Trump’s recent speech to NATO has received a lot of attention due to his call for member nations to pay their fair share, and due to the tittering, smirking, and blinking that came from the Last Men that we call “our allies.” But Trump’s speech is interesting for a number of other reasons, including what he did not say (but should have said).
On the whole, the speech was actually pretty good. More important than Trump’s call for NATO members to pay up were the parts of the speech dealing with terrorism. Trump spoke of the “depths of the evil we face with terrorism.” Now, what one misses about the speech is that he never once uses the term “Islamic terrorism,” but then again it’s not exactly unclear to what he is referring. Citing the recent attack in Manchester, which claimed twenty-two lives, most of them little girls, Trump called it a “barbaric and vicious attack on our civilization.” To my knowledge, no one has commented on the significance of this specific line.
By framing things this way, Trump is calling attention to the fact that Islamic terrorism is an attack on Western culture. Again, one wishes he had said “barbaric and vicious attack on Western civilization.” It may seem an obvious point that this is what Islamic terrorism is all about, but in Europe (and among the Left here at home) we have reached the woo woo, la la point where it is anathema not just to conjoin “Islamic” with “terrorism” but to suggest that there is anything called “Western civilization” that it is attacking. (Remember Macron’s line about how there is “no such thing as French culture”?)
Trump goes on to say, “We must drive them out and never, ever let them back in.” In other words, start vetting who actually comes into your damned countries and get rid of the baddies who are already there. “We have thousands and thousands of people spreading into our countries,” he said, “and in many cases we have no idea who they are.” Once again, one wishes Trump’s recommendation would be to expel all Muslims, but instead he merely advocates that our NATO allies expel those who are radicalized or are actual members of ISIS. Nevertheless, even this mild and sweetly commonsensical policy is going too far for most of Europe’s leaders. In Sweden, for example, returning (!) jihadists are offered free housing, health care, and financial support. Said one Swedish gelding, “They should be helped to process the traumatic experiences they have been through.” It doesn’t get any dumber than this, folks. If the Swedes weren’t so tall and beautiful, I’d be tempted to say that they deserve extinction.
Trump went on to speak of his recent meeting with Muslim leaders, in particular King Salman of Saudi Arabia, who the President described as “a wise man.” Trump reported that these Muslim leaders had agreed “to stop funding the radical ideology which leads to this horrible terrorism.” If they did indeed make such a promise, this is a major coup for Trump. Though one must, of course, be extremely skeptical about whether that promise will be kept. It was at this point in the speech, by the way, that our NATO allies began displaying their interesting body language. Merkel tensed up and looked away from Trump, as did several others. Was it because they are skeptical that Trump had gotten the Arab leaders to really agree to anything (as one YouTube commentator on the body language suggests)? Or was it because they were offended by Trump’s reference to radical Muslim ideology, and by his assertion of the cause-effect relationship between that ideology and terrorism? Your guess is as good as mine. We are living in an age when any interpretation is fair game, because no position is too blind or too stupid to be dismissed as implausible.
And then came what was, for me, the real highlight of the event. Trump said, “The NATO of the future must include a great focus on terrorism and immigration, as well as threats from Russia and on NATO’s eastern and southern borders.” When the President uttered the word “immigration,” NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg, who was standing right next to Trump, looked startled, and then gazed down at Trump’s text on the lectern, clearly trying to read ahead to see what Trump was going to say next. When he remembered himself, Stoltenberg quickly looked up and continued gazing straight ahead with a neutral expression, as he had been earlier. To my knowledge, this is a bit of body language no one has commented on, but it is extremely significant. Clearly, at the mention of “immigration” (a word Trump had not used earlier), Stoltenberg feared that Trump was about to really go off the reservation and link mass immigration to terrorism. Watch the video (linked above) and tell me that you don’t see this as well. Of course, everybody knows that Trump thinks mass immigration is linked to terrorism – indeed, everybody knows it is the truth – but in the effete little dance that is European politics, it is simply gauche to speak the truth. One wishes Trump had gone for the whopping great fish-slapping finale here, but you can’t have everything.
Trump then segued into the part of his speech that got most of the attention. Citing the aforementioned “grave security concerns,” he asked that our NATO allies begin paying their fair share of the cost of their defense. Amongst other things, he mentioned the fact that twenty-three of the twenty-eight member nations “are not paying what they should.” It was at this juncture, as everyone has pointed out, that our “allies” began looking around, first as if bewildered, then shifting around uncomfortably. “This is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States,” the President said, pointing out that the US has routinely spent more on NATO than all the other member nations combined. Then the looking around and shifting gave way to tittering and smirking and whispers. Macron in particular forgot himself, and broke into a broad smile, as if he wasn’t sure whether what he was hearing was in jest.
Much has been made of the obvious contempt on display here. Nile Gardiner, a former aide to Margaret Thatcher, has called the behavior of the NATO leaders towards Trump “appalling.” And indeed it was. Just what is one supposed to make of such people? Do they really think that Trump had no right to point out that they have been freeloading for decades? More likely, they just thought it unpardonably rude.
Imagine that you rented out the apartment over your garage to a tenant who, after a year or so, ceased paying you any rent. This goes on for many years, but you are too polite to say anything. One day you find he has slipped an envelope under your door. You expect it to contain a check and an apology. Instead it contains a request that you raze the garage and its apartment and build him a new dwelling, to the tune of one billion dollars. The present accommodations, it seems, have become “too confining.” You happily cough up the cash, and build him the requested palace. Then one day you pay him a visit. Standing in the middle of the new apartment’s vast, sunlit atrium, you suggest that he might start paying some rent. He stiffens and looks away, then begins shifting. Then begins smirking in disbelief. And when word gets out, you get blamed for being “rude.”
What would you do with such a tenant? Well, of course, you would never have allowed things to get to that point. And Trump, an old hand at landlording, knows how to deal with deadbeats. In 2016, the US spent more than six hundred sixty-four billion dollars on NATO (the next largest amount was sixty billion dollars, contributed by the UK). And, yes, the new NATO headquarters cost a billion dollars. Perhaps the high point of Trump’s speech (certainly its most Trumpian moment) was when he said, referring to the sumptuous new digs, “And I never once asked what it cost.”
In short, whatever you have heard from Left or Right, this was a pretty darned good speech. And, for me, it was a sorely needed reminder of why I was so up on Trump six months ago. Yet, as I have already pointed out, its language did not go far enough. And this is puzzling, because Trump could have used terms like “Western civilization” and “Islamic terrorism.” He could have been more hard-hitting. After all, everyone knew he was thinking these things.
And, yes, he should have gone much further than merely using more explicit phraseology. In fact, he should have asked the following questions: why should the US shell out hundreds of billions of dollars each year to pay for the defense of countries that seem bent on self-annihilation? Why should US taxpayers pay to defend countries that seem bent on becoming Islamic states, and hotbeds of terrorism?
To draw another parallel, suppose you had promised to pay all the health insurance and health care costs of a needy friend. Suppose, however, you found out that this friend is a “bugchaser”: someone who is actively seeking to contract HIV through unprotected sex with multiple partners. Bit of a bad investment, eh? Since you are such a kindly soul, you would probably tell him that you will keep paying his costs if and only if he stops inviting deadly viruses into his body.
Of course, such an ultimatum would not work on someone who is truly bent on self-destruction, since there is probably no reasoning with such a person. Nonetheless, at least we try. And this is what Trump should have done at NATO, and really could have done. I have a feeling that would have quickly wiped the smile off of Macron’s face.