Trump Accepts Kim’s Offer to Meet

North Korea's Dear Leader has baited the President of the United States into a trap.

North Korea’s Dear Leader has baited the President of the United States into a trap.

NYT (“Trump Accepts Kim Jong-un’s Invitation to Discuss North Korean Nuclear Program“):

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, has invited President Trump to meet for negotiations over its nuclear program, an audacious diplomatic overture that would bring together two strong-willed, idiosyncratic leaders who have traded threats of war.

The White House said that Mr. Trump had accepted the invitation, and Chung Eui-yong, a South Korean official who conveyed it, told reporters that the president would meet with Mr. Kim within two months.

“He expressed his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible,” Mr. Chung said at the White House on Thursday evening after meeting the president. Mr. Trump, he said, agreed to “meet Kim Jong-un by May to achieve permanent denuclearization.”

The president expressed his optimism about the meeting in a post on Twitter, saying that Mr. Kim had “talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze.”

“Also, no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time,” Mr. Trump added. “Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!”

Mr. Chung, whose talks with Mr. Kim on Monday in Pyongyang resulted in the invitation, noted that the North Korean leader said he understood that joint military exercises with the United States and South Korea would go ahead as scheduled after the end of the Paralympic Games this month.

For Mr. Trump, a meeting with Mr. Kim, a leader he has threatened with “fire and fury” and has derided as “Little Rocket Man,” is a breathtaking gamble. No sitting American president has ever met a North Korean leader, and Mr. Trump himself has repeatedly vowed that he would not commit the error of his predecessors by being drawn into a protracted negotiation in which North Korea extracted concessions from the United States but held on to key elements of its nuclear program.

Meeting Mr. Kim now, rather than at the end of a negotiation when the United States would presumably have extracted concessions from North Korea, is an enormous gesture by the president. But Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim share a penchant for bold, dramatic moves, and their personal participation in a negotiation could take it in unexpected directions.

That’s putting it mildly. Candidate Barack Obama was repeatedly lampooned, by Democratic and Republican opponents alike, for his assertions that he would be willing to meet with the likes of Iran’s ayatollah’s “without preconditions.” Presidents simply don’t do that, as it lends the prestige of the office to the opponent while risking colossal embarrassment. While Obama never admitted the mistake—apparently, that’s no longer allowed in American politics—he would later explain that “without preconditions” didn’t mean “without any preconditions” and that, of course, he wouldn’t meet before the outlines of a deal had been negotiated.

Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, is regarded by most national security professionals as the go-to guy on these issues. He’s yet to pen a piece for Foreign Policy, where he writes regularly, but he took to Twitter last night to point out the problem with Trump’s move:

North Korea has been seeking a summit with an American president for more than twenty years. It has literally been a top foreign policy goal of Pyongyang since Kim Jong Il invited Bill Clinton

I wonder if Trump’s “aides” have explained that to him. Or, if in their toddler-handling, they have led him to believe that this offer is something unusual. Or perhaps he imagines that only he can go Pyongyang.

This is literally how the North Korean film “The Country I Saw” ends. An American President visits Pyongyang, compelled by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs to treat a Kim as an equal.

To be clear — we need to talk to North Korea. But Kim is not inviting Trump so that he can surrender North Korea’s weapons. Kim is inviting Trump to demonstrate that his investment in nuclear and missile capabilities has forced the United States to treat him as an equal.

WaPo‘s Karen DeYoung offers a slightly different take (“Trump’s bellicosity secures a diplomatic coup — for now“):

For the moment, at least, it appears to be a clear-cut victory — the biggest foreign policy win of his young administration. President Trump has brought his arch-nemesis, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a.k.a. “Little Rocket Man,” to the table to negotiate away his nuclear arsenal.

Optimists declared a major breakthrough. Even pessimists acknowledged that Trump’s hard line against Pyongyang, after decades of less forceful U.S. effort, played a significant role in moving one of the world’s most vexing and threatening problems in a potentially positive direction.

But in the afterglow of the surprise announcement — hinted by Trump in a teasing visit to the White House press room and soon confirmed by South Korea’s national security adviser, standing in the West Wing driveway — questions were fast and furious.

