncle and, reportedly, extended family – children as well as adults. I’m not saying it isn’t hard to hold things together when you’re a young man burdened with leading an inherited nation, but executing one’s foes does rather pave the way.
Meanwhile, back at the White House, advance preparations are surely underway for a possible visit from Duterte. Known for his coarse language and porcine attitude toward women – I’m talking about Duterte – the Philippine leader is an unyielding dictator who has ordered the killing of thousands of suspected drug dealers without due process. He also has threatened journalists with assassination. So there’s that.
Charitably, one could say that Trump’s approach to foreign relations is unique and, in his case, bipolar. One day he’s a tough hombre, the next he’s purring like a kitten. One can imagine, nonetheless, that his negotiator’s impulse could lead him to think that talking to one’s enemies is a better first course than firing missiles at them, members of the Islamic State excepted.
Yet, there are consequences and collateral damage to such gestures. The reason presidents generally don’t engage such characters is because to do so grants them legitimacy. Suddenly, a dictator who murders his opponents is positioned as equal to the leader of the free world. In the process, the president compromises leverage that could be used to greater effect as a reward for good behavior, such as the release of three Americans now being held by North Korea. Simply put, it’s a big deal to be recognized and shown respect by the president of the United States.
Meeting with Kim without significant concessions would seem to be a slap in the face to South Korea. Inviting the likes of Duterte to the People’s House sullies the integrity of the edifice and all that it symbolizes, as well as the men and women who have served there with dignity.
We'll see how Trump’s latest gamble plays out, but one is reminded of George W. Bush’s brush with Vladimir Putin’s soul – an example of seeing oneself in the other. If Trump, who often speaks admirably of strongmen, looks into Duterte’s eyes – and someday, perhaps, Kim’s – he may, indeed, see himself. The troubling question is whether this would be the result of projection or recognition.
Kathleen Parker’s email address is email@example.com.