The Fight Within the Trump WH: Will President Trump Stand with the Bannonites, or the Generals?

President Donald Trump, with National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, right, speaks while having lunch with services members in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, July 18, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

When I watched Hugh Hewitt’s August 5 interview with National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster, I was impressed with his ability to articulate the foreign policy goals he said he shares with President Trump -- although some on the far right are disputing that they are indeed the policies Trump promised to pursue.

In speaking about various hotspots, McMaster emphasized the importance of being strategic, looking at our long-term goals and how to achieve them rather than focusing on short term tactics as the Obama administration did. Overall, McMaster’s penchant is to achieve our goals by working with regional partners and with other countries when our interests intersect -- without going to war or attempting nation-building.

For example, on Venezuela, he pointed out that by staging a coup and replacing the legitimately elected parliament with a phony “constituent assembly,” Maduro not only poses a threat to the Venezuelan people, but to the United States and its regional allies as well. This is because, as McMaster said, Maduro has been getting economic and military support from Cuba, China, and Russia -- just as Fidel Castro did in the '60s and '70s. There is even a possibility that Iran’s Quds forces could be working in the country. The U.S., he said, should work with its regional partners to help the Venezuelan people free themselves “from this dictatorship.” McMaster believes it would be a mistake for the U.S. to intervene directly and allow Maduro to blame the crisis on “the Yankees.” That way the responsibility for this catastrophe would rest solely on “Maduro’s shoulders.”

Next, addressing the Iranian nuclear deal, McMaster supported Trump’s view that “it was the worst deal ever” because it “rewarded the regime, gave them so much up front.” He acknowledged that Iran immediately violated the agreement’s "spirit" and supported Assad’s proxy forces in Syria, as well as Hamas and Hezbollah. The agreement’s goal was not only to stop Iran from going nuclear, he said, but was meant to “moderate their behavior” in the region, while in fact the mullahs did the opposite: “They actually intensified their destabilizing behavior across the region.”

To meet the challenge, McMaster said we “have crafted-a strategy along with a lot of our likeminded nations, allies, partners, to counter Iran’s’ destabilizing behavior while we still aim to prevent, by whatever means is necessary to do so, Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

Congress is receiving reviews every 90 days, and Trump will be the judge on whether Iran is living up to the agreement. In McMaster’s opinion, the supreme leader of Iran should not be shocked if this review, sooner or later, results in a decision to withdraw from the agreement.

McMaster criticized the Obama administration’s policies in Afghanistan for focusing on tactics, and for “announcing to the enemy years in advance exactly the number of troops you’re gonna have, exactly what they’re gonna do and what they’re not gonna do.” Now, he said, we must step back and ask what is at stake for the U.S. in Afghanistan; what is the strategy “that secures an outcome consistent with the vital interests of the American people.” This entails putting together a regional strategy to achieve U.S. goals, which he is currently working on with others in the administration. Trump will weigh his options, he said, and make the final decision on going forward in Afghanistan.

McMaster, to say the least, is not appreciated by the far right (sometimes referred to as the "alt-right," or the "nationalists"). They regard him as an appeaser of Islamists, as anti-Israel, and as a perpetuator of Obama’s failed foreign policy. McMaster has recently been the recipient of harsh attacks from Breitbart and others, such as David Horowitz’s FrontPageMag.com, all of whom are calling for his head. On Friday, Breitbart News published almost a dozen headlines about McMaster, such as “McMaster ‘Deeply Hostile to Israel and Trump.’” The next day, FrontPageMag's cover article was “McMaster’s NSC Coup Against Trump- Purges Critics of Islam and Obama.”

Joining opposition to McMaster are the Russians, as Bridget Johnson pointed out in these pages:

As the hashtag #FireMcMaster spread last week, the Alliance for Securing Democracy, which  tracks social media activity from accounts and bots linked to Russia's influence operation,  found the hashtag to be the most-tweeted among 600 such accounts.

Yet critics are also infuriated that McMaster has fired people they consider to be the best NSC administration members brought on initially by McMaster’s predecessor, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, and who were close to Steve Bannon. They include Ezra-Cohen Watnick, senior director for intelligence, Col. Derek Harvey (ret.), the NSC’s Mideast advisor who, according to Daniel Greenfield in FrontPageMag, “tried to force out Obama holdovers running our foreign policy,” as well as Rich Higgins, a top official of the National Security Council. Greenfield writes that Higgins was fired after he circulated a memo arguing:

President Trump is under sustained attack from subversive forces both within and outside the government who are deploying Maoist tactics to defeat President Trump’s nationalist agenda.

“Globalists and Islamists recognize that for their visions to succeed, America, both as an ideal and as a national and political identity, must be destroyed,” the memo warns. It argues that this has led “Islamists [to] ally with cultural Marxists,” but that in the long run, “Islamists will co-opt the movement in its entirety.”

“Because the left is aligned with Islamist organizations at local, national, and international levels, recognition should be given to the fact that they seamlessly interoperate through coordinated synchronized interactive narratives … These attack narratives are pervasive, full spectrum, and institutionalized at all levels. They operate in social media, television, the 24-hour news cycle in all media and are entrenched at the upper levels of the bureaucracies.”

Perhaps the administration and especially the generals are sound enough to reject the belief that there is an “enemy within” fighting for the Islamists -- a return to conspiratorial McCarthy-era thinking. As Greenfield writes: "The NSC … [is] populated by swamp creatures who oppose the positions that President Trump ran on. And who are doing everything possible to undermine them.” The implication that McMaster does not want to defeat the Islamists, and that the Obama holdovers are the ones running Trump’s foreign policy, is, to put it frankly, an incorrect charge. Now according to Greenfield, “the swamp” controls the Trump foreign policy apparatus. As he puts it, “McMaster and Mattis and Obama won.”

