The Saudi Arabia leg of the trip was fairly normal. Yes, it was a very odd choice for a first stop, but the Washington national-security establishment had long wanted to reengage with Sunni-Arab states to balance against the Obama administration’s overtures to Iran. It’s a good bet that had Hillary Clinton won the electoral college, she would also have sought to revive the alliance with Riyadh, although probably not as the focus of her first trip. Trump loved his visit to the kingdom—no one flatters him quite like the Saudis. They danced with swords and presumably waved them toward Tehran. Everyone smiled, except for Steve Bannon.
Israel was a little tougher. Trump had recently betrayed Israeli intelligence by passing its closely guarded secrets to Moscow. He spent hardly any time at Yad Vashem, Israel’s holocaust memorial museum, which is a shame. You really can’t understand the magnitude of the Holocaust until you spend time at Buchenwald, Oświęcim, Dachau, or one of the major museums. Yad Vashem is a deeply moving experience. The room where candles are reflected millions of times in memory of the 1.5 million children who were murdered by the Nazis is enough to reduce anyone to tears.
Trump had a curious reaction to Yad Vashem, writing in the visitor’s book: “It is a great honor to be here with all my friends. So Amazing and Will Never Forget!” For the most part though, the Israel portion of the trip passed without catastrophe. That would come next.
Europe was always going to be harder. For one thing, European leaders tend not to flatter Trump. Unlike King Salman and the Israeli cabinet, they did not show up to the airport to greet him. They did not congratulate him on his electoral college victory. But they did make an effort. They cut the NATO gathering back to a mini summit, and scheduled some fun activities—a tour of the new headquarters and the dedication of monuments. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
The plan was for Trump to make a speech to dedicate the September 11 and Article 5 monument, which consists of a piece of the wreckage of the World Trade Center. Article 5, NATO’s mutual defense guarantee, was invoked only once, after 9/11, but it kept the peace in Europe during the Cold War. Trump had deliberately not endorsed it in his first four months in office, although his secretary of defense and vice president did. His speech to the gathered leaders was the perfect opportunity to do so. The day before, an administration official told The New York Times he would finally do so. He did not.
Instead, Trump harangued European leaders for letting in refugees and for not meeting the 2 percent defense-spending target. It should not have come as a surprise. Trump needs enemies but beating up on your rivals is hard. You may have to make good on your threats. Beating up on your friends is easier. Given the occasion, it took some rhetorical effort to avoid endorsing Article 5. Dissing Europeans while dedicating a monument to remember the 888 European, 158 Canadian, and 2,396 American troops who died in Afghanistan took some doing.