Update: After Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort accused the NYT of misquoting Trump, the Times published the transcript of the interview:

SANGER: I was just in the Baltic States. They are very concerned obviously about this new Russian activism, they are seeing submarines off their coasts, they are seeing airplanes they haven’t seen since the Cold War coming, bombers doing test runs. If Russia came over the border into Estonia or Latvia, Lithuania, places that Americans don’t think about all that often, would you come to their immediate military aid?

TRUMP: I don’t want to tell you what I’d do because I don’t want Putin to know what I’d do. I have a serious chance of becoming president and I’m not like Obama, that every time they send some troops into Iraq or anyplace else, he has a news conference to announce it.

SANGER: They are NATO members, and we are treaty-obligated ——

TRUMP: We have many NATO members that aren’t paying their bills.

SANGER: That’s true, but we are treaty-obligated under NATO, forget the bills part.

TRUMP: You can’t forget the bills. They have an obligation to make payments. Many NATO nations are not making payments, are not making what they’re supposed to make. That’s a big thing. You can’t say forget that.

SANGER: My point here is, Can the members of NATO, including the new members in the Baltics, count on the United States to come to their military aid if they were attacked by Russia? And count on us fulfilling our obligations ——

TRUMP: Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.

HABERMAN: And if not?

TRUMP: Well, I’m not saying if not. I’m saying, right now there are many countries that have not fulfilled their obligations to us.

Looks like the conversation went as advertised. So how smart was it to make it look like the campaign’s afraid of these remarks, too?

Original post follows …

Article V has formed the backbone of NATO, almost literally, since its inception. The key part of the treaty holds that “an attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies,” and that forms a powerful counterweight to those who seek to commit war on the European continent, or against the US as well. NATO invoked it after 9/11, for instance, in order to provide coordination and assistance to our efforts to defeat al-Qaeda. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania answered that call in Afghanistan, and less than two years later formally joined the coalition of nations that participated in the Iraq war launched after Saddam Hussein refused to cooperate with UN resolutions and the terms of the 1991 cease-fire.

Now, with Russia threatening on their borders, Donald Trump wants the Baltic states to explain what have you done for us lately:

He even called into question whether, as president, he would automatically extend the security guarantees that give the 28 members of NATO the assurance that the full force of the United States military has their back.

For example, asked about Russia’s threatening activities that have unnerved the small Baltic States that are among the more recent entrants into NATO, Mr. Trump said that if Russia attacked them, he would decide whether to come to their aid only after reviewing whether those nations “have fulfilled their obligations to us.”

This kind of talk from prospective Commanders-in-Chief is no mere academic or political exercise; it’s actively dangerous. In fact, one needs no better example than the fumbled diplomacy of the George H. W. Bush administration in regard to Kuwait and Iraq, and that didn’t even involve Bush directly. As Hussein built up forces along the Kuwait border in the summer of 1990, the Bush administration seemed to go out of its way to express its indifference. Bush’s ambassador to Iraq made that indifference explicit just days before Hussein’s invasion:

The Administration’s message to Baghdad, articulated in public statements in Washington by senior policy makers and delivered directly to Mr. Hussein by the United States Ambassador, April C. Glaspie, was this: The United States was concerned about Iraq’s military buildup on its border with Kuwait, but did not intend to take sides in what it perceived as a no-win border dispute between Arab neighbors.

In a meeting with Mr. Hussein in Baghdad on July 25, eight days before the invasion, Ms. Glaspie urged the Iraqi leader to settle his differences with Kuwait peacefully but added, ”We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait,” according to an Iraqi document described as a transcript of their conversation.

Hussein took Glaspie at her word and promptly ordered the invasion of Kuwait. It didn’t matter one whit to the dictator that Washington had urged him to act “peacefully” to settle the dispute. All he needed to know was that the US didn’t plan on defending its ally Kuwait, and took that message from the signals emanating from Washington. The result of those mixed signals has been 25 years of American war and occupation in Iraq, with terrible consequences for the region (albeit probably unavoidable anyway in the long run). It all started with that incompetence in clearly stating our interests in defending our ally.

We face a similar situation in the Baltic states. So far most people have dismissed the idea that Russia and Vladimir Putin would send troops into Europe proper, but that’s only unthinkable because of NATO’s solidarity in defending its territorial integrity. The same circumstances exist in Latvia and Estonia as did in Ukraine — sizable minorities of ethnic Russians agitating over their treatment, and a Russian autocrat making ethnic Russian enclaves an excuse for Russian expansionism. On top of that, Lithuania is in the way of a land connection to Kaliningrad, Russia’s only existing enclave on the Baltic, the lack of which has been a thorn in Russia’s side ever since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

All of the incentives for Putin are set up for another “liberating” action, except for the fact that the US has pledged to act to defend the Baltic states militarily. One can argue that Putin’s expansionism has been set in motion in part through the vacillation and incompetence of the Barack Obama/Hillary Clinton “reset” policies with Russia and doubts about Obama’s intestinal fortitude after the Syrian “red line” retreat. But at least Obama has never publicly suggested that we would fail to honor Article V in Europe itself.

Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia have already done quite a bit for us lately. Anyone aspiring to lead the US shouldn’t have to have that, or the ramifications of a retreat from Article V, explained to them on the campaign trail.

Addendum: NATO isn’t terribly happy with Trump’s position, needless to say.