Much has been written about the glaring contradictions between the uber-nationalist views of President Trump and those of the foreign policy team he’s appointed.
Some (myself included) have expressed hope that the more mainstream views of Defense Secretary James Mattis and new National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster could compensate for the president’s insistence on policy-making by tweet. Yet even as Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson traversed the globe last week trying to reassure rattled allies, as did Homeland Security chief John Kelly and Vice President Pence, Trump contradicted them at every stop with his tweets.
Moreover, Trump and top strategist Steve Bannon made clear at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week that the White House worldview diverges so radically from that of Mattis, McMaster, et al. that it’s impossible to paper over. All the more so since the president appointed Bannon to full membership in the National Security Council, unprecedented for a political adviser. Moreover, Bannon has been busy assembling a so-called Strategic Initiatives Group that seems designed to undercut McMaster’s efforts.
This guarantees a schizophrenic foreign policy.
Unless that is, Bannon follows deposed rabble-rouser and national security adviser Michael Flynn out the door of the White House. But there’s no sign Trump is willing to cut his alter ego loose.
The president’s view of America’s role in the world, encouraged by Bannon, was neatly summed up by this proclamation at the CPAC confab. “I’m not representing the globe,” Trump declaimed. “I’m representing your country.”
As if the United States could pull up the moat and all would be well.
Trump and Bannon have made clear their disdain for the European Union, with both enthusiastically cheering on Brexit and the hope that France follows Britain out the EU door. Even as Mattis was calming nervous European allies at the Munich security conference last week, Bannon was privately dumping on the EU to the German ambassador to Washington.
The Trump adviser has made clear he’d like to see the implosion of almost all multilateral organizations that America is involved with. (No wonder Saturday Night Live portrays Bannon as the grim reaper.) He prefers strong nationalist states, and balance-of-power politics along the model that he says worked so well before 1914. Guess he never noticed that the blood-and-soil nationalism of the sort he embraces led to two world wars.
“I’m a Leninist,” Bannon famously told the Daily Beast in 2013. “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down and destroy all of today’s establishment.” The Trump adviser now says he can’t remember this interview. But, low and behold, at the CPAC conference, in revolutionary fashion, he declared he'll fight relentlessly for the “deconstruction of the administrative state” at home.
McMaster and Mattis have an entirely different world view, believing that existing alliances must be reinforced, and allies supported, in order to prepare for the security threats of the future. They see complexity, where Trump and Bannon see only black and white. They want to create a coherent global U.S. strategy where Bannon seems bent on tearing things down.
But what makes the president’s world view-whisperer even more dangerous are his ideas about what to build on the ashes of destruction. Here, too, his values and vision are at direct odds with the rational members of president’s foreign policy team.
His profound admiration for nationalism, laced with religious and orthodox values, has led Bannon to extol Vladimir Putin as a Christian traditionalist (has he encouraged Trump’s strange bromance with Putin?). As former chief executive of Breitbart News, he surrounded himself with a cast of strange and unsavory characters, including white nationalists and supremacists and anti-semites, bragging that Brietbart was “the platform for the alt-right,” which included all of the above.
Among the Breitbart stars were Milo Yiannopoulos, whom CPAC invited to speak but then disinvited because he praised pedophilia. And the neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic Richard Spencer, whom Bannon once called a “leading intellectual.” Spencer was also banned this year from CPAC. Yet the enabler of both men, Breitbart’s Bannon, was applauded as its star.
There is worse. Bannon has appointed as his counterterrorism adviser an Islamophobe named Sebastian Gorka, who sports a medal worn by Hungarian collaborators with the Nazis and has forged ties to far-right Hungarian anti-Semitic groups.
That someone with Gorka’s background is helping make U.S. foreign policy is itself astonishing. But it also signals Bannon’s obsession, shared with Trump, that we are engaged in WWIII against Islam. Out of this obsession came a secretive, misguided immigration order that, even in its new form, is likely to create more enemies than it stops.
This Islamaphobic approach certainly won’t be shared by the new national security adviser. “Every time you disrespect an Iraqi, you’re working for the enemy,” McMaster said in an interview with Foreign Policy’s Tom Ricks. It’s hard to imagine this Iraq and Afgan veteran tolerating an obsessive, counterproductive approach to the war on Islamist jihadis.
So it’s easy to imagine that there will be a clash, sooner rather than later, between the conspiratorial Bannon and his team and Trump’s serious foreign policy advisers. America’s foreign policy future, indeed its future security, depends on who ultimately wins that battle. Right now it appears that Bannon has the president’s ear.
Trudy Rubin can be contacted at at email@example.com.