There he goes again: Our boorish ignoramus of a president, flamboyantly insulting our allies before the world, trashing the international institutions the United States painstakingly built and nurtured after the unprecedented bloodletting of two world wars and the Holocaust — the allies and institutions that spread peace, vanquished communist totalitarianism, and helped to spread democracy and capitalism around the world.
We heard these doleful laments at the May 2017 NATO summit in Brussels. We heard them again last month at the G-7 meeting in Canada. And now once again at this week's NATO summit. They come from Democrats but also from Republicans — from the so-called normcore bipartisan center that aims to uphold longstanding liberal democratic norms and institutions against President Trump's belligerent and destructive populist onslaught.
There's something admirable about the conservatives who demonstrate a willingness to break from a Republican president in a gesture of solidarity with our allies, NATO, and the other institutions of the liberal international order. But there's also something odd about it — because Trump's appalling performance on the world stage is in many ways an acting out of attitudes and ideas that center-right intellectuals (some of them the very same center-right intellectuals) proudly proposed in the months leading up to the Iraq War.
Such conservative intellectuals are disgusted by the president — but they have yet to reckon with their own complicity in the damage he's doing to the Western alliance.
Around the time of George W. Bush's 2002 State of the Union speech — the one at which he pronounced Iraq, Iran, and North Korea to be part of an "axis of evil" — the mood on the American right began to grow fierce. What had been a uniform chorus of patriotic support for the president and the post-9/11 Afghanistan campaign quickly evolved into a frenzy of bellicosity.
Some, like the late Charles Krauthammer, denigrated the ideas of containment and deterrence in foreign policy, favoring (like many of the president's advisers) direct, unilateral confrontation and preemption. Others, like latter-day Trump critic Max Boot, mocked the "false allure" of global "'stability'" (placed in scare quotes) and explicitly and unapologetically advocated unilateral American imperialism. (Both authors published their paeans to the glories of unilateralism in the pages of The Weekly Standard, the magazine co-founded and then-edited by prominent Trump critic William Kristol.)
Still others, like Norman Podhoretz, proposed that the United States prepare to topple the governments of a series of sovereign nations in the Muslim Middle East, including Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. (This was described as a looming "World War IV," with the Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union now retrospectively elevated in stature to an already victorious World War III.)
Today's Trumpian rhetorical bluster against the West's liberal order is extraordinarily tame by comparison with this bloodthirsty laundry list of wished-for wars.
As the U.S. came closer to toppling Saddam Hussein and faced a growing chorus of international opposition, frustration with America's disloyal, backstabbing allies intensified. Everyone remembers the cartoonish display of petulance when the menu in the cafeteria of the House of Representatives changed the name of "French Fries" to "Freedom Fries." Less frequently noted is The Wall Street Journal editorial from February 2003 about a minor dispute with France, Germany, and Belgium about NATO military aid to Turkey in advance of the Iraq invasion: "If this is what the U.S. gets from NATO, maybe it's time America considered leaving this Cold War institution and reforming an alliance of nations that understand the threat to world order."
Around the same time George F. Will, who later became a critic of the Iraq debacle and eventually left the GOP altogether over Trump, proposed an even broader rethinking of our global commitments:
Americans are increasingly wondering why they are in Europe ... With France fomenting worldwide opposition to a U.S. military action deemed by the U.S. government to be vital to national security, and with Germany drawing France into the embrace of semi-pacifism, NATO is becoming what Donald Rumsfeld warns the U.N. is becoming — a thing of ridicule. [George Will]
Then, at the far end of absurdity, there was the late 2002 feature in National Review titled (no, I'm not kidding) "Bomb Canada." The opening line: "It's quite possible that the greatest favor the United States could do for Canada is to declare war on it." Lest readers conclude he was seriously advocating an aerial assault on and invasion of our neighbors to the north, the author of the piece (Jonah Goldberg, later an influential Never Trumper) was careful to clarify that "a full-scale conquest" would be "unnecessary." That's because "all Canada needs is to be slapped around a little bit, to be treated like a whining kid who's got to start acting like a man."
Now, of course this was (at best) a semi-serious magazine article. George W. Bush may have cultivated an image as a tough-talking, brush-clearing, swaggering West Texan, but he didn't personally denigrate, insult, ridicule, or threaten our closest allies, and he certainly didn't do it in public in the way that President Trump delights in doing.
Yet it's important to recognize that, as with so much else during the Trump presidency, the commander in chief takes his cues from the way the right's media personalities think and talk about the world — and the way the right's media personalities think and talk about the world derives in large part from the way its intellectuals taught them to think and talk about the world in the months and years surrounding the Iraq War.
Many of the same people anxiously fretting about the president's damaging rudeness and lack of respect for international institutions and norms used to advocate and model precisely that. Trump called their bluff, taking their proposals both seriously and literally. It would be nice to hear why they've changed their minds — even if the explanation amounts to little more than an acknowledgment that rabblerousing garbage sounds better in the pages of a partisan opinion journal than it does emanating from the mouth of a know-nothing, demagogic president.