Now, I admit that some of those appointed to the NSC, such as Kris Bauman, do indeed seem to be opposed to Israel or have posited a moral equivalence between Israel and Hamas. Perhaps McMaster sees some other good qualities in Bauman, and simply wants to hear another point of view.

Caroline Glick also argues that McMaster is “deeply hostile to Israel and to Trump.” According to Glick:

McMaster disagrees and actively undermines Trump’s agenda on just about every salient issue on his agenda. He fires all of Trump’s loyalists and replaces them with Trump’s opponents, like Kris Bauman, an Israel hater and Hamas supporter who McMaster hired to work on the Israel-Palestinian desk. He allows anti-Israel, pro-Muslim Brotherhood, pro-Iran Obama people like Robert Malley to walk around the NSC and tell people what to do and think. He has left Ben (reporters know nothing about foreign policy and I lied to sell them the Iran deal) Rhodes’ and Valerie Jarrett’s people in place.

If McMaster isn’t fired after all that he has done and all that he will do, we’re all going to have to reconsider Trump’s foreign policy. Because if after everything he has done, and everything that he will certainly do to undermine Trump’s stated foreign policy agenda, it will no longer be possible to believe that exiting the nuclear deal or supporting the U.S. alliance with Israel and standing with U.S. allies against U.S. foes -- not to mention draining Washington’s cesspool -- are Trump’s policies. How can they be when Trump stands with a man who opposes all of them and proves his opposition by among other things, firing Trump’s advisers who share Trump’s agenda?

Right now, I will predict that she will not get her wish. McMaster has many supporters, including, at least for the time being, the president. An emailed response from the White House responded to the attacks on McMaster by saying: “General McMaster and I are working very well together. He is a good man and very pro-Israel. I am grateful for the work he continues to do serving our country.” In another email, Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner came to his defense: “General McMaster is a true public servant and a tremendous asset for the president and the administration. He has created and oversees a very thorough and clear process for the agencies to work together to give the president credible options to advance the president’s priorities for American foreign policy."

Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley also defended McMaster, telling the Washington Post: “He had not worked in D.C. before, so this was certainly a new environment for him, but I have always seen him lead. He sets very clear goals. ... When we’re in those meetings, he’s all about getting options on the table for the president.”

In her column I cited earlier, Bridget Johnson points out that Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) called McMaster “a great American” and said that he “was happy to bring him to the president’s attention in February. I’m pleased that the president chose him to be his national security advisor.” Does this mean that John McCain wasn’t the responsible party? That is the charge continually made by the right-wing opponents of McMaster. Glick, for example, writes the following:

And who recommended McMaster? You won’t believe this.

Senator John McCain. That’s right. The NSA got his job on the basis of a recommendation from the man who just saved Obamacare.

Now that we know it was Cotton who brought him to the president’s attention, is the far and alt-right still going to make this charge?

Finally, conservative military historian, columnist, and Trump supporter Victor Davis Hanson writes in American Greatness a column titled “McMaster and Mattis Are Rare Assets-Not Deep State Liabilities.”  Thus, in the brewing and unsettled fight between the Bannon-Breitbart-Horowitz wing of the Trump administration and the McMaster, Mattis and Kelly wing, Hanson has decided to take his stand with the generals!

The charge that McMaster, he writes, “is soft on Islamism or is anti-Israel is absurd. I cannot think of a more obdurate opponent of the Iranian regime” (emphasis added). Trump, he writes, was never going to enact his policy of “principled realism” using “an array of firebrand Mike Flynns in all the major national security agencies ... Mattis and McMaster, by contrast, bring a sense of order and discipline to national security in the manner that the esteemed John Kelly does to the White House staff in general.” Hanson writes:

 In the current controversies at the National Security Agency and the attacks aimed at McMaster -- along with debate and acrimony over how best to salvage some sort of stable government from a 16-year long war in Afghanistan -- we are now entering a weird and suicidal internecine administration war.

Hanson also suggests that rather than being “protectors of the Deep State beltway,” their caution in making policy is perhaps misinterpreted as “obstructionism by the populist base.” He also notes that McMaster was certainly not a neoconservative, and was “more punitive and realist” than committed to "nation-building.” As for Iran, he suggests that the real difference may be over tactics:

An Iran emboldened by appeasement will inevitably violate and doom its own sweetheart accords, rather than having us do it first and get into a kerfuffle with profit-mongering European opportunist allies.

Hanson is correct; the struggle over McMaster is lining up to be the first big test for Trump and his administration. So far Trump has been able to straddle between the nationalist-populist wing of his coalition personified by Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Michael Anton in the White House, and the military men he’s brought in who, he has made clear, have his confidence. If the Bannonites continue their attacks, however, he may be forced to make a choice between the two.

My bet is that Donald Trump will stick with Kelly, Mattis, and McMaster. You can just see the storm that would arise would any of them feel the need to resign, or to have to leave in response to pressure that they do so from the administration. That would be a disaster that President Trump cannot countenance. But if he does not push them out, and the alt-right and the Bannonites keep attacking McMaster, does that mean they break with Trump? Do they conclude that by keeping the generals, Trump has shown that the “deep state” has won? Should this happen, the potential exists that Breitbart followers who voted for Trump might feel betrayed, and hence give up their support for him. Trump cannot afford to let this be the result.

If Hanson is right that the differences are tactical, not ideological as Michael Ledeen thinks. If Hanson is wrong, it will only get worse. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

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