When to call a dictator... and when to let him leave a message

Trump says he'd be honored to meet Kim Jong Un
Trump says he'd be honored to meet Kim Jong Un


    Trump says he'd be honored to meet Kim Jong Un


Trump says he'd be honored to meet Kim Jong Un 03:05

Story highlights

  • John Kirby: Presidents have to meet with leaders with whom they have ideological differences all the time
  • The question isn't whether they should, but when, how and under what circumstances, writes Kirby

CNN National Security Analyst John Kirby is a retired rear admiral in the US Navy who served as a spokesman for both the State and Defense departments in the Obama administration. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)It's been interesting to watch all the back-and-forth about our relations with dictators. President Donald Trump raised this issue with his comments about his willingness to talk to the leaders of the Philippines and North Korea.

Clearly there are times when a President should meet with a dictator or leader with whom we have sharp ideological differences, distasteful though it may be.
As Churchill once noted, "Recognizing a person is not necessarily an act of approval. One has to recognize lots of things and people in this world of sin and woe that one does not like. The reason for having diplomatic relations is not to confer a compliment, but to secure a convenience."
    John Kirby
    The question isn't whether or not to meet with a tyrant; it's how, when and under what circumstances.
    Franklin Roosevelt met with Joseph Stalin. Dwight Eisenhower invited Nikita Khrushchev to Washington. Richard Nixon shook hands with the likes of Mao Zedong. George H.W. Bush parleyed with Hugo Chavez, and his son welcomed to the White House Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov. Barack Obama opened up diplomatic relations with Castro's little brother, Raul.
    There is a legitimate argument to be made that engagement can lead to positive change, that ignoring and isolating a bad guy only incentivizes him to continue to behave badly. In fact, there are those who argue that this is exactly what we've accomplished by freezing out Kim Jong Un.
    We give him the cold shoulder. He gives us the finger.
    The sanctions, cutting off diplomatic ties, the gunboat diplomacy -- all of that, they argue, have only convinced Kim to more aggressively pursue his nuclear weapons program. Why not open the door for talks and see what a little dialogue can do?
    Tapper: Trump's views on dictators concerning
    Tapper: Trump's views on dictators concerning


      Tapper: Trump's views on dictators concerning


    Tapper: Trump's views on dictators concerning 03:08
    "The whole notion was that if we showed courtesy or opened up dialogue with governments that had previously been hostile to us, that that somehow would be a sign of weakness," said Obama back in 2009. "The American people didn't buy it. And there's a good reason the American people didn't buy it -- because it doesn't make sense."
    Obama had a point. But that's where it gets tricky. That's where the bumper sticker, soundbite approach that President Trump likes to apply doesn't work so well. No two dictators are the same, and neither are the issues concerning our national security.
    Kim Jong Un is no Raul Castro.
    Castro has a crumbling economic and political system sorely in need of foreign investment and -- whether he admits it or not -- exposure to liberal values.
    Kim has all those things -- plus nuclear weapons. And he is fast developing the means to deploy them on medium-to-long range missiles. Save for the international legitimacy he craves, he has little incentive right now to talk. What he does have is the incentive to race to the bomb so that, if and when talks occur, he has the upper hand. He has the ability to escalate the situation to such a level that at no point can his regime's survival be imperiled.
    Meeting bilaterally with Kim now, without preconditions and demonstrated commitment to denuclearize the peninsula, only emboldens him to accelerate his program. It legitimizes his utter and ruthless brutality against his own people. It also delegitimizes the six-party talk process that we and our allies and partners have worked so hard to preserve.
    We must remember that the problem of North Korea is a regional one, a global one -- one in which the interests of many other nations intersect, to include China, Japan, Russia and, most of all, South Korea.
    Direct talks with Pyongyang, absent the participation of -- and input from -- the Republic of Korea, makes it nearly certain that any reconciliation would come at the expense of the South from an emboldened North.
    President Trump has been right to stress the important role that China must play in resolving this crisis. The path to Pyongang runs through Beijing, no question. But, as Henry Kissinger has also noted, we must make clear to Pyongyang that the path to Washington runs through Seoul.
    "An American (or European) reconciliation with Pyongyang not preceded by reconciliation of the two Koreas," he warned back in 2001, "would be achieved at the risk of gradual toughening of Pyongyang's stance toward South Korea and eventual demoralization in Seoul."
    Still true today.
    Rep. Rice: Trump shows penchant for dictators
    Rep. Rice: Trump shows penchant for dictators


      Rep. Rice: Trump shows penchant for dictators


    Rep. Rice: Trump shows penchant for dictators 01:10
    Then there's Rodrigo Duterte, the thug President of the Philippines -- our ally. Here's a man who has bragged about committing murder, mused about missing out on raping a young female missionary, called Obama an S.O.B., threatened to pull out of the military alliance with the United States, and who just happens to be presiding over an anti-drug operation that by some estimates has involved the extrajudicial killing of some 7,000 people.
    Did I mention he's our ally?
    Well, he got a call this weekend from President Trump, which on the face of it isn't a bad thing. There's a lot to talk about. Except the President doesn't appear to have used this opportunity to raise any concerns about the manner in which Duterte is running his own country, violating the human rights of his own citizens or treating his best ally, the United States.
    White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, when asked about the invitation on Sunday, said the call was part of an effort to form an international coalition against Kim Jong Un -- the same Kim Jong Un with whom the President is apparently now willing to negotiate.
    Confused yet?
    To be fair, Trump and his press secretary made clear the time isn't quite right for talks with Kim -- though they didn't exactly make clear what those conditions might look like. But it strains credulity to claim that the Philippines are vital in any significant way to putting more pressure on North Korea. Ally though they may be, and important though they are to our efforts to counter terrorist groups in the region and to decrease tensions with China in the South China Sea, the Republic of the Philippines boasts no diplomatic, economic or military throw weight in Northeast Asia.
    So it's hard to tell exactly why this call took place in the first place. The only news that came out of it -- which apparently was news as well to the State Department briefers who helped arrange the phone call -- was President Trump's offer to host Duterte at the White House.
    Again, it's about context. Having an ally for an official visit to Washington is normal, even boring. But to make that offer to this man -- at this particular time -- is to raise him to the level of a statesman, a level he doesn't merit.
    By all means, we should talk to him. We should do so strenuously, even aggressively, there in Manila or on the sidelines of the upcoming ASEAN Summit. But to give him the credence, the imprimatur, of a meeting in the White House -- the People's House -- is to denigrate the rule of law and to spit in the face of the thousands of innocent Filipinos who have suffered under Duterte's jackboot.
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    If Priebus is to be believed, calling Duterte was not, in the words of Winston Churchill, an effort to confer a compliment. But neither do we seek to secure a mere convenience from him. We seek, so says the White House, to secure that which we should already be entitled to by our alliance: his reciprocal pledge to act with us against a real aggressor in the region.
    Fair enough.
    Then we should start by reminding President Duterte that this treaty doesn't just rest on military cooperation. We should remind him that his country, too, promised in 1951 to recognize the historic relationship which brought our two peoples together "in a common bond of sympathy and mutual ideals."
    Until he proves willing and able to live up to them, we should not sully those ideals by giving Duterte an audience in the White House.
    The concluding sentence has been updated for accuracy and precision.