On Thursday it was announced that President Donald Trump has accepted an offer to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Will it be Munich 2.0 where the evil man with the evil ambitions cons the world? Or will it be a "reverse Munich," where Trump sits down to explain in his inimitable style that it's his way or no highway for Kim? And not only no highway, but no infrastructure left standing near any weapons site or any of Kim's many palaces and hideaways in rubble. Whatever Trump's approach, he can learn from his predecessors in the Oval Office.
As the world buzzed with reactions, I joined former Attorney General Edwin Meese III in front of a couple hundred people gathered for the annual Friends of Ronald Reagan dinner at Los Angeles' California Club, where Reagan would gather with his Kitchen Cabinet to stand up the administration that would change the world. Meese ran that transition and stayed at Reagan's side for eight years.
Because the announcement of the North Korean offer and Trump's acceptance came hours before our conversation, I asked Meese about the Reykjavik summit between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in October 1986. There's a famous photograph of a grim Reagan and Secretary of State George P. Shultz leaving what many at that moment believed to be a failed sit-down. Gorbachev made sweeping offers, Meese recalled, but quite craftily saved his big demand for the last day: All the big cuts in the nuclear arsenals he proposed would come only if Reagan would abandon his Strategic Defense Initiative.
Reagan knew his own mind so thoroughly, Meese said, that this would never happen; Reagan knew going in what he would never agree to. When Gorbachev demanded the unacceptable, it was over. There was much hand-wringing outside the White House, but Reagan was vindicated as the Soviet Union slid rapidly toward dissolution. At summits, resolve matters. If Kim gets a dose of something he has never gotten before - an ultimatum of denuclearization vs. destruction - it could work.
Similar advice comes from Richard M. Nixon, who had arguably the most successful summit in modern U.S. history when he met with Mao Zedong and "opened China." In his 1980 book "The Real War" (which then-candidate Reagan was photographed carrying around with him as he campaigned), Nixon devoted a chapter to presidential leadership, including summits. His key admonition:
"But a President should go to a summit only if the stakes are worth the risks, and if the meeting is thoroughly programmed in advance. No American President should go to a summit with an adversary unless he knows what is on the other side of the mountain."
The entire chapter, 37 years old but as relevant as though it were written yesterday, should be circulating through the White House, from which we have to hope national security adviser H.R. McMaster does not depart and to which perhaps could be added former ambassador John R. Bolton as leader of a special working group. (If you read Bolton's memoir "Surrender Is Not an Option," you will see just how deeply versed he is in the North Korea issue).
In "The Real War," Nixon wrote that "if I could carve ten rules into the walls of the Oval Office for my successors to follow in the dangerous years ahead," the first one would be "always be prepared to negotiate, but never negotiate without being prepared." If the president goes with one message - full and verified denuclearization - and sticks to it, the details of implementation can be worked out later. But even it's a reverse Munich or a Reykjavik in the Pacific, that is preferable to a photo-op that bestows prestige on one of the worst people on the planet.