Generals bring order to chaotic White House staff
The recent removal of White House chief strategist and alt-right ideologue Stephen Bannon was in large part due to the influence of the new White House chief of staff, John Kelly, a former US Marine Corps general.
Kelly was moved from his cabinet position as head of the Department of Homeland Security to run the White House staff because President Donald Trump was concerned about infighting among his staff, leaks to the media and his inability to get major legislation passed in Congress. Kelly has reportedly become the gatekeeper to the Oval Office in addition to managing a large staff.
The significance of Kelly’s advent to the chief of staff position in terms of policy is that he is a non-ideological person and a pragmatist. His main ally in the White House is H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, who holds the rank of US Army lieutenant-general.
Kelly and McMaster, besides their military backgrounds, are kindred spirits in that they say the United States should continue to be a leader in the world, maintain long-standing alliances and not give mixed signals to allies about US commitments.
This is why they clashed with Bannon, who played an instrumental role in Trump’s electoral victory. Bannon, the executive chairman of the alt-right Breitbart News organisation, described himself as a populist and a nationalist. He reinforced Trump’s ideas about an America-centric foreign policy and said that US trade deals were bad for the country. He also wanted the United States to avoid military ventures overseas and instead concentrate on building a kind of Fortress America.
Bannon even suggested to Trump that US civilian contractors, a kind of mercenary force, should be deployed to Afghanistan instead of the regular US military, an idea that was strongly opposed by Kelly, McMaster and Defence Secretary James Mattis, another former general.
What irked Kelly, however, about Bannon was that Breitbart and other right-wing media orchestrated a vicious campaign against McMaster because he opposes pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, sacked right-wing ideologues that his discredited predecessor and former Trump adviser Michael Flynn had placed on the National Security Council staff and retained some of former President Barack Obama’s foreign policy experts on the National Security Council staff.
Bannon denied that he was behind the attacks on McMaster but apparently no one in the White House believed him. CNN reported that Kelly believed Bannon was “pursuing his own agenda.”
Although Trump reportedly had differences with McMaster, he also soured on Bannon. He was reportedly upset that a biography of Bannon had come out that seemed to suggest that Bannon and Trump were equals and Trump, with his outsized ego, could not countenance anybody stealing his limelight.
Trump was also upset that Bannon gave an unauthorised interview in which he suggested that there was no military solution to the North Korea conflict, a statement that contradicted Trump’s public statements.
However, it was the Charlottesville, Virginia, incident, in which white supremacists and neo-Nazis marched and shouted racist and anti-Semitic slogans and violently clashed with counter-protesters, that helped seal Bannon’s fate.
Trump made the most shocking comments about the incident, first making a kind of moral equivalency to both sides and later claiming that there were some “fine people” in the neo-Nazi led march. Bannon was not directly linked to the Charlottesville incidents but there were many articles in Breitbart before and after he joined the White House to link the alt-right to the white supremacist agenda.
So when Kelly suggested to Trump that Bannon be fired, Trump agreed, probably because he wanted to deflect attention from his own foibles in responding to Charlottesville.
Bannon’s departure from the White House signalled that the non-ideological pragmatists, led by the generals, have the upper hand. This means that Trump will be getting more advice from people with traditional views of US foreign and security policy. As witnessed by Trump’s policy speech on Afghanistan on August 21, this means that the United States will not be pulling out of that country and will, in fact, send several thousand more troops there per the advice of military commanders.
On the Middle East, Trump can be expected to maintain traditional friendships and alliances and policy will be handled by foreign and security policy professionals. As a possible sign of this trend, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner’s recent trip to the region to explore the possibility of restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks includes staff members from the National Security Council.
While Bannon’s ouster and Kelly’s and McMaster’s rise have earned bipartisan praise in Congress and the media, there have been a few voices of caution about the military playing such a dominant role in policymaking, a role traditionally reserved for civilians.
However, because Trump has been so erratic and controversial, even his sharpest critics are acknowledging that it is better that the generals are in prominent policy positions to tame and guide the president.