World

Peter Beinart’s Amnesia

Peter Beinart (Wikimedia Commons )
NATO’s problems, Putin’s aggression, and American passivity predate Trump, who had my vote in 2016 — a vote I don’t regret.

Peter Beinart has posted a trademark incoherent rant, this time against Rich Lowry and me over our supposed laxity in criticizing Trumpian over-the-top rhetoric on NATO.

At various times, I have faulted Germany for much of NATO’s problems; I was delighted that we got out of the Iran deal and happier still that we pulled out of the empty Paris climate-change accord; and I agree that NAFTA needs changes. All that apparently for Beinart constitutes support for Trump’s sin of saying that the U.S. has “no obligation to meet America’s past commitments to other countries.”

Last time I looked, the Paris climate accord and the Iran deal (and its stealth “side” deals) were pushed through as quasi-executive orders and never submitted to Congress as treaties — largely because the Obama administration understood that both deals would have been summarily rejected and lacked support from most of Congress and also the American people, owing to the deal’s inherent flaws.

The U.S. may soon come closer to meeting carbon-emission-reduction goals than most of the signatories of the Paris farce. Following the Iran pullout, Iranians now seem more inclined to protest their theocratic government. They are confident in voicing their dissent in a way we have not seen since we ignored Iranian protesters during the Green Revolution of 2009. Incidents of Iranian harassment of U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf this year have mysteriously declined to almost zero.

The architects of NAFTA who in 1993 promised normalization and parity in North America through free trade and porous borders apparently did not envision something like the Andrés Manuel López Obrador presidency, which seems to think it exercises sovereignty over U.S. immigration policy, a cumulative influx of some 20 million foreign nationals illegally crossing the southern border over the last three decades, a current $71 billion Mexican trade surplus, $30 billion in remittances sent annually out of the U.S. to Mexico, record numbers of assassinations, and a nearly failed state as cartels virtually run affairs in some areas of Mexico. After all that, asking for clarifications of and likely modification to NAFTA is hardly breaking American commitments.

Beinart believes that, by giving some credence to Trump’s art-of-the-deal bombast about NATO, I therefore have excused Trump’s existential threats to the alliance. Beinart needs to take a deep breath and examine carefully whether Trump’s rhetoric about the vast majority of NATO’s members’ reluctance to meet their past promises undermines the alliance more than what the members themselves have actually done.

So far, Trump has upped U.S. defense spending and by extension its contribution to NATO’s military readiness, and he has gained some traction in getting members to pay what they pledged after the utter failure of past presidential jawboning (Obama rebuked “free-riders”). The real crisis in NATO is not U.S. capability or willpower, but whether a Dutch or Belgian youth would, could, or should march off to Erdogan’s Turkey should Ankara invoke Article V in a dispute with Israel, the Kurds, or Iraq, or whether governments such as those in Spain or Italy would really keep commitments and order their troops to Estonia if Russian troops swarmed in.

Germany cannot expect an American-subsidized united NATO front against the threat of Putin if it is now cutting a natural-gas agreement with Russia that undermines the Baltic States and Ukraine — countries that Putin is increasingly targeting.

So NATO’s problems predated Trump and in many ways come back to Germany, whose example most other NATO nations ultimately tend to follow. The threat to both the EU and NATO is not Trump’s America, but a country that is currently insisting on an artificially low euro for mercantile purposes and that is at odds with its southern Mediterranean partners over financial liabilities, with its Eastern European neighbors over illegal immigration, with the United Kingdom over the conditions of Brexit, and with the U.S. over a paltry investment in military readiness of 1.3 percent of GDP while it’s piling up the largest account surplus in the world, at over $260 billion, and a $65 billion trade surplus with the U.S.

Germany, a majority of whose tanks and fighters are thought not to be battle-ready, cannot expect an American-subsidized united NATO front against the threat of Vladimir Putin if it is now cutting a natural-gas agreement with Russia that undermines the Baltic States and Ukraine — countries that Putin is increasingly targeting. The gas deal will not only empower Putin; it will make Germany dependent on Russian energy — an untenable situation.

