We Have Heard This Before: Bannon and Trump Want to Make More War to End War

President Trump wants America out of the nation-building business—even if it means more overseas wars, ex-White House strategist Steve Bannon told a Washington audience this week.

Speaking at the Hudson Institute for a forum on countering Islamic terrorism, Bannon outlined what he said was the philosophy behind Trump’s increased use of the military and spy agencies in Syria and Iraq, his alliances with the region’s dynasties and military leaders—as long as they oppose ISIS and Iran—and Trump's unbridled threats to other foes.

“One of the reasons that he’s president and Hillary Clinton is not is, I do believe, that there was a fundamental rejection by the American people of much of what the foreign policy establishment, of both political parties, have stood for,” Bannon said. “How it devolved that we are in the Middle East the way that we are in; and the blood and treasure that we have left. And the same situation is why have we not focused on the rise of China—the opportunity costs of our engagement in the Middle East and the wars of no end.”

“I think the working-class and middle-class people in this country are looking at the taxes we pay," he continued. "They’re looking at the trillions of dollars that have been spent. They are looking at the veterans that have come home, that have PTSD, that are horribly wounded. They’re looking at Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery… So President Trump was, ‘Let’s bring these wars to some kind of culmination.’ And victory matters. President Trump is not a quitter.”

Bannon would have Americans believe that Trump is antiwar. But Trump’s solutions to seemingly intractable conflicts has been to unleash more military muscle to win, which Bannon said has been validated by the recent capture of two ISIS urban strongholds: its capital in Syria and oil-producing hub in Iraq. (Obama Administration Defense Secretary Ash Carter commented those ISIS defeats were two years in the making.)

“That strategy was not a war of attrition,” Bannon said. “It was very specific from day one. This will be a war of annihilation. We will physically annihilate the caliphate. And that’s what’s been accomplished."

Bannon’s talk was filled with ironies apparent to anyone outside Trump administration circles. He repeatedly said that Trump was neither isolationist (despite his “America First” rhetoric) nor an Islamophobe (despite his campaign rhetoric and subsequent ban on travelers and most refugees from a half-dozen Muslim nations). As proof, Bannon pointed to Trump’s organizing of last spring’s summit in Saudi Arabia, where he firmed up anti-terrorist and anti-Iranian alliances among regional powers.

“I think that anyone who thinks we’re isolationist, or that his philosophy is isolationist—I don’t know how you look at the Muslim summit that took place” and reach that conclusion, he said. “It put to bed, or should have put to bed, that President Trump was an Islamophobe, or that somehow his administration and the people who work for him [are Islamophobes], and particularly the deplorables and the people that voted for him, did not want an active engagement with the Islamic world.”

Bannon would also have Americans believe that Trump abhors war and militarism, even as he described how Trump aligned the U.S. with regional strongmen—because that is in the U.S. national interest and in the domestic interests of those allies as well.   

“He looks at the world in a different way,” he said. “It’s very—Walter Russell Meade would say—Jacksonian… What’s in the vital national security interest of the United States is what you should commit to. You will have partners where it will be in their national security interests also.”

Bannon would have Americans believe Trump is committed to a use of the military and exercise of U.S. power that breaks with the foreign policy establishments of both parties. He casts Trump as the blameless heir of decades of hapless foreign policy that only brute force will finally extinguish.

“The geniuses in the foreign policy establishment—what they left on President Trump was the Bay of Pigs in Venezuela, the Cuban missile crisis in Korea and the Vietnam War in Afghanistan, all at one time,” Bannon said. “President Trump didn’t do this. The deplorables that voted for President Trump didn’t do this. This is the geniuses of both political parties. Both political parties delivered this upon us.” 

The premise that the “United States wants to be engaged in combat operations, special forces operations, drone operations, multi-generational [conflict]... That’s not where the American people are,” he continued. “We’re prepared to be allies. What we don’t want is these countries to be protectorates. It’s a big difference. This is America First. We’re not looking to transform the world into our values. I think the world has got to come to its own conclusions about how it wants to govern themselves.”

While it’s useful to hear how the administration describes the logic behind what appears to many as the illogical abandonment of diplomacy and an unnerving embrace of confrontation (with North Korea, Iran, Qatar, and increasingly, China), it’s obvious the Trump administration is not as anti-establishment as it thinks.

In reality, the Trump White House is deeply pro-military and pro-war. Bannon’s comments about America’s wariness of endless wars might convey a tinge of peacenik populism. Yet is Trump is falling into the same traps laid by Pentagon war planners that have beset president after president for decades. Trump's militarism and rationale are not different than what was seen under Democrat Lyndon Johnson and Republican Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War, where generals spoke of having to destroy villages to save villages. As Bannon said, Trump wants to win and is not a quitter.  

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