Tomorrow Donald Trump will host his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at Mar-A-Lago. Today it was announced that Trump’s Presidential adviser Steve Bannon will no longer have a seat on the National Security Council.
Are these two stories related? They may be.
Steve Bannon’s placement as an attendee of National Security Council meetings was always controversial. Bannon came from the world of journalism, entertainment and business and is something of a self-styled conservative philosopher. A position on the National Security Council is typically reserved for members of the defence and intelligence community; in other words big deep state, big military industrial complex.
Trump’s initial decision to place Bannon in National Security Council meetings was indeed a brave move. Like Michael Flynn, Bannon generally represents the section of Trump’s team that is favourable towards rapprochement with Russia, stridently anti-Wahhabist (unlike the Obama administration as a means of contrast), but also deeply anti-Iranian and also anti-Chinese.
Received wisdom is that Bannon’s demotion represents a failure of Donald Trump to stand up for ‘his man Bannon’ against more establishment orientated, pro-deep state fugues like National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.
With Flynn gone and Bannon demoted, Trump has at one less close ally, one and a half to be precise as Bannon will continue to be an official adviser to the US President. But as with the Flynn saga, it is not black and white.
While many people cheered Flynn and Bannon’s apparent views on Russia and Salifist terrorists, their views on Iran and China were/are not only hawkish, but deeply worrying. Some would say their views on Iran and China are fanatical.
What’s the point of America calming tensions with the nuclear power of Russia only to transfer the antagonism to China, another nuclear power, or for that matter Iran, a country that maintains formidable military force by any objective measure.
After Rex Tillerson’s surprisingly positive trip to China in recent weeks, could it be that Bannon was sacrificed in order to demonstrate that an anti-Chinese individual will no longer have as active a role in shaping White House foreign policy?
It is a distinct possibility that thus far no one has explored. In spite of Trump’s harsh rhetoric against China on the deeply exaggerated North Korean issue, Tillerson is emerging as something of a pragmatist with neither the time to indulge the insane regime change fantasies of neo-cons and Obama hold-overs, nor the more pseudo-apocalyptic views on Islamic and Communist states that Bannon apparently holds.
With all the tough talk on China, perhaps the White House couldn’t afford someone like Bannon to be around, as Bannon actually means what he says about China. Others, including Trump may simply be using the rhetoric to try to appear tough with China. Whether that works or not is an entirely different matter.
Bannon is after all a great PR man and he ought to focus his talents there. When it comes to foreign policy, pragmatists are needed. It still is not entirely clear if Rex Tillerson is a pragmatist, but at times he talks like one, which is more positive than Obama’s State Department which wouldn’t know pragmatism if it droned them in the head.
Things in Washington are never entirely what they seem. This could be one such example for the history books.