Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She served on President Obama’s National Security Council from 2009-2013 and at the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Every week, I offer a glimpse of the kind of intelligence assessments that are likely to come across the desk of the President of the United States, modeled on the President’s Daily Briefing, or PDB, which the director of national intelligence prepares for the President almost daily.
Here’s this week’s briefing:
While his time is increasingly allotted to addressing legal imbroglios and dealing with staffing changes, there’s a growing perception that the President’s foreign policy is defined by a set of double standards towards despotic rulers. Whether this is because he’s distracted and unable to articulate a consistent approach or because some of these dictators know how to butter him up, the President’s approach to nuclear weapons, humanitarian crises, and the legitimacy of world leaders is wildly inconsistent.
This haphazard approach not only allows some despots to get away with murder and build up their weapons of mass destruction, it also signals that it doesn’t take much to get on Donald Trump’s good side. Responsible national security policy should be driven by more than a feeling.
Nuking it out
All countries’ nuclear weapons are created equal, at least according to landmark treaties which outline international standards when it comes to the disarmament and nonproliferation of these weapons. But Trump’s approach to North Korean nukes shows there’s a despot double standard at play.
President Trump abandoned the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – better known as the Iran nuclear deal, even though experts said Tehran was upholding the agreement and did not have a single nuclear weapon.
Trump, however, is decidedly more permissive when it comes to North Korean nuclear weapons Unlike Iran, they have an existing nuclear stockpile.
According to the New York Times, intelligence officials say that North Korea is further developing its weapons program, and that the rogue state produced enough uranium and plutonium between Kim Jong Un’s first and second meetings with Trump to fuel a half-dozen nuclear warheads.But after new activity was detected at a North Korean missile research center, the President simply said he was “very disappointed.”
The President’s own team has publicly said that Kim has nuclear weapons and is unlikely to give them up. But earlier this week, President Trump said he would reassess the situation in a about a year, indicating a willingness to let North Korea continue to nuclearize for at least that long.
Trump, who is not even willing to negotiate with Iran unless they pass our 12-step rehabilitation program, reconfirmed that our relationship with North Korea remains “good” and that he’s still confident we can “solve” issues with Kim despite their ongoing proliferation and alleged preparations for a new missile launch, according to analysts.
One telling sign will be if North Korea conducts any missile or nuclear tests after abstaining for a year during Kim and Trump’s talks. If it does, we could see the despot double standards come into play again. The administration condemned Iran for its space launch earlier this year, but the real “Rocket Man,” as Trump once called Kim, has gotten special treatment. If the President keeps treating North Korean provocations with kid gloves – and not responding in some meaningful way – this could lead Kim to further push the envelope on his weapons of mass destruction and continue to develop his myriad illegal weapons programs.
The President blew up an international agreement – including with our allies – because he didn’t think the Iran deal was broad enough, but he’s actively letting North Korea continue to increase its nuclear capabilities because, according to Trump, he and Kim “fell in love.” The despot double standard on nuclear weapons tells the world that the President’s nuclear thresholds are driven by his feelings rather than a nonproliferation strategy.
All lives don’t matter
Ameliorating humanitarian issues has not been a priority for the President, until recently. He didn’t raise humanitarian issues with Kim when they met the first time. During their second meeting, Trump gave him a free pass on Otto Warmbier’s brutal death. After Jamal Khashoggi was murdered, Trump said he stood with Saudi Arabia despite what appears to be a premeditated attack on Khashoggi, a columnist for the Washington Post and an American resident. Trump hasn’t sanctioned China, either, for its treatment of the Uyghurs.
But Trump suddenly cares about humanitarian crises when it comes to Nicolas Maduro’s stranglehold on Venezuela – even though the US President himself threatened to cut off foreign assistance used to address widespread poverty, hunger, and lack of medical care to Central American countries for failing to stop what he called migrant caravans.
Trump took a hardline against Central American migrants and failed to hold oppressive leaders responsible for the deaths of Otto Warmbier and Jamal Khashoggi. But Trump is singing a different tune when it comes to the Venezuelan people.
He’s consistently decried Maduro’s contributions to the humanitarian crisis, called for him to leave power (based on the Venezuelan constitution), and even directed more humanitarian assistance for Venezuela and its neighboring countries dealing with major migration flows.
It all became clearer during a speech when he talked about the threat of socialism in Venezuela and declared the US will “never be a socialist country.” This implies a direct link between Maduro’s brand of politics and the President’s perceived political currents here in the US. Despots who espouse politics that Trump thinks are a danger to his Presidency get harsher treatment than others.
The administration has also applied double standards when it comes to recognizing some world leaders while declaring others illegitimate. President Trump appears to have given Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a pass despite their seriously flawed elections. In fact, President Trump congratulated President Putin on his 2018 election victory and did so again with Erdogan a few weeks later. Both of these men have tried to silence their opposition in one way or another. Erdogan and Putin have control over their countries’ media and Putin is even accused of manipulating Russian courts to prevent his primary opposition from running.
However, he has taken a different approach with other leaders who purport to be democratically elected. The White House has said that Iran rigs its elections and has called out Venezuela’s May 2018 election for failing to be free, fair, or credible. While Erdogan and Putin get pardoned for eroding remaining vestiges of democracy in their countries, other despots get harsher treatment in yet another example of Trump’s inconsistent foreign policy.
Trump has been wary of criticizing Putin in the past, and his treatment of Turkey depends on whether he is getting what he wants at any given time, including Pastor Andrew Brunson’s release and Erdogan’s posture toward the Kurds (he did agree to leave Syria at Erdogan’s request).
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Turkey is also an ally, but as our other allies can attest, that hasn’t stopped the President from criticizing them at all. In fact, the President has had harsher words for our longtime allies than for many of the despotic leaders he now counts on his list of friends.
These are just a few of the despot double standards currently at play. If the President fails to establish some baseline rules on what is or isn’t acceptable from a friend, enemy (or frenemy in some cases), despots will figure out how to play the POTUS to stay on his good side – and get away with breaking international law. Consistency counts. In fact, our national security depends on it.