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The Tragedy of Trump Diplomacy

His presidency sometimes makes historic changes possible. But his ego always torpedoes them.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

After 18 years of war, the United States had a fighting chance at ending the longest continuous conflict in its history. A deal was within reach with the Afghan Taliban. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, had spent months shuttling between Doha, Kabul, and Washington, slowly putting the pieces together for an end to hostilities and a phased U.S. withdrawal. There was reportedly finalized text for an agreement, initialized by representatives of both sides. After hundreds of billions of dollars spent, more than 2,300 American combat deaths, and an estimated 150,000 civilian deaths, President Donald Trump stood poised to achieve what eluded the Bush and Obama administrations: He could effectively end the American war in Afghanistan.

You could tell that Trump had no appreciation for the significance of that achievement by how swiftly he blew it up this weekend. In a series of tweets on Saturday evening, Trump claimed that he was calling off a secret Camp David meeting with Taliban representatives and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, following a Taliban-claimed attack in Kabul that killed a U.S. service member, a Romanian soldier, and ten Afghan civilians last week. “If they cannot agree to a ceasefire during these very important peace talks, and would even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway,” Trump added.

That was a lot to digest. Trump called for U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan early and often before he became president, and has expressed skepticism about the American mission there ever since. But he had also lambasted Obama, his predecessor, for “negotiating with our sworn enemy the Taliban,” and so the news that he had planned to host representatives of the Taliban in Maryland around the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, then scrubbed the plan, then spilled about it on Twitter, was dizzying for critics, supporters, and administration officials alike. As with his waffling last year on North Korean negotiations and his sharing of a classified spy-satellite photo on Twitter last week, this was another example of Trump oversharing and throwing a wrench in the diplomatic works for no apparent reason other than his self-aggrandizement. And in the case of the Taliban talks, it may have been a lie of Trumpian proportions that could lead to thousands more deaths in coming months.

The New York Times on Sunday evening published an inside account of how exactly a potential deal with the Taliban hit a brick wall. The most remarkable bit—one that’s familiar to anyone who’s followed Trump’s diplomacy with North Korea—is why the president felt the need to kneecap his special representative’s months of yeoman’s work negotiating with the Taliban. In late August, White House officials suggested to Trump that the parties “finalize the negotiations in Washington, a prospect that appealed to the president’s penchant for dramatic spectacle,” in the Times’ words. Taliban officials, seeking political legitimacy, agreed to travel to the U.S. in principle, “as long as the visit came after the deal was announced.”

That was hardly an unusual request, as high-level negotiations go. It was how the North Korea playbook used to work in the Clinton, Bush, and Obama years: If Pyongyang’s representatives came to the table and hammered out a substantive deal in good faith at the working level, they might be rewarded with a presidential photo-op only when an agreement was finalized and signed.

Trump upended this approach with his decision last year to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore, a decision that did, however briefly, open up new possibilities in amicable negotiations between the two nations. (A subsequent summit in Hanoi was advertised as an opportunity to finally end the still-officially open Korean War; it ended in breakdown, with Kim gaining a wide platform for his desire to see the U.S. end its economic sanctions on North Korea.)

But the Taliban’s insistence that its visit come after a deal was reached “would become a fundamental dividing point contributing to the collapse of the talks,” according to the Times:

Mr. Trump did not want the Camp David meeting to be a celebration of the deal; 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.

The idea was for Mr. Trump to hold separate meetings at Camp David with the Taliban and with Mr. Ghani, leading to a more global resolution.

Trump, in other words, didn’t want an end to the Afghanistan war so much as he wanted to be seen brokering an end to the war. When he tweet-canceled the apparent Camp David peace summit that he’d asked for, I recalled how he’d canceled the Singapore summit with North Korea in May 2018, after commemorative coins for the meeting had already been struck, over Pyongyang’s “open hostility” in the press. Trump reversed himself and declared the summit back on the following day, after he received a “warm and productive statement” from the North Koreans.

On Monday, just two days after Trump pulled the rug out from under Khalilzad’s Taliban negotiations, North Korea’s vice foreign minister said that Pyongyang would be willing to engage in working-level talks later this month. Those talks would represent the first substantive working-level talks between Pyongyang and Washington since the Singapore summit (i.e., talks that aren’t about setting up a summit). But the U.S.-Taliban experience should vindicate the North Koreans’ preferred approach of talking to Trump himself. He contradicts his negotiators, he changes policies 280 characters at a time, and he’s deeply susceptible to flattery and fawning media portrayals of him as the decider; knowing this, how can any negotiating counterparty—be it the Taliban, the North Koreans, or even the Iranians—agree to anything with any American but the capricious president himself?

Of course, as we all now know, Trump’s unitary, capricious attempts at diplomacy are a double-edged sword. His ascension to the presidency opened up new, unthinkable possibilities in international relations, like a thawing of relations with Kim and a truce with the Taliban. But his desire to be the star of every story line tragically quashes all those possibilities. Khalilzad’s deal may well have simply ended up laying the groundwork for a twenty-first century “fall of Saigon” moment in Kabul down the line, as a resurgent Taliban chips away at what remains of the Afghan state. But it would have given Americans a much-needed exit from its longest war—and preempted, untold additional bloodshed. When the history of the Trump administration is written, there will be many tragedies that will need documentation, but this may be one of the greatest: his inability to embrace a lifesaving peace agreement if its adoption doesn’t follow his desired adulation narrative.