President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong...

President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the border village of Panmunjom in Demilitarized Zone, South Korea on June 30, 2019. Credit: AP/Susan Walsh

During a single visit to Asia, President Donald Trump embraced not one, not two, but three dictators. He became the first American president to set foot in North Korea, where he praised his "great friendship" with North Korea's despotic leader, Kim Jong Un; he held another cringe-worthy press availability with Russian President Vladimir Putin, where Trump joked about Russia's electoral interference; and he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, calling him "one of the great leaders in 200 years." Oh, and before leaving, he said that he would be willing to meet Iran's leaders with "no preconditions."

If President Barack Obama had done any of this as president, conservatives would be howling with outrage. So why are they not angry with Trump? Simple. Because unlike Obama, Trump is taking a hard line with North Korea, Russia, China and Iran. And what he does matters a lot more than what he says.

Obama did not simply embrace anti-American tyrants; he showered them with cash and diplomatic concessions. Not only did Obama do the "wave" with Cuban dictator Raúl Castro at a Havana ballpark, but he also gave the Cuban regime diplomatic recognition and sanctions relief in exchange for ... absolutely nothing. Cuba responded by increasing its repression of dissidents on the island.

Obama tried to meet with Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, but the Iranian leader rejected his request. Nonetheless, Obama cut a nuclear deal that gave the regime billions of dollars in sanctions relief -- money Iran then used to fuel terrorism and Shiite expansionism across the Middle East.

Obama was famously caught on an open microphone in 2012 telling then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have "more flexibility" after the election ("I will transmit this information to Vladimir," Medvedev replied). In 2009, Obama undermined Poland and the Czech Republic by canceling U.S. missile-defense agreements in a move that Moscow would have welcomed, and in 2014 he stood by as Putin annexed Crimea.

Trump, by contrast, has given his tyrannical interlocutors virtually nothing. In North Korea, Trump has showered Kim with undeserved praise but has not lifted sanctions, unfrozen North Korean assets or granted Pyongyang diplomatic recognition. Quite the opposite, he has tightened sanctions on Kim's inner circle -- and seized a North Korean ship that was violating sanctions.

In his Putin meeting last week, Trump made unseemly jokes about "fake news" not being a problem in Russia. But he has also approved a massive arms and aid package for Ukraine; expelled Russian diplomats; authorized multiple rounds of new sanctions against Moscow for everything from election interference to treaty violations; withdrawn from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; persuaded NATO allies to increase their defense investments; and twice bombed Putin's ally, the Assad regime, for Syria's use of chemical weapons against civilians. And before the Putin meeting, Trump announced that he is considering imposing new economic sanctions to block construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would allow Russia to increase flows of natural gas to Germany. With the exception of Ronald Reagan, Trump is right that no American president has ever been tougher on Russia.

In China, Trump might have praised Xi as "great" for declaring himself "president for life," but he has also punished China for its theft of American intellectual property by imposing 25% tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods after China backtracked on a trade deal. And Trump has made clear that he stands ready to impose tariffs on an additional $300 billion in Chinese goods if China does not reach an agreement soon.

Regarding Iran, Trump has expressed a willingness to meet with Iran's leaders, but he has also withdrawn from Obama's disastrous nuclear deal and imposed crushing sanctions that that reduced Iran's oil sales by 88% and drained Iran of 40% of its government revenue, according to the State Department. If Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei wants a photo op with Trump, he can have it -- but that doesn't mean U.S. pressure is going to be lifted.

It's unclear whether Trump's combination of hard-line policies and soft rhetoric will work. But most of the Democrats now criticizing Trump's brief visit to North Korea were silent while Obama was doing the wave in Havana. As for conservatives, so long as Trump does not capitulate on substance, most are willing to give the president some leeway when it comes to personal diplomacy with butchers such as Kim.

Marc A. Thiessen is a columnist with The Washington Post.

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