By Jules Witcover
Camp David, the presidential getaway in nearby Maryland, is a national historic site. It hosted the 1978 peace talks between Israel Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, which were a crown jewel of President Jimmy Carter’s tenure.
Carter personally squired Begin and Sadat in talks that led the next year to the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. The agreement earned the two Middle East leaders the Nobel Peace Prize. The treaty has held since then, with minor flashpoints.
But now President Donald Trump, in a clumsy, transparent and even irreverent gesture, has tried to cast himself as another foreign-policy giant. He invited to Camp David Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani and leaders of the Taliban. It was the Taliban that provided a safe haven for members of al-Qaeda, the terrorist group that perpetrated the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed more than 3,000 Americans.
Adding gross insult to that injury, Trump set the meeting for the week of Sept. 11, just after the 18th anniversary of the strike by three hijacked airliners on those targets, with a fourth plane brought down by sacrificial patriotic passengers in the Pennsylvania countryside.
But Trump had second thoughts. By his own admission in a tweet, he changed his mind and canceled the bizarre meeting. The invitation, particularly to the Taliban, showed an almost unimagined insensitivity to American public reaction to using Camp David for such a purpose.
For one thing, Carter’s intervention was a deft effort to bring together two warring entities to whom the United States was an interested bystander party. Trump’s was a callous publicity stunt rewarding the Taliban in spite of its outrageous acts.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed the invitation on the ABC News Sunday talk show “This Week” but said the negotiations were dead “for the time being,” and that American negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad had been recalled.
“We finally reached a point where we were close,” Pompeo said. “We’d made real progress. And then the Taliban failed to live up to a series of commitments that they had made. And when that happened, President Trump said, ‘I’m not going to take that deal.”‘
Pompeo further observed: “If you’re going to negotiate peace, you often have to deal with some pretty bad actors. I know the history, too, at Camp David, and indeed President Trump reflected on that. Some pretty bad people have traveled through that place throughout recorded history.”
Trump tweeted on Saturday that he canceled the meeting upon learning that the Taliban in Kabul had “killed one of our great soldiers and 11 other people,” and asked: “What kind of people would kill so many to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position? They didn’t, they only made it worse!”
He added: “If they cannot agree to a ceasefire … they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway.” And on Sunday, Trump went golfing again. Such is the state of war-and-peace diplomacy in the Trump era.
Still unexplained was why an American president would even think of rewarding the Talban with an invitation to Camp David, the venue of one of our proudest diplomatic achievements.
An obvious inference is that Trump, in his self-serving narcissistic musings, may have conjured up a favorable comparison with Jimmy Carter in one of the latter’s rare laudatory foreign-policy accomplishments. If so, how pathetic can this sitting president become?
“Camp David is where America’s leaders met to plan our response after al-Qaeda, supported by Taliban, killed 3,000 Americans on 9/11,” tweeted Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney. “No member of the Taliban should ever set foot there.”
Where are the other congressional Republicans as their national leader continues to flaunt his ignorance of his own country’s history and better moments on the international stage for the sake of his deplorable self-interest and self-aggrandizement?
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcovercomcast.net.