Were direct talks between Kim and Trump, two notably volatile leaders who have traded public insults for more than a year, the best way to start what are sure to be complicated negotiations? Was the administration, whose thin bench of experienced experts seems to be growing slimmer by the day, ready to face those wily and untrustworthy North Koreans? The talks, U.S. and South Korean officials said, would take place before the end of May.

By some assessments, this is really a victory for Kim, who for years has sought proof of his status and North Korea’s power by dangling the offer of leader-to-leader talks with the United States.

Some analysts said it remains unclear what Trump is prepared to put on the table opposite Kim’s apparent offer to stop testing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and discuss denuclearization. “Sanctions? Normalization? Peace treaty?” tweeted Victor Cha, the expert who was once Trump’s choice as ambassador to South Korea, before he voiced concern that the White House was contemplating a pre-emptive military strike against Pyongyang.

According to a senior administration official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity, the answer is not very much.

There would be no reward for talks themselves, the official said. Trump would expect a dismantled nuclear weapons program, with complete “verification,” and “will settle for nothing less.”

But “President Trump has a reputation for making deals,” the official added. “Kim Jong Un is the one person able to make decisions in their uniquely totalitarian system and so it made sense to accept the invitation with the one person who can make decisions instead of repeating the long slog of the past.”

Trump has a vibrant track record of surprise announcements that have distracted attention, at least temporarily, from concern over tariffs and border walls and the growing threat to his presidency posed by the special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

At the same time, he has claimed a long string of successes over the past 14 months that others have challenged as lacking a strategy for long-term sustainability, from the currently robust economy to the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The North Korea gambit may be his highest-wire act of all.

“A Trump-Kim summit is a major diplomatic gamble,” tweeted Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for New American Security. “But let’s see if it actually comes off. Recall that yesterday, we were set to impose steel tariffs on Canada.”

Among experts, there were widely divergent views of what had happened, and why, and what the risks were.

“Beyond the initial shock value of the invitation from Kim Jong Un to Trump,” and Trump’s acceptance, “I think the real underlying questions are still what are they going to negotiate,” said Lisa Collins, a fellow with the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Two months doesn’t give working-level officials much time to pull things together.”

“It’s certainly the start of talks. Whether or not it’s a true breakthrough in terms of change in North Korea’s calculus, I’m still a little skeptical,” she said. “I tend to be more of a pessimist.

Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, said it was “absolutely right to extend the nuclear and missile test pause” declared by Pyongyang during talks last week with the Seoul government. “It will help repair ties with South Korea and keeps us back from the brink of war.”

“Unfortunately,” Mount said, “denuclearization is a distant fantasy.” The administration “has not equipped itself for success. They have not laid the groundwork for credibility in talks [and] lack leadership with experience in international negotiation. . . . In accepting the invitation outright, Trump has already lost much of his leverage over the terms and agenda of the talks.”

The “better play,” he said, “is to start by offering a credible plan to stabilize the peninsula and halt nuclear and missile tests sustainably, and then build out to a more ambitious agreement.”

The notion that “there would be no reward for the talks themselves” is laughable: the talks themselves are the reward! The administration’s desired end state—“a dismantled nuclear weapons program, with complete verification”—is the Holy Grail US administrations have been seeking for the last quarter century. If we can achieve that—and it’s admittedly highly unlikely—then legitimating Kim would have been a worthwhile tradeoff. But, again, there’s a reason US Presidents don’t show up for summits before their team has a deal in place.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Donald Trump, North Korea, Presidency
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Slugger says:

    This is a good thing. This is better than saber-rattling and insult hurling. I am willing to give Trump some credit, but I doubt any material changes will result; Kim is not going to dismantle what nukes he as, and I doubt that he ever intended to bomb Japan or Hawaii. It does acknowledge that nukes put you into the big boys’ club. We will likely see other nations try the same ploy.
    On a side note, I wonder if people in North Korea think all Americans are like Trump or Rodman.




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  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Let me see, trump on one side of the table, Kim Jong-un on the other.

    Nope, this is not going to end well.




