Notice the technique. First, Lowry races by the core issue. He says the president’s behavior “has led to worries about the future of the trans-Atlantic alliance”—but won’t acknowledge that those worries are justified because doing so would require acknowledging that Trump is a far greater threat to America’s alliances than Obama ever was. Second, he suggests Trump’s main offense is stylistic: Rather than “openly mock Merkel,” he should display more “statesmanship.” As if everything would have been fine had Trump threatened to withdraw from NATO more politely.
Lowry’s not alone. His National Review colleague, Victor Davis Hanson, in his response to the summit, uses similar gimmicks to evade challenging Trump’s assault on principles that Hanson once held dear. The real message of the summit, Hanson argues, is Trump’s overdue demand for “reciprocity” from both America’s “partners and allies” and its “would-be enemies.” That’s a strange argument given that “reciprocity” suggests mutual obligation and Trump has made it abundantly clear—from his pullout from the Paris climate change agreement to his pullout from the Iran nuclear deal to his threatened pullout from NAFTA—that he feels no obligation to meet America’s past commitments to other countries. But like Lowry’s focus on German military spending, Hanson’s focus on Trump’s demand for “symmetry” allows him to tip-toe past the big story: Trump’s threat to NATO.
“Trump is said to be undermining NATO by questioning its usefulness some 69 years after its founding,” Hanson notes. Then he dismisses the concern by declaring that, “unlike 1948, Germany is no longer down. The United States is always in.” Always in? At the summit, Trump reportedly threatened that the US would “go its own way” if NATO members didn’t pay up. And in large measure because of his antics, a plurality of Germans now want the U.S. to withdraw its troops.
But since acknowledging that Trump genuinely threatens key alliances might require Hanson to choose between his affection for NATO and his affection for Trump, he instead suggests—like Lowry—that Trump’s offense is merely aesthetic. “Did Trump have to be so loud and often crude in his effort to bully America back to reciprocity?” he asks. It’s like focusing on whether someone charged with a felony has paid all her parking tickets. The answer doesn’t really matter because you’re asking the wrong question.
Now comes my own “to be sure” paragraph. Lowry and Hanson aren’t unique in trying to avoid choosing between their stated principles and their political tribe. Most commentators do that at some point, to some degree. I’m sure I have, too.
But berating Obama for muddying the distinction between allies and foes and then looking the other way when Trump does so far more dramatically is particularly egregious. And some conservative publications seem to recognize that. Unlike Lowry and Hanson, The New York Post, a newspaper with a conservative editorial bent, squarely faced Trump’s threat to NATO. “We get that President Donald Trump wants serious changes in the Atlantic alliance,” it editorialized, “but he began the Brussels summit looking like he’s out to ‘save’ NATO by destroying it.” The Weekly Standard endorsed Trump’s call for greater German defense spending but concluded that what was “most important” about the summit was that “Trump’s rhetoric on NATO reveals yet again his deep misunderstanding of America’s role in maintaining a rules-based global order.”
Maybe Lowry and Hanson’s apologetics will go over better among conservative readers than the Post and Weekly Standard’s criticisms, given Trump’s popularity on the American right. But once upon a time, National Review seemed proudly unconcerned with popularity contests. “Some conservatives have made it their business to make excuses for Trump,” the magazine declared in January 2016. “Count us out.” Now, it appears, Lowry and Hanson want back in.