Well, of course. But framing the point that way makes it easy for Pompeo and other Republicans to say “of course.” Of course they’d oppose a soft-on-terror liberal hosting the Taliban at Camp David. That would signal weakness in neon letters. When a muscle-bound alpha-male right-winger like Trump extends the invite, though, that’s a sign of strength. (Never mind that Trump is more eager to withdraw U.S. troops from various theaters overseas than Obama was.) It wasn’t a show of weakness when Nixon went to China. It would have been if LBJ, who had commies in his own base, had gone instead. Same here.
The better way to frame this point for a gotcha is: If President Marco Rubio had invited the Taliban to Camp David, Republicans would be furious, no? Rubio is 10 times as hawkish as Trump and therefore would have been negotiating from a position of even greater “strength” than Trump is, but “strength” would have been no defense there. Republican hawks would have been outraged at the gratuitousness of honoring the Taliban with an audience at Camp David during 9/11 week instead of negotiating with them in Afghanistan. And Republican populists who hate Rubio for other reasons, like his squishiness on immigration and his general establishmentarianism, would have happily savaged him for treating a group of scumbag jihadis like they’re foreign dignitaries.
“We shouldn’t have nominated a RINO who’d throw Washington cocktail parties for the Taliban,” critics would have said. “We should have nominated someone tough. Like Trump.”
And they’d have been right to do so. Trump is going to get a pass on the right for this as usual not because he’s a Republican but because the populist cult of personality he’s assembled requires loyalists to sniff every fart he cuts and tell him it smells like roses. He can do no wrong, even when his instincts are so obviously wrong that his own VP and NSA urged him to rethink:
The idea raised Sept. 1 during a Situation Room meeting with the president was vehemently opposed by national security adviser John Bolton, even as officials at the State Department argued it could move the parties closer to an agreement, officials said.
Bolton had an ally in Vice President Mike Pence, who also made the case against a meeting at Camp David, a location Trump suggested, officials said. Bolton and Pence were in Warsaw together around the time of the internal discussions…
Among the concerns of administration officials who opposed the meeting was that it might take place around the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the officials and people familiar with the matter said. Pence argued at one point that such a meeting could send the wrong message to members of the U.S. military who have fought — and been killed by — the Taliban for years, one senior administration official said.
So patently terrible was the idea of a Taliban summit at Camp David that even the ultimate loyalist, Mike Pence, couldn’t praise its bouquet. (Trump denies this, obviously.) Meanwhile, party hawks who found themselves caught this weekend between the awfulness of Trump’s plan and the imperative to praise the president at all times in order to remain a Republican in good standing took to posting cringy tweets like this:
Camp David is where America’s leaders met to plan our response after al Qaeda, supported by the Taliban, killed 3000 Americans on 9/11.
No member of the Taliban should set foot there. Ever.
The Taliban still harbors al Qaeda.
The President is right to end the talks.
— Liz Cheney (@Liz_Cheney) September 8, 2019
“The room really stank but I salute the president for spraying air freshener afterward.”
We’re left with a question: How and why did the idea of Camp David even enter the equation? American diplomats have been negotiating with the Taliban for months but there was nothing finalized yet by way of a treaty. Normally you’d expect negotiations to keep going, based either in Afghanistan or in some neutral Middle Eastern country like the UAE or Qatar, etc. How did we leap past all that and proceed directly to the “Trump face-to-face with the Taliban” stage? Is it an ego thing? Because it’s usually an ego thing.
WaPo says it’s an ego thing:
Trump was the main person pushing for the Camp David meeting, according to a senior administration official who, like others who discussed the sensitive issue, spoke only on the condition of anonymity. Comparing the initiative to Trump’s personal meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and his stated desire to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, this official said Trump thinks his personal style can persuade anyone, and that he has seen the possibility of a substantial Afghan withdrawal as a major plus for his reelection campaign.
“Mr. Trump did not want the Camp David meeting to be a celebration of the deal,” added the Times. “After staying out of the details of what has been a delicate effort in a complicated region, Mr. Trump wanted to be the dealmaker who would put the final parts together himself, or at least be perceived to be.” Amy Klobuchar said yesterday that she agrees with Trump that it’s time to come home and sign a deal to facilitate that, but added this:
“This isn’t a game show — these are terrorists,” Klobuchar said. “The way he conducts foreign policy — this reminds me exactly of North Korea. He loves the showmanship. He wants to have that moment but then all the details aren’t done, and then we end up in a worse place on the world stage than we were before.”
There are two lingering mysteries to this episode. First, why did Trump reveal that the summit had been in the works after canceling it? Why not keep it under wraps? My best guess is that he thought the news would leak eventually anyway, particularly with Bolton and Pompeo at odds lately and eager to tear each other down in the press. Better to break the news himself on Twitter than let the Times or the Post break it via a mega-scoop that upended American politics for a week.
Although, if it had played out that way, Trump would have just said “FAKE NEWS!” and gone about his business, as usual. So why handle it differently this time?
Second, why on earth would he want a personal meeting with the Taliban when everyone understands that they’re going to renege on a peace deal with the United States as soon as we’ve withdrawn? There’s no “peace with honor” outcome on the table here; a treaty with the Taliban is about cutting our losses after 18 years and grimly resigning ourselves to the fact that they’ll rule Afghanistan again in due time. Any other president would want to keep his fingerprints off a deal like that. Instead Trump seems to want a thumbs-up photo op from it that’ll haunt him forever once we hand over the country and the Taliban stabs us in the back. How does he not see that coming?
Here’s Tapper spending 10 minutes asking and re-asking the same question: “Really? These people at Camp David?”