The most frightening commentary I’ve read in the run-up to the inauguration—and there have been many—appeared in a column identifying the four people whose foreign policy ideas were likely to be most influential with the then-president-elect. It was written by The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin and entitled “Inside Trump’s Shadow National Security Council.”
Those four people, according to Rogin, are chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who “has been working on the long-term strategic vision that will shape the Trump administration’s overall foreign policy approach;” chief of staff Reince Priebus; Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner; and his national security adviser, Gen. Michael Flynn (ret.).
What is particularly striking about these four men is their collective lack of foreign-policy-making experience. I can’t see any in Bannon’s resume. Priebus, until he took over the Republican National Committee six years ago, was essentially a local Wisconsin political operative. Aside from occasional visits to Israel and his family foundation’s philanthropy for Israeli and settler institutions, Kushner has never, to my knowledge, expressed any particular interest in foreign policy although, according to Rogin, he has recently been meeting with “leading representatives from countries including Israel, Germany and Britain.” Although Flynn undoubtedly gained a lot of experience overseas, his entire career was devoted to military intelligence, not policy making. And, despite her lengthy resume compiled in the national security bureaucracies under various Republican presidents, Flynn’s hand-picked deputy, K.T. McFarland, worked virtually exclusively in communications and speechwriting — never in a policy-making role.
Is there any modern precedent for this total lack of experience in the top echelons of the White House, including the National Security Council?
No Experience, Lots of Opinions
The absence of foreign-policy-making experience however, does not mean that these individuals lack foreign-policy opinions. And, of course, in Washington, as a hoary, inside-the-Beltway maxim puts it: “Personnel is policy.”
Aside from his overseas business interests, Trump himself also has no foreign-policy experience. Nor, it seems, does he have much curiosity about the subject. Aside from the fairly consistent Islamophobia and aggressive nationalism expressed in various ways and degrees over the past couple of decades, he also doesn’t seem to have much in the way of fixed foreign-policy ideas or principles other than self-glorification, a desperate need to gain and retain public and media attention, and possibly the repayment of any debts he feels he may have incurred to foreign interests that helped— Putin? The Adelsons on behalf of Bibi?—put him in the presidency. Certainly, his often-contradictory utterances during the election campaign bolstered the impression that he is not grounded in any firm beliefs about Washington’s role in the world. So it seems relatively safe to assume that the worldviews of the same individuals cited by Rogin as the most influential—and closest to the Oval Office—are those that will at least initially guide Trump.
Of the five individuals mentioned above, only three have particularly strong publicly expressed foreign-policy worldviews: Bannon, Flynn, and McFarland.
Of these, Bannon appears pre-eminent, at least for the moment. That became clear not only in the content and dark, almost apocalyptic tone of Trump’s “America First” inaugural address—which, according to the Wall Street Journal, was actually drafted by Bannon and alt-right fellow-traveller Stephen Miller—but also in Trump’s controversial interview last week with The Times of London and Das Bild.
The most comprehensive account of Bannon’s worldview is contained in his 50-minute interview at a conference held at the Vatican in 2014. In addition to the kind of populist ethno-nationalism with which his name and Breitbart News (of which he was former CEO) have now been associated, Bannon sees the world as a true “clash of civilizations” that pits “Islamic Fascism” against the “Judeo-Christian West.” His remarkable invocation in that interview of the “church militant” and the battles of Tours against the Arabs in 732 and Vienna against the Ottomans in 1638 as historical models to which the Judeo-Christian world should now aspire suggests a certain grandiosity (that would naturally appeal to Trump, too). To Bannon, global or other kinds of supra-national institutions that espouse universalist ideals and that get in the way of “strong nationalist movements …[that are] really the building blocks that built Western Europe and the United States,” are anathema. (You have to wonder how much modern European history Bannon has studied.) In the entire text, he never mentions human rights or democracy or other liberal values.
Along with his ideas about capitalism, Ayn Randism, traditionalism, and populism, it’s fair to say that Bannon thinks deep—if somewhat contradictory—thoughts. He’s also very, very far to the right—although he identifies as “center right”—and has what I would call proto-fascist inclinations. It’s no wonder that he’s fascinated by and identifies with Europe’s far-right nationalist and anti-European Union (EU) movements. But he also finds common ground with Putin and his promotion of the Russian Orthodox Church and Israel’s Likud Party. The latter’s roots, after all, lie in Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Betar movement, which, despite its founder’s liberal convictions, has always harbored messianic nationalist, if not fascist tendencies.
The degree to which Trump has apparently absorbed and now echoes these ideas is reflected in his most recent public remarks. Compare, for example, Bannon’s defense of Putin—that “people …want to see the sovereignty for their country, they want to see nationalism for their country”—with what Trump said in defending Brexit in his interview with The Times and Bild. “People, countries want their own identity, and the U.K. wanted its own identity,” Trump stressed as he effectively urged other EU members to emulate Brexit, presumably as part of the Judeo-Christian civilizational struggle against Islam. He reiterated this theme in his inaugural speech Friday in the kind of messianic vision favored by Bannon: “We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate from the face of the Earth” (emphasis added). In the same Times/Bild interview, Trump clearly tried to undermine confidence in German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s leadership, saying that he trusted her as much as Putin, at least for the time being—a rather striking assertion that must have sent blood pressures soaring in various foreign ministries, including the State Department. Trump also questioned the current relevance of NATO to similar effect in European defense ministries and the Pentagon.
