Less than a month after much-admired Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster took over from Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as national security adviser, Trump's alter-ego Steve Bannon appears to be more in control of U.S. foreign policy than ever.
There is little sign McMaster will be able to restore traditional U.S. foreign policy commitments to NATO and the European Union, and every indication that Bannon’s shadowy Strategic Initiatives Group, denounced by two national security experts as "dangerous hypocrisy," is driving U.S. policy.
McMaster, a lieutenant general with a reputation as an intellectual, was perhaps the last-gasp hope of Washington’s foreign policy professionals against the radical ambitions of the Trump administration. He was seen as a man who could speak unpopular truths to Trump and block Bannon’s improvisations while restoring a degree of continuity to U.S. foreign policy under Obama and Bush.
No sooner had Flynn been fired over undisclosed meetings with a Russian diplomat, it was reported that McMaster would impose order on Flynn’s chaotic NSC, purging ideologues and removing Bannon from the National Security Council as urged by Admiral Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"Given the gravity of the issues the NSC deals with, it is vital that that body not be politicized, and Bannon's presence as a member of that body politicizes it instantly," Mullen said.
McMaster urged Trump not to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism,” arguing, along with virtually every other U.S. military leader, that the phrase only alienates friendly Muslims and increases the risk to U.S. personnel stationed in Islamic countries without providing any military or political advantages.
McMaster’s influence has been fading ever since. There would be no “purge” at NSC, an unnamed senior White House official told Foreign Policy. “Key NSC officials focused on the Middle East and other vital areas will keep their positions in the near term,” the official said.
Bannon remains on the NSC’s Principals Committee, while the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is only a part-time participant.
Trump pointedly ignored McMaster’s advice and denounced “radical Islamic terrorism” in his address to the Congress, much to the satisfaction of deputy national security adviser Sebastian Gorka. A lightly credentialed acolyte of Bannon, Gorka seems to have more influence with Trump than McMaster, a decorated lieutenant general.
While Colin Kahl, former national security adviser to Vice-President Joe Biden, recently expressed hope that an "axis of adults" can take control of Trump’s foreign policy, all indications are that the “axis of ideologues,” led by Bannon and Gorka, are ascendant.
What SIG does
The Strategic Initiatives Group is emerging as Bannon’s conduit for aiding the populist right in Europe. Described as a "White House think tank," SIG is run by Chris Liddell, formerly chief financial officer at a Hollywood talent agency. The group's mission is described as supporting Trump administration collaboration with “private forums.”
In practice, that seems to mean Liddell will assist in marketing the message of the chauvinist European right.
Last week, Gorka signaled the ascendant ideology by endorsing a white nationalist opus by Georgetown University professor Joshua Mitchell in the debut issue of a policy journal called American Affairs.
For globalists, Mitchell writes, "political justice involved material growth made possible by global management and the identity debt-points that global elites dispensed to this or that oppressed 'identity' group as a consequence of past infractions or of the irredeemable fault of others—typically (the imaginary category of) White People."
"The dark Protestant machinations about human freedom and pride that drove President Bush and President Obama, respectively, make no appearance in the thinking of Trump," Mitchell writes. "He will ask of foreign nations, simply, are they going to be allies or not; and will America be able to win with or without them?"
In other words, Europeans who favor economic integration, ethnic pluralism and military deterrence of Russia are no longer regarded as U.S. allies.
“Trump has made clear that he’s at best indifferent, if not openly hostile to the modern European project, and Bannon has indicated that anti-E.U. populists have a friend in the White House,” writes American conservative James Kirchick in the German daily, FAZ.
Bannon approved of the visit of French far-right leader Marine Le Pen to Trump Tower in January. He published Dutch anti-immigration leader Geert Wilders in Breitbart News. And now he seems to be targeting Angela Merkel, the pro-immigration German prime minister who has emerged as the de facto leader of Europe, if not the free world. Merkel, who faces elections this fall, certainly sees Bannon's media strategy as a threat.
“We shouldn’t underestimate what’s happening on the internet,” Merkel said in a speech to the German parliament last week. “Opinions today are formed differently than 25 years ago. Fake pages, bots, and trolls can distort views.”
Not coincidentally, Breitbart.com is said to be opening a Berlin bureau later this year.
While Bannon often talks in apocalyptic terms about war between the Christian West and Islam, his initial moves in the National Security Council are more political than militaristic. Through SIG, Bannon seeks to midwife a more nationalist and Christian Europe, as a prelude to escalating a “clash of civilizations" war against Islam.
In this geopolitical gambit, Bannon and company are setting the course, while McMaster and the “adults” of the Washington policy elite look increasingly irrelevant.