Merkel can package all that in mellifluous diplomatic-speak, and Trump can rail about it in crude polemics, but the facts remain facts, and they are of Merkel’s making, not Trump’s.

The same themes hold true regarding attitudes toward Putin, who (again) predated Trump and his press conference in Helsinki, where the president gave to the press an unfortunate apology-tour/Cairo-speech–like performance, reminiscent of past disastrous meetings with or assessments of Russian leaders by American presidents, such as FDR on Stalin: “I just have a hunch that Stalin is not that kind of man. Harry [Hopkins] says he’s not and that he doesn’t want anything but security for his country, and I think if I give him everything I possibly can and ask for nothing in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace.” Or Kennedy’s blown summit with Khrushchev in Geneva: “He beat the hell out of me. It was the worst thing in my life. He savaged me.” Or Reagan’s weird offer to share American SDI technology and research with Gorbachev or, without much consultation with his advisers, to eliminate all ballistic missiles at Reykjavik.

Trump confused trying to forge a realist détente with some sort of bizarre empathy for Putin, whose actions have been hostile and bellicose to the U.S. and based on perceptions of past American weakness. But again, Trump did not create an empowered Putin — and he has done more than any other president so far to check Putin’s ambitions.

Putin in 2016 continued longstanding Russian cyberattacks and election interference because of past impunity (Obama belatedly told Putin to “cut it out” only in September 2016). He swallowed Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine after the famous Hillary-managed “reset” — a surreal Chamberlain-like policy in which we simultaneously appeased Putin in fact while in rhetoric lecturing him about his classroom cut-up antics and macho style.

Had Trump been overheard on a hot mic in Helsinki promising more flexibility with Putin on missile defense after our midterm elections, in expectation for electorally advantageous election-cycle quid pro quo good behavior from the Russians, we’d probably see articles of impeachment introduced on charges of Russian collusion. And yet the comparison would be even worse than that. After all, America kept Obama’s 2011 promise “to Vladimir,” in that we really did give up on creating credible missile defenses in Eastern Europe, breaking pledges made by a previous administration — music to Vladimir Putin’s ears.

It would be preferable if Trump’s rhetoric reinforced his solid actions, which in relation to Putin’s aggression consist of wisely keeping or increasing tough sanctions, accelerating U.S. oil production, decimating Russian mercenaries in Syria, and arming Ukrainian resistance. But then again, Trump has not quite told us that he has looked into Putin’s eyes and seen a straightforward and trustworthy soul. Nor in desperation did he invite Putin into the Middle East after a Russian hiatus of nearly 40 years to prove to the world that Bashar al-Assad had eliminated his WMD trove — which Assad subsequently continued to use at his pleasure. There is currently no scandal over uranium sales to Russia, and the secretary of state’s spouse has not been discovered to have recently pocketed $500,000 to speak in Moscow.

In a perfect world, we would like to see carefully chosen words enhancing effective muscular action. Instead, in the immediate past, we heard sober and judicious rhetoric ad nauseam, coupled with abject appeasement and widely perceived dangerous weakness. Now we have ill-timed bombast that sometimes mars positive achievement.

Neither is desirable. But the latter is far preferable to the former.

Finally, Beinart ends by mistakenly suggesting that in 2016 I weighed in with “count us out” Republicans along with the other National Review authors. And he now suggests that I have flipped back to Trump: “Now, it appears, Lowry and Hanson want back in.”

But here, too, he is mistaken. I never participated in the “Against Trump” NR issue and never counted myself “out” during the November 2016 election, so how could I beg to be let back in?

Rather, like about half the country and 90 percent of the Republican party, I (as a deplorable) saw the choice in 2016 as a rather easy one between the latest iteration of Hillary Clinton and her known progressive agenda and Trump’s proposed antithesis to the ongoing Obama project of fundamental transformation.

And so far, nothing since November 2016 has convinced me otherwise.

Victor Davis Hanson — NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

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