Full of Sound and Fury

by Derek Davison

Friday’s news that the Trump administration’s “chief strategist,” Steve Bannon, had been fired sent shockwaves through Washington and the U.S. media. Although it had been reported all week that Bannon was on shaky ground within the White House, and it was clear that he and new Chief of Staff John Kelly had been at odds with one another, there were still signs that Bannon’s agenda held some sway in the administration. The same day that Bannon was dismissed, for example, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer announced that his office would begin an investigation into allegations of unfair Chinese practices with respect to intellectual property rights, something Bannon had made part of his agenda. And Donald Trump’s controversial press conference earlier in the week, when he appeared to defend a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, seemed to reflect Bannon’s influence. Then Friday came, and like that, he was gone.

Bannon’s departure from this administration is unequivocally a welcome development. His absence from the West Wing means one less white nationalist potentially filling the deeply impressionable Trump’s head with talk of immigration bans, a future war with China, or the apocalyptic war with Islam in which Bannon already believes Western (AKA “Judeo-Christian”) civilization finds itself. There’s also strong reason to believe that Bannon has been protecting other dangerously radical Trump appointees in the White House. Some, like former National Security Council staffers Ezra Cohen-Watnick and Rich Higgins, are already gone. Others, like presidential deputy assistant Sebastian Gorka (whose foibles have been comprehensively documented by LobeLog), may now find their positions at risk with Bannon out.

But if anyone is expecting that Bannon’s departure is going to substantially improve the Trump administration’s foreign policy, they should prepare to be disappointed. As odious as Bannon was, his foreign policy influence had been on the wane for months, and the worst aspects of Trump’s international agenda are still well-entrenched despite his sacking.

Foreign Policy by General

By far the most troubling aspect of Trump’s foreign policy is Trump himself. Specifically, it’s Trump’s repeatedly demonstrated ignorance of world affairs, which leaves him prone to making confusing and impolitic public remarks, many of which are later incoherently walked back by his staffers, and susceptible to the views of whichever adviser has most recently had his ear.

On the latter point, the voices in Trump’s ears on foreign policy now belong almost entirely to his generals–chief of staff John Kelly, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford. Trump’s only high-ranking civilian foreign policy official right now is Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whose influence within the administration has seemed questionable at times.

Trump’s generals may not agree on everything, but they do agree on a few core principles. One of them is that American policy toward Iran should maximize confrontation at the expense of diplomacy, in part by hyping fears about nefarious Iranian misdeeds. Kelly, for example, has argued in the past that Iran has set up a network of terror cells and criminal organizations throughout Latin America. McMaster has publicly trumpeted the administration’s hardline anti-Iran stance. And Mattis, as Jim Lobe wrote in July, seems to believe that “Iran is responsible for virtually—perhaps even literally—everything bad that has happened or is happening in the Middle East.” None of the generals has advocated breaking the Iran nuclear deal—Trump himself seems intent on doing that—but all fit quite comfortably in what is emerging as a singularly anti-Iran government, even by American standards.

Trump’s generals are also enabling their boss’s worst instincts when it comes to minimizing civilian casualties in the War on Terror. Trump’s disinterest in civilian risk is by now pretty well-established, and though the Pentagon continues to maintain—substantial evidence to the contrary—that it goes to every length to protect civilian life, it’s clear that Trump’s generals, if not driving this policy choice, are at least not opposed to it.

Admittedly, this is an improvement over the days when Trump’s top foreign policy advisors were presumably Bannon and the thoroughly unhinged Michael Flynn, in the sense that at least Trump is now less likely to provoke a holy war with the Islamic world. You can see a marginal improvement already in Trump’s approach to Afghanistan, where Bannon was pushing him to privatize the American war effort and turn it over to former Blackwater founder Erik Prince. Prince, whose mercenaries are best known for massacring civilians in Baghdad, believes that America’s presence in Afghanistan should resemble the East India Company. Anything that keeps this man away from Afghanistan—and the U.S. Treasury—is a step in the right direction.

But look at the alternative. Trump—who announced some vague shifts in his Afghanistan policy on Monday evening—and his generals have been left discussing precisely how many more U.S. service members to drop into the middle of a war that has long since ceased to serve any national security interest in support of a government that has barely any legitimacy outside of Kabul. There’s no public discussion around why these additional soldiers would make a difference or what, exactly, the Pentagon’s plan is for winning the war against the Taliban. It’s not even clear what “winning” would look like, or whether America’s continued disruptive presence in Afghanistan actually makes “victory” more or less likely. Bannon’s plan for privatizing Afghanistan may have been terrible, but his diagnosis of the war—that it is effectively unwinnable for the United States—isn’t wrong. His departure ensures that the only voices Trump hears on Afghanistan now will come from the hawks who want to keep prosecuting the war indefinitely.

Bannon the Dove?

In a lengthy and impromptu phone conversation with The American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner just days before his firing, Bannon said this about the North Korea crisis (emphasis mine):

Contrary to Trump’s threat of fire and fury, Bannon said: “There’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats], forget it. Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.” Bannon went on to describe his battle inside the administration to take a harder line on China trade, and not to fall into a trap of wishful thinking in which complaints against China’s trade practices now had to take a backseat to the hope that China, as honest broker, would help restrain Kim.

Not only does Bannon outright reject the idea of a preventative or preemptive military strike against North Korea, he correctly identifies what should be the most important argument against such a strike: the fact—and it is almost certainly a fact—that Pyongyang could potentially kill millions of people in and around Seoul faster than the United States could take out its artillery batteries. It’s an argument that Mattis has even acknowledged, saying that a war with North Korea could be “would be probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.”

And yet, on Thursday the Trump administration frantically tried to back away from Bannon’s comment, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying that there could be “a strong military consequence” if North Korea chooses not to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. Some of this is presumably posturing for Kim Jong-un’s benefit, but it does raise the question: what if Steve Bannon was one of the more dovish voices inside this administration on North Korea?

Baked into the Cake

Finally we have to consider that some of the worst parts of Trump’s foreign policy have merely reflected or at worst amplified what has been the U.S. foreign policy consensus for decades, over multiple administrations and across both major political parties.

Take, for example, Trump’s approach to Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Israel. His apparent indifference to Israeli settlements in the West Bank and unwillingness to put any pressure on Netanyahu to engage with the Palestinians is helping to enshrine what Mitchell Plitnick calls a “new normal,” wherein Israel’s annexation of large parts of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza are becoming the uncontested status quo. But while Trump may be a bit more indulgent toward Israeli demands than past U.S. presidents, it would be, to put it gently, ahistorical to suggest that his Israel policy has been substantially at odds with America’s longstanding pro-Israel bias.

Trump has likewise partaken of, though he cannot be held responsible for, America’s undying fetishization of military power. This isn’t a Trump problem or even a Republican one. It’s an American problem. One only has to recall the grossly—even dangerously—fawning reception that Trump’s early April cruise missile strike on Syria’s Shayrat air base received from both Democrats and the purportedly objective media to realize the depth and breadth of America’s love affair with war. Sure enough, POLITICO’s Michael Crowley reported on August 18 that hawks in the administration were thrilled with Bannon’s departure. In a country that’s been at war in Afghanistan for 16 years, in Iraq for 14, and in Syria for almost three—a country that bombed seven other nations in 2016 and has talked about adding an eighth and even a ninth just within the past month—the 21st century has certainly given hawks a lot with which to be thrilled.

Bannon’s ouster is undeniably a cause for celebration. His brand of isolationism coupled with white chauvinism has absolutely no place in the White House. But his departure likely means little in terms of improving the Trump administration’s—or America’s—failed foreign policy.

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.