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  3. Ben Wolf says:

    Because there’s a reason Presidents don’t show up first doesn’t mean it’s a good one. Meeting Kim may not serve the interests of American power, but it could very well serve the interests of the American people.




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  4. Tyrell says:

    This seems similar to the amazing announcement that President Nixon was going to China.
    Local news had this: “Trump to meet North Korean leaders in bold move!”




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  5. James Joyner says:

    @Ben Wolf: There’s a first time for everything. But there’s a reason we have professional diplomats.

    @Tyrell: Nixon deserves a lot of credit for “going to China.” But he sent Henry Kissinger to negotiate the deal first.




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  6. rachel says:

    I feel somewhat relieved that Trump doesn’t seem to be planning to provoke a shooting war here at the moment. But the way he came out with this plan… Ai yai yai yai yai.




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  7. Jc says:

    Kim must have watched the DACA and gun control round table meetings. This is the guy he wants to sit down with. Great they are not threatening each other, but I am not optimistic on the outcome. Is Putin involved?




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  8. Ben Wolf says:

    @James Joyner: I understand that. But professional diplomats haven’t managed to definitively address our mutual grievances in sixty-five years. At some point the only rational course is to break the mold and create a new one.




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  9. mattb says:

    @Ben Wolf:
    The issue isn’t the process, but instead that we (and the North) have fundamentally different goals. This is a case of truly conflicting ideologies. There is nothing to suggest that Trump is willing to shift on our position (that the North must, among other things, fully denuclearize). And since the North sees nukes as a fundamentally existential issue, they cannot move either.

    Without a doubt, IF this meeting happens it will be a radically different approach than seen before (point to MBunge). And I can see why Trump would want to do this (given his image as a “Deal Maker”).

    However, my prediction is the meeting will enter the magical space of “the wall” and “repealing Obamacare” — something talked about but still not happening.

    Of course, I was also wrong about Trump being elected, so who knows what will happen.




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  10. mattb says:

    BTW, as usual, Dan Larison’s take is worth a read:

    http://www.theamericanconservative.com/larison/a-trump-kim-summit/




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  11. Lit3Bolt says:

    @James Joyner:

    Of course, we’re all assuming that Trump is negotiating on behalf of the United States. Trump may end NK sanctions and legitimize Kim simply for the rights to build the People’s Tower of Trump in Pyongchang.




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  12. MBunge says:

    @James Joyner: But there’s a reason we have professional diplomats.

    What is that reason? Is it a welfare program for people with poli-sci or history degrees? Let’s review:

    1. Donald Trump is not responsible for North Korea. The diplomatic/foreign policy establishment has had essentially three generations to deal with this problem and not only failed, it hasn’t even come up with a theoretical solution.

    2. The people who have failed to deal with North Korea for decades did not think Donald Trump’s approach would get us to this point. In fact, that loudly proclaimed it would have basically the opposite effect.

    Given points #1 and #2, is adopting an attitude of “How DARE Trump think he can do this” really appropriate? There are legitimate grounds for concern, as there are for most things involving President Trump, but any response to this other than warily hopeful doesn’t seem based in reason.

    Mike




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  13. Mikey says:

    @mattb: Some of the details in that Larison piece make me think Trump is the only one in the White House who thinks this is a good idea at this point, but since he’s POTUS they have to humor him and your prediction is likely to come true.

    To be fair, though, any decrease in nuclear tension is a good thing, and if Trump meeting Kim actually accomplishes that, he will deserve credit. Given there’s zero chance NK will de-nuclearize, that may be the best we can get.




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  14. Ben Wolf says:

    @mattb: I think Trump is more than capable of telling the Koreans they can keep their nukes and successfully spinning it to his supporters as a victory. And I write that because I don’t believe Trump is wedded to anything other than Donald Trump.




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  15. teve tory says:

    Given Trump’s Hang-Ups, and deal-making Acumen, I wouldn’t be surprised if may came around and the following deal was announced:

    1) new Trump Tower Pyongyang to be built with Russian money
    2) North Korea ONLY gets to keep nuclear and thermonuclear programs,
    But
    3) the missiles all have to be pointed at Obama’s house




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  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @MBunge: You fail to note that as of this time trump has done nothing, absolutely nothing at all, that hasn’t been accomplished by professional diplomats with actual results dozens of times before. You might find their varying results unsatisfactory but at this point in time all we have is Kim saying. “I want to talk.”

