The internal battle taking place in the Trump administration, pitting the “adults” – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, General John Kelly, and National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster – against the “America First” nationalists, led by Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, has now spread to the media. At the center of the controversy is McMaster, whose foreign policy views are in many ways the exact opposite of Trump’s, and who – rumor has it – may be on the way out. There are indications that, despite recent expressions of support for McMaster, the President has clashed with him repeatedly: Eli Lake reports that Trump “screamed” at his National Security Advisor for calling his South Korean counterpart after Trump said Seoul would have to pay for the THAAD antimissile defense system.
The Never Trump progressive-neocon alliance is taking up the cudgels on McMaster’s behalf, while the Trump loyalists are calling for his ouster. So what are the policy differences between the two factions?
The current issue is what to do about the war in Afghanistan – the fifteen year-plus futile crusade that is now the longest war in our history. Bannon wants out, the “adults” want to escalate the war with more troops. Trump himself leans toward the Bannon view: he reportedly rejected a plan prepared by the “adult” faction and sent them back to the drawing board.
However, from a noninterventionist perspective, the battle lines are not all that that clear. In an interview with an administration insider, the Daily Caller reports:
“Everything the president wants to do, McMaster opposes. Trump wants to get us out of Afghanistan – McMaster wants to go in. Trump wants to get us out of Syria – McMaster wants to go in. Trump wants to deal with the China issue – McMaster doesn’t. Trump wants to deal with the Islam issue – McMaster doesn’t. You know, across the board, we want to get rid of the Iran deal – McMaster doesn’t. It is incredible to watch it happening right in front of your face. Absolutely stunning.”
So it’s a mixed bag – as is the Trump administration itself. On the one hand, we have the “adults” – who reflect the conventional bipartisan internationalist foreign policy Trump campaigned against – and on the other hand we have the Trumpian nationalists, who are generally noninterventionist but have some unfortunate idiosyncratic fixations, notably a desire for conflict with Iran.
Another issue is the persistence of Obama administration holdovers, who are being retained by McMaster. The new National Security Advisor is busy purging Trump loyalists and replacing them with his own people.
A related issue is the contention by the Bannonites that the damaging leaks – e.g., the release of transcripts of Trump’s discussions with foreign leaders – are coming from National Security Council personnel.
The nationalists are particularly perturbed by a letter sent by McMaster to former National Security Advisor Susan Rice giving her access to top secret intelligence. Rice is suspected of spying on Trump campaign officials by getting access to National Security Agency transcripts and unmasking the identities of the people involved.
The McMaster-Bannon conflict is rooted in their biographies: McMaster is a gung-ho militarist who wrote an entire book about how those feckless politicians kept us from winning the Vietnam war. Dereliction of Duty is a long and often tiresomely detailed account of how Lyndon Johnson and those bothersome civilians let “politics” – i.e., the growing disaffection with the Vietnam war by the American people – prevent the President from unleashing the full firepower of the American military.
McMaster is also the Army’s point man in the ongoing battle for more taxpayer dollars, arguing that the military must prepare for a land war in … Europe. The target: Russia. This puts him directly up against Trump himself, who campaigned on the basis of a new policy of détente. The voters voted for peace with Russia – but the national security bureaucracy and the military-industrial complex are unalterably opposed.
McMaster is a committed Atlanticist: he was in charge of a study ginning up the alleged Russian threat and identifying Russian actions in Crimea and Georgia as “the end of the post-cold war period” – meaning Cold War II is on.
Bannon, the architect of Trump’s victory, is the White House ideologue who seems to understand that a great part of the President’s appeal is his reluctance to involve the US in foreign wars. He is, in short, the administration’s resident “America First” nationalist, whose focus is on achieving Trump’s domestic agenda and who wants to avoid getting stuck in politically unpopular overseas quagmires.
Allowing for (often major) inconsistencies and personality-driven conflicts, on one side of the barricades we have the internationalists, represented by the Tillerson-Mattis-McMaster trio, and on the other side we have the anti-globalist Bannon-Miller group. The War Party has been quick to come to the aid of the former, with the New York Times “reporting” that “Russian-influenced” social media are after McMaster’s scalp, and the left-wing anti-Trump brigade denouncing the campaign against McMaster as the work of “white supremacists” – yes, really.
Reflecting – in part — their increasingly anti-interventionist orientation, Trump’s base is out to get McMaster: a full-fledged campaign to oust him has been launched in the pro-Trump media, and the left is reflexively defending him. Here again we see how the political spectrum is being turned on its head, with the right going “isolationist” and what passes for the left these days taking a neoconservative turn.
Of course, it isn’t that cut-and-dried: McMaster has his good points. However, if we paint the two opposing factions with a broad brush, the anti-McMaster campaign is a healthy development, one that is driving the Trumpified conservative movement farther down the “America First” road. This is precisely why liberal internationalists and neoconservatives have rallied to McMaster’s defense – and why conservative and libertarian anti-interventionists should take up the battle-cry to #fireMcMaster.
With the Trump administration, there’s always the possibility that we could get someone worse than McMaster – say, John Bolton. However, there are rumors that Col. Douglas Macgregor, retired, with decidedly anti-interventionist views, would be in the running if McMaster is ousted. Here he is in a recent appearance on Tucker Carlson’s show:
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.