In the biblical narrative, King Solomon, described as the wisest of men, was confronted by two women who shared a house. They each claimed to be the mother of an infant boy while insisting that another newborn, just deceased, belonged to the other mother.
King Solomon pondered the claims of each and ordered, “Bring me a sword.” The king then said, “Cut the living child in two, and give half to one and half to the other.”
The woman who claimed that her living son was stolen from her said, “Please, my lord, give her the living child and do not kill it.” But the other woman said, “Neither mine nor yours shall he be. Cut!”
King Solomon, who based his decision on a keen understanding of human nature and an intuitive sense of ethics, declared, “Give the first woman the living child and do not kill it; for she is his mother.”
No American president has ever possessed the genius of a King Solomon. Yet, every president has faced critical decisions that would have left even King Solomon deeply conflicted.
Let’s start with the just completed historic summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. The stated goal was the removal of the growing nuclear threat from Pyongyang, in return for unspecified security guarantees. Human rights groups, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center, are urging that the president also address a basket of human-rights issues, including dismantling North Korea’s infamous gulag and allowing religious freedom.
Activists question whether President Trump or any president should ever provide “security guarantees” to a regime that crushes the human dignity of millions its own citizens. Some critics express dismay that the president didn’t explicitly call out Kim’s crimes at the summit and, instead, lavished him with praise.
Yet, to be fair to President Trump, some of his predecessors in the Oval Office did just that and, it could be argued, even worse.
President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State John Kerry decided it was in the best interest of the United States to pursue a policy of rapprochement with the theocratic Iranian regime of Ayatollah Khamenei; they pursued a deal that supposedly kicked the nuclear threat down the road for a number of years. To achieve that goal, they turned a deaf ear to Iranian protesters seeking relief from the mullahocracy.
In pursuit of their diplomatic goal, President Obama’s team legitimized a regime that is the world’s greatest Holocaust denier and state-sponsor of worldwide terrorism, while forking over billions of dollars to Tehran.
Mr. Obama would argue that he reached the conclusion that slowing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, in return for enabling Tehran to expand its dangerous bad behavior, served the best interests of the United States.
During the 20th century, America made even more debatable decisions. At the end of World War II, former allies who defeated Hitler’s Germany quickly turned into enemies with the onset of the Cold War. After the 1946 Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, Moscow, London and Washington quickly spurned further trials of Nazis; they were too busy recruiting them. Klaus Barbie, the infamous “Butcher of Lyon,” was hidden from French prosecution by the United States, putting him to work to identify communists.
The perceived threat to our national security from Soviet Russia, led the United States (under a Democratic president) to bring at least 88 prominent Nazi scientists to America; among them were those who used slave labor for their rocket programs or experimented with nerve gas on concentration camp victims. Our intelligence services never informed the Justice Department about them, and even hid their WWII crimes from the Justice Department. But in the midst of the Cold War, it had to be done, lest the Soviets beat us to the punch.
In occupied Japan, the United States shielded war criminal Gen. Ishii Shiro from Soviet prosecutors in return for his sharing results of experiments conducted on live POWs without anesthetic at the infamous Unit 731 in Manchuria.
So, should President Trump rely on these and other precedents and prepare to sacrifice some of our values on the altar of “national security”? Or is there a Solomonic path for the United States to remove the nuclear threat and guarantee human rights simultaneously?
America already achieved the latter — and with a much more dangerous foe: During the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan and then-Secretary of State George Shultz, rather than decoupling human rights from the nuclear arms race, used the issue of freedom for Soviet Jewry as the litmus test for Soviet intentions on nuclear disarmament. Eventually, human rights prevailed, and the communist system dissolved without a shot being fired.
The United States should counter Kim’s cycle of “charm offensives” not through appeasement but through verifiable changes. It is important to witness the blowing up of one nuclear test site but, of equal importance, will be the dismantling of Kim’s gulag. Only when that occurs can the world be assured that the two estranged Koreas are on the path to a peaceful reunification and a hopeful future for all.
Rabbi Marvin Hier is founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an international Jewish human rights organization named for the famed Nazi hunter and Holocaust survivor. Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the center and director of its Global Social Action programs.