    And you think that is some kind of unprecedented achievement.




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  17. JohnMcC says:

    It seems obvious that the process (such as it was) is at least part of the story. And it’s really clear that in Mr Trump’s view this was a chance to cut the State Dep’t and Intelligence Community out of this entire issue.

    Whatever the wisdom or lack of same in the actual policy that emerges it is entirely being constructed somewhere between the ears of our unique President.




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  18. michael reynolds says:

    The desired end-state for the US is the fall of the North Korean regime. The desired end-state for North Korea is regime survival. Who just moved significantly closer to their goal? That’s right, North Korea.

    Trump bought himself a 24 hour respite from Mueller and Stormy Daniels. Kim just bought himself bragging rights back home and international legitimacy. Kim gives up nothing and gains legitimacy. We gave up the notion that the Kim regime is destined to fall.

    We were the ones threatening them, not the other way around. Kim was never going to overthrow the government of the United States, we were very much hoping to overthrow the Kim regime, as we did with his Axis of Evil compadre Saddam. The only way in which we have moved ‘closer to peace’ is that we may – may – have less bluster and fewer threats from Trump. In other words, these entirely theoretical talks have solved the Problem of Trump’s Mouth, nothing more.




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  19. Kathy says:

    Trump’s not even smart enough to accept a meeting but in a neutral third country like Malaysia or Singapore.

    Live from Pyongyang, The People’s Philharmonic Orchestra plays Kim’s Springtime Sonata #1 for Trump and Orchestra, Kim Jong Un will solo on the Trump.




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  20. george says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Has to be better than the twitter match they’ve been having. Presumably there’ll be adults in the room with the two children, and who knows, maybe they’ll even end up liking each other personally – children sometimes do, if only because they share the bond of not liking having adults around.

    In any case, as Churchill said, “Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war.”

    Though I admit I don’t expect anything to come of this.




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  21. george says:

    @michael reynolds:

    We shouldnt be mussing about with regime change, not even in a place like NKorea. It simply rarely turns out well (I’m trying to think of times it worked well, and the only cases I can think of involve post-WW2 Japan and Germany). Worse, it makes our complaints about Russian meddling in our elections (which they’re clearly doing) laughably hypocritical.

    That was true even under good Presidents like Obama; its even more true under someone like Trump.




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  22. CSK says:

    OT, but Anthony Kennedy is retiring from the Supreme Court this summer.




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  23. Kathy says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Let me see, trump on one side of the table, Kim Jong-un on the other.

    “I’m the Dear leader!”
    “NO! I’m the Dear leader!!”

    Yup. Boring, too.




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  24. Ebenezer Arvigenius says:

    To be fair, though, any decrease in nuclear tension is a good thing, and if Trump meeting Kim actually accomplishes that, he will deserve credit.

    Which would be much more impressive if he hadn’t caused the tensions in the first place.




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  25. CSK says:

    @Kathy:

    I think Trump should get a haircut just like Kim’s.




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  26. michael reynolds says:

    @george:
    I agree that regime change is something we should not cause except in rare cases. But there are people in North Korea desperate for a degree of liberty, who have looked to the US in particular, as an inspiration. Now we are slamming the door on them. They’ll go on doing life without parole. Kim will be a God if he gets to strut his marching bands for Trump, and North Koreans yearning to breathe free will see that they’ve been abandoned. We are granting legitimacy to the worst regime on Earth.

    I will grant that we were not going to knock off the regime. I will grant that this tyranny was very likely to continue. But the fact is we just made life easier for the Kim regime, we just helped solidify his rule. Call me old-fashioned, but I still remember when the United States was meant to stand for freedom.




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  27. gVOR08 says:

    @Tyrell:

    Local news had this: “Trump to meet North Korean leaders in bold move!”

    “Bold”. That’s an interesting word for this.

    There were recently stories about Mexico, Israel, China, and the UAE studying how to exploit Kushner. You think maybe North Korea, and South Korea, have been studying up on how to exploit Trump? Think the Trump Tower Pyongyang jokes are all that funny?