Of course, these statements were presaged by Trump’s enthusiasm over Brexit itself and the fact that the first foreign “leader” to personally celebrate his election victory with him was none other than Nigel Farage. Farage, who Trump subsequently recommended as UK ambassador here much to the discomfort of the British prime minister, was subsequently seated in the special VIP section at Friday’s inauguration, along with leaders of the Israeli settlement movement. Bannon has made little secret of his admiration—and support—for the French National Front’s Marine Le Pen, another anti-EU European, pro-Putin leader (whose visit to Trump Tower two weeks ago likely included a tete-a-tete with Trump’s chief strategist). We’ll see whether the far-right, Islamophobic Dutch politician, Geert Wilders, shows up at the Tower at some point before this year’s elections in the Netherlands, while Czech President Milos Zeman, another Islamophobic Putin admirer, is set to visit the White House in April. Can Hungary’s Viktor Orban be far behind?
Bannon and Putin—and probably Netanyahu, too—clearly have Angela Merkel and the EU in their crosshairs as part of a larger effort to create what The Daily Beast’s called a “worldwide ultra-right” movement, or, perhaps more bluntly, a Proto-Fascist International. Aside from exterminating “radical Islamic terrorism,” such a coalition appears to be a central goal of Bannon’s “long-term strategic vision.” That makes Rogin’s final observation about Bannon’s role in the White House especially chilling. According to Rogin, Bannon’s mandate includes “connecting the Trump apparatus to leaders of populist movements around the world, especially in Europe.” Whatever is meant by “the Trump apparatus,” its intellectual leader is now sitting in the White House, just a few steps from the Oval Office.
As for the two senior advisers with actual foreign policy—if not policy-making—experience, Flynn and McFarland are far more likely to embrace Bannon’s vision than to oppose it. What unifies all three is an intense Islamophobia and Manichaeism befitting Fox News, as well as Breitbart. We have covered Flynn’s wacky worldview, particularly as expressed in his 2016 book, Field of Fight, co-authored by serial intriguer Michael Ledeen, at considerable length. Suffice to recall Flynn’s belief in the existence of “an international alliance of evil countries and movements that is working to destroy us,” an alliance that includes North Korea, China, Russia, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Bolivia (whose government, incidentally, just hosted the former First Daughter, Malia Obama on a lengthy trek through the Andes). The same alliance also includes al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Islamic State, and “countless other terrorist groups.” As Rogin reported Sunday, Flynn, who, like Bannon, also appears to admire Putin, is filling senior NSC positions with a phalanx of former military intelligence officers with whom he has worked closely in the past. The White House’s in-house foreign-policy shop will thus see the world rather narrowly—in Flynn’s words, through the sights of a “rifle scope.” Neither Flynn nor McFarland are likely to challenge Bannon’s broader strategic agenda. If anything, they may reinforce it.
Will Anyone Challenge Bannon?
Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis (ret.), who obviously enjoys the support of the foreign-policy establishment, has already made it very clear that he strongly opposes key elements of Bannon’s radical worldview, particularly anything that would threaten NATO, the EU, and other multilateral institutions that have underpinned the post-World War II order. According to various accounts, Mattis has already clashed with the White House—meaning Bannon, Kushner, and Flynn—over appointments to key Pentagon positions. Tillerson’s views are much less well known, but the fact that his nomination was championed by Republican establishment stalwarts, including Robert Gates, Condoleezza Rice, Stephen Hadley, and James Baker, suggests that they believe he will exert a moderating influence, a notion bolstered by reports that he rejected the choice of far-right and Adelson favorite John Bolton as his deputy. Gen. John Kelly, the new head of Homeland Security, and UN Amb. Nikki Haley are also considered unlikely to support the White House’s far-right, Islamophobic agenda. All four cabinet members, as well as CIA director Mike Pompeo (a leading Iranophobe during his Congressional career), testified that they disagreed with at least some of the more controversial positions, ranging from torture to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and to Putin, espoused by Trump during the election campaign.
But none of these officials has so far gotten anywhere nearly as much face time with Trump himself as his White House aides. This despite the potentially momentous foreign-policy decisions already taken by the White House, including the abandonment of the Trans Pacific Partnership, the visa and immigration ban on seven predominantly Muslim countries, and the apparent green light Trump has given to Netanyahu for vast new settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, thus overturning more than four decades of U.S. opposition. Proximity often translates into power.
Post columnist Ruth Marcus put the situation in a nutshell in a piece entitled “Can Trump’s Cabinet Save Him From Himself?”:
For every Mattis and Pompeo, for every John F. Kelly (the retired Marine general tapped to head the Department of Homeland Security, who testified that a border wall with Mexico “in and of itself will not do the job’’) and even Rex Tillerson (the former ExxonMobil chief executive nominated to be secretary of state, who testified that “the risk of climate change does exist”), there will be, in the West Wing, a Stephen K. Bannon as chief strategist and senior counselor and Michael T. Flynn as national security adviser. Their records suggest they will inflame Trump’s worst instincts, not restrain them.
Bannon and Flynn have been politically closer to Trump longer; they will be physically closer to him at the White House. Trump could continue to be swayed by the last person whispering in his ear. Or the stature, knowledge and experience at bureaucratic maneuvering of some Cabinet secretaries could, at least at times, avert bad decisions. How all this plays out will shape the course of the Trump presidency.
Of course, Priebus, whose job appears centered on reconciling differences between the Republican congressional leadership and Trump, could also exert a moderating influence. Kushner could as well, though the nomination of David Friedman as U.S. ambassador to Israel, his encouragement of the settlement movement in the West Bank, and the presence of settlement leaders as honored guests at the inauguration, as well as his own family’s history of philanthropic support for the settlement movement, suggests that, on Israel-related questions, Kushner is no moderate. And with no real background, let alone expertise, in foreign policy, both Priebus and Kushner are more likely to acquiesce in Bannon’s strategic designs than oppose them …unless other powerful figures in the administration and Congress—not to mention foreign leaders—make it very clear that the political and popularity costs to Trump will be “yuge.”