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Analysis: In willingness to meet with dictators, a Trump doctrine emerges

President Donald Trump gestures during an interview in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, May 1, 2017.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Image
President Donald Trump gestures during an interview in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, May 1, 2017.

President Trump is demonstrating a willingness to meet with some of the most notorious leaders on the world stage — a wheeling-and-dealing approach to diplomacy that is both an embrace and a rejection of President Obama's policy of engaging with adversaries.

In the span of 48 hours, President Trump announced that he had invited Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte — whose war on drugs has led to the extrajudicial killing of thousands of Filipinos over the last year — to the White House.

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And he told Bloomberg news that he would be willing to meet with North Korea's Kim Jong Un — which, if it happens, would be the first time a U.S. president has met with a leader of the hermit nation since the Korean war. "I would be honored to do it," Trump said, emphasizing that it would have to be "under the right circumstances."

Last month, Trump made headlines for taking a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whose own human rights record includes the jailing of thousands of dissidents, who came to the White House as part of Trump's effort to solidify an alliance against Islamic extremism.

Trump's businesslike willingness to make deals on the world stage is becoming a central pillar of what could be seen as an emerging Trump Doctrine — that building personal relationships with rivals, adversaries, and even enemies can advance American interests.

"The reason that the president is building an effective coalition and is getting results around the globe in reasserting America's place is because he understands the type of diplomacy and the type of negotiating and the type of deal-making that actually gets real results for our country," White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Monday.

If it sounds like we've had this debate before, we have.

In the 2008 presidential campaign, one of the defining differences between then-senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton was the degree to which Obama was willing to talk to adversaries. Clinton was cool to talks with countries like Iran, North Korea and Cuba. Obama said he would talk to them "without preconditions."

"I do think that it's important for the United States not just to talk to its friends, but also to talk to its enemies. In fact, that's where diplomacy makes the biggest difference," Obama said in a 2008 debate. During his presidency, Obama opened up a channel to Iran, forging a deal to allow nuclear inspections in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. He made a historic visit to Cuba, even attending a baseball game with Cuban President Raul Castro despite continued concerns about Cuba's human rights record. And while he often gave the silent treatment to allies in Turkey and Egypt, he continued to quietly provide them with military assistance.

Obama's outreach to countries such as Cuba and Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was part of a strategy of opening up those regimes to global economic and cultural forces that, he hoped, would lead to more democratic regimes.

Still, officials who worked under Obama take issue with the idea Trump is taking a page out of the former president's book. Obama's brand of principled engagement "is a is a far cry from what we've seen from this administration," said Ned Price, a former Obama National Security Council official.

"President Trump's feteing of autocrats and dictators, including from the Oval Office, undermines the values for which America has always stood," Price said. "That is not only a break from past Republican and Democratic administrations, it's also an affront to America's traditional role in the world."

For Trump, the willingness to embrace strongmen represents a modern day realpolitik aimed at containing what he sees as the two biggest threats to U.S. security: The Islamic State and North Korea.

Spicer said the outreach to Duterte was "an opportunity for us to work with countries in that region that can help play a role in diplomatically and economically isolating North Korea."

And the meeting with North Korea, he said, would not be without preconditions. "We've got to see their provocative behavior ratcheted down immediately," Spicer said.

Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Trump's dialogue with Duterte validates his brutal anti-drug campaign.

"I don't know what the rush was to meet him," Engel told MSNBC. "If you sleep with dogs, you get fleas."

But even Engel conceded that it would be hard to ignore the North Korean leader. "Kim Jong Un is another story. He's a bad guy too," Engel said. But with North Korea on the brink of building a missile that could deliver a nuclear warhead to the United States, he said, "that may mean an exception."