Trump administration’s schizophrenia about Islam

Sunday 05/03/2017

Steve Bannon, the Trