President Donald Trump’s historic trip into North Korean territory over the weekend was lauded by prominent voices on the right as a bold stroke of diplomacy, one that could bring peace to the Korean Peninsula and avert military conflict with the rogue regime.
But when President Barack Obama, his predecessor, attempted similar overtures to leaders of repressive regimes abroad, critics on the right hammered him as naive, feckless and inexperienced.
In 2016, for example, Obama received much criticism from conservatives and Fox News personalities after he traveled to Cuba to meet with Raúl Castro, the brother of the late Fidel Castro. It was a similarly historic trip ― Obama became the first president to visit the island nation since 1928.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), then a presidential candidate, wrote a highly critical op-ed for Politico at the time suggesting Obama traveled to Cuba simply to “hang out with Raul Castro and his henchmen.”
“Meanwhile, political prisoners languishing in dungeons across the island will hear this message: Nobody has your back. You’re alone with your tormentors. The world has forgotten about you,” Cruz wrote.
North Korea operates camps estimated to be holding tens of thousands of political prisoners and, like Cuba, continues to quash basic freedoms. North Korea’s appalling treatment of Otto Warmbier, a 21-year-old college student from Ohio, also shocked many in the U.S. Warmbier died shortly after being returned to his family brain-dead after 15 months in captivity in North Korea.
Mercedes Schlapp, a White House aide who is set to join Trump’s reelection campaign, offered a similarly critical take of Obama’s trip to Cuba ― although she wasn’t aware yet that it would be her future boss who would get the honor of shaking hands with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
In another tweet, Schlapp critically compared Obama’s Cuba trip to the idea of a U.S. president “visiting North Korea.”
Prominent conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, meanwhile, mocked Obama for seemingly often meeting “with some dictator somewhere.”
But after Trump’s meeting with North Korea’s leader over the weekend, Ingraham called his efforts “historic, regardless of the outcome.”
Other prominent conservative commentators similarly gave Trump good marks for his North Korea trip ― even though they previously criticized Obama for meeting Castro in Cuba.
Trump greeted North Korea’s Kim as “my friend” on Saturday, moments before stepping over the border onto North Korean soil ― becoming the first U.S. president to do so. He later called the encounter “a great honor” and said he was looking forward to seeing Kim again.
But the summit ― the third with the North Korean dictator ― once again yielded no specific commitment from the North Koreans on human rights or any firm promise to denuclearize. Trump said negotiators from the two countries would begin meetings in the coming weeks. But, he added, “speed is not the object.”
The idea of meeting with North Korean leaders without preconditions was once controversial. During the 2008 presidential campaign, for example, when Obama said he would meet with dictators “without preconditions,” Republicans attacked him (as did his Democratic primary rival Hillary Clinton).
Fox News host Sean Hannity called Obama’s willingness at the time to meet with North Korea “one of the most disturbing displays of Obama’s lack of foreign policy experience.” But in 2018, Hannity said Trump’s “willingness to meet with North Korea is a huge foreign policy win.”
Conservative talk star Dana Loesch accused Obama of “bowing and scraping before dictators,” while Steve Doocy, the host of Trump’s favorite Fox News program, “Fox & Friends,” dismissed the Democrat for trying “to reach out to these crazy people around the world.”
While Democrats have been critical of Trump’s meeting with Kim, their reactions to Trump’s diplomatic efforts with North Korea haven’t reached quite the same pitch. Most 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls say they didn’t object to using diplomacy to achieve a stable Korean Peninsula. But they question what Trump has achieved, panning his latest meeting with Kim as a publicity stunt that conferred credibility to the rogue regime without securing any measurable commitments in return.
“I have no problem with him sitting down with Kim Jong Un in North Korea or any place else,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said during an interview on ABC’s “This Week.” “But I don’t want it simply to be a photo opportunity. ... What’s going to happen tomorrow and the next day?”
“Diplomacy is important, but diplomacy requires a strategy, a process, and competent leadership to deliver,” added former Vice President Joe Biden. “After three made-for-TV summits, we still don’t have a single concrete commitment from North Korea. Not one missile or nuclear weapon has been destroyed, not one inspector is on the ground.”
The Trump administration might even be considering concessions to North Korea on its nuclear program, according to The New York Times. The concept reportedly being discussed by some in the White House would “amount to a nuclear freeze, one that essentially enshrines the status quo, and tacitly accepts the North as a nuclear power, something administration officials have often said they would never stand for.”
Public opinion regarding Trump’s talks with North Korea is ― like most contentious issues ― divided and subject to partisanship, according to a HuffPost/YouGov survey conducted last week ― two days prior to Trump’s latest meeting with Kim. Just 14% of Democrats in the poll said they approved of Trump’s handling of issues related to North Korea, while 73% disapproved. Seventy-eight percent of Republicans, meanwhile, approved of Trump’s North Korea negotiations, while only 12% disapproved.