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  28. Mikey says:

    @Ebenezer Arvigenius:

    Which would be much more impressive if he hadn’t caused the tensions in the first place.

    Hey, in the age of Trump, we take what we can get.




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  29. Kit says:

    This is a victory for Trump. Anything, short of Kim leaping across the table and strangling him on live television, allows Trump’s followers to claim absolute victory, no matter how the dust settles. If said strangling does occur, Hillary might perhaps take the blame.

    Apart from that, I think the rudiments of a successful deal could involve North Korea agreeing to merely keep its nuclear program on the back burner (with proper verification) in exchange for a true, if partial, opening of the country and normalisation of relations. The expectations on their side are obvious. Expectations on our side are that such a crazy country cannot long stand the exposure to the rest of the world.




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  30. wr says:

    @michael reynolds: “The desired end-state for the US is the fall of the North Korean regime. ”

    If that were indeed our only goal, life would be much easier. But we need not only for the regime to fall, but for it to be replaced with a more reasonable and benevolent government. Having the peninsula fall into the chaos of a failed state — especially with nukes available to steal or sell — would be worse than the status quo…




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  31. Moosebreath says:

    If I were a betting man, I would put money on the side which says no meeting ever happens. At some point, Trump will issue an ultimatum requiring Kim to take some disarmament steps before the meeting, and when Kim refuses to do so before the meeting, it will be cancelled.




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  32. teve tory says:

    OT, but Anthony Kennedy is retiring from the Supreme Court this summer.

    he’s hired clerks for the next term. Which isn’t dispositive, but it’s not nothing.




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  33. mattb says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    I think Trump is more than capable of telling the Koreans they can keep their nukes and successfully spinning it to his supporters as a victory.

    Time will tell. However, I have a really hard time seeing my way to this (especially in the context of his rejection of the Iran deal). All that said, a lot may, in the end, depend who is in the Nat Sec position by then (if the meeting happens at all).




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  34. Gustopher says:

    Well, since this going to happen, I hope it goes better than I expect it to.

    I’ve never understood the policy of refusing to meet with our enemies. It hasn’t given us regime change in Cuba, North Korea or anywhere else we have applied it. My only real concern is Trump himself.




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  35. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @george:

    Has to be better than the twitter match they’ve been having.

    True, but not even a snake could get under a bar that low.




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  36. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @mattb: The Iran deal was negotiated under Obama. That is why it is the worse deal ever. If trump were to negotiate the exact same deal with N Korea he would be bragging about his Nobel Peace Prize before he ever got nominated.




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  37. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: A snake with a shovel might be able to; I don’t know how well snakes can dig.




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  38. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    They are walking it back…
    From TPM:

    A meeting by May at a place to be determined is now replaced with a meeting at some place and at some time. The fixed time before which seems gone. Sanders also spoke of needing to see concrete and verifiable steps toward denuclearization for the summit to happen. But from what we understood last night, nothing like that was promised. What was apparently promised was suspending further nuclear or ballistic missile tests before the meeting and presumably in a subsequent period of negotiation or normalization. There’s no need to verify any of this. The US can tell very easily when a ballistic missile is fired or when there’s a nuclear test.




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  39. gVOR08 says:

    The North Koreans made surprising progress in rocket development. This may have been because they acquired technology and rocket motors from a Ukraine plant. It may be that their impressive tests were done with Ukraine built motors. If they didn’t get sufficient design data, or have otherwise failed to copy the motors, they might be out of rockets and very happy to trade a test pause for something substantive.




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  40. grumpy realist says:

    More backtracking from Politico

    I assume the clowns on the right such as Breitbart, now that they have their original grandiose statements and photos of Captain Bonespurs will totally ignore any of this.




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  41. george says:

    @michael reynolds:

    The intention is good – make a country better for its citizens is a noble goal. But the results are almost always bad; I’m pretty you can come up with ten examples of it turning out poorly for every one in which it turns out well.




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  42. george says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    True. But I’m a physicist, I’m used to raising a bar infinitesimally. Eventually you get macroscopic changes.




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