Stephen K. Bannon, Donald Trump’s chief strategist, has been elevated to the Principals Committee of the National Security Council, the top tier of national-security policymakers.* It is the first time a political affairs official has been made a regular participant in the NSC’s work. The appointment is the most important piece in an extraordinary and dangerous bureaucratic reorganization that Bannon himself may have engineered.
Anyone who thinks bureaucracy doesn’t count should think twice after witnessing what amounts to a coup. Bannon may attend any session of the NSC and the Principals Committee while the intelligence community, represented by the Director of National Intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, may not.** Officially, Bannon is now on par with Michael Flynn, the special assistant for national security; but in terms of real access to the president, Bannon’s only peer is Jared Kushner (www.nytimes.com/2017/01/29/us/stephen-bannon-donald-trump-national-security-council.html). “It is a startling elevation of a political adviser,” the New York Times says.
Thus, the most important foreign and national security decisions, meaning those made during a crisis, are going to be most influenced by a far-right rabble-rouser and Trump’s son-in-law, neither of whom has anything remotely resembling international experience. (I don’t count Bannon’s time in the Navy, any more than I count Kushner’s donations to Israel.) And in Bannon’s case, that influence is likely to bend the president toward aggressive, shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later actions with little or no consultation with experts. What else should we expect from the man who guided Trump’s campaign and essentially wrote his inaugural address on the theme of “America First”?
In practical terms, what might Bannon’s coup mean?
First, it means that the policy-relevant government agencies can expect to be bypassed on important decisions. Thus, for example, Trump’s executive order banning Muslim immigration reportedly was issued without reference to the Office of Legal Counsel in the Exec. Off. of the President, the Dept. of State, or the Dept. of Homeland Security. Nor, evidently, were local-level officials at airports alerted. The Washington Post reported on January 30 that a dissent letter on Trump’s immigration order was being circulated in the State Department. With mass resignations—or were they firings?—of the State Department’s entire management team, Rex Tillerson will be taking over a badly weakened agency largely devoid of experienced leaders and perhaps facing a morale crisis.
(Update, Feb. 2): Josh Rogin of the Washington Post reports on a story broken by the Daily Beast about Bannon’s creation of a Strategic Initiatives Group. Rogin writes: “Some call the Strategic Initiatives Group Bannon’s internal think tank. It’s led by Christopher Liddell, a former General Motors executive who hails from New Zealand. Goldman Sachs executive Dina Powell is also heavily involved, along with Baltimore real estate developer Reed Cordish. On the national security side is Sebastian Gorka, a controversial pundit and analyst with strong views on how to fight the war against Islamist extremism.” Looks very much like the kind of internal coup I discuss above.)
Second, despite administration denials, the professional military and intelligence viewpoints at NSC meetings will only be at the table “where issues pertaining to the responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed.” Is that qualification intended to promote efficiency, as Trump’s people say, or to lay the basis for exclusion from the most important decisions?
Third, it means that Trump’s financial interests will remain secret and under his control, so that the inevitable conflicts with payments by foreign governments to Trump will go unpunished.
Fourth, it means that Bannon et al. will continue to work with and encourage right-wing leaders in Europe and elsewhere who are as determined as he to carry out a white nationalist agenda that is anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, and anti-globalist.
Fifth, it means that Israel will get everything it wants, without a word of concern from Washington. What a sad joke that Trump expects his son-in-law to craft an Israeli-Palestinian settlement while Netanyahu authorizes more settlements in occupied territory, and applauds Trump’s intention to move the US embassy to Jerusalem.
Sixth, it means that Trump’s version of a “reset” of policy toward Russia will avoid the key issues that led to the demise of Obama’s reset in the first place: NATO’s eastward movement, and Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and seizure of Crimea. Those matters call for careful diplomacy. Trump is likely to start dismantling sanctions and increasing US investments in Russia without a resolution of geopolitical issues.
Seventh, US policy toward China will be opposite of policy toward Russia. China will be the hard edge of policy: naval buildup, deeper involvement in the South China Sea dispute, support of a Japanese military buildup in contravention of long-established policy, and erosion of the One China policy. Expect the Chinese to respond in kind.
Eighth, nuclear rearmament will again come into vogue—a reversal of the downward trend of recent decades in numbers of weapons, though not in money devoted to nuclear “modernization.”
Ninth, traditional friends of the US will find that friendship doesn’t carry much weight anymore. Mexico’s president and Britain’s prime minister have now discovered that. Alliances therefore will not have the credibility they once had with an unpredictable partner such as the Trump administration.
Eliot Cohen, former counselor to Condoleezza Rice at the State Department and now at Johns Hopkins University, has this warning about the NSC reorganization for his conservative colleagues:
Trump’s disregard for either Secretary of Defense Mattis or Secretary-designate Tillerson in his disastrous policy salvos this week [on immigration and the Mexico wall], in favor of his White House advisers [Bannon et al.], tells you all you need to know about who is really in charge. To be associated with these people is going to be, for all but the strongest characters, an exercise in moral self-destruction.
For the community of conservative thinkers and experts, and more importantly, conservative politicians, this is a testing time. Either you stand up for your principles and for what you know is decent behavior, or you go down, if not now, then years from now, as a coward or opportunist. Your reputation will never recover, nor should it (www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/01/a-clarifying-moment-in-american-history/514868/.)
Cohen concludes that Trump will fail because the people he attacks will not go away, will persevere, and will ultimately say “enough.” We must hold everyone, especially officeholders, to account, he writes. I have to hope his confidence is warranted.
*Subsequently, Trump amended his order to include the CIA director. The NSC Principals Committee (PC) is the “Cabinet-level senior interagency forum for considering policy issues that affect the national security interests of the United States.” The PC can be convened and chaired by either the National Security Adviser or the Homeland Security Adviser. Its regular attendees will now include the following: Secretary of State; Secretary of the Treasury; Secretary of Defense; Attorney General; Secretary of Homeland Security; Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff; Assistant to the President and Chief Strategist; National Security Adviser; Homeland Security Adviser. The Counsel to the President, Deputy Counsel for National Security Affairs, and the Director of the OMB are also permitted to attend all meetings.
**The Director of National Intelligence is not on either the NSC or the PC. The DNI and JCS Chairman are to attend “where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed,” making their presence optional The Secretary of Commerce, the U.S. Trade Representative, and the Assistant to the President for Economic Policy will be regular attendees “when international economic issues” are on the agenda. The Director of the Office of Science and Technology, who under the Obama administration was to be present when “science and technology related issues” were on the agenda, will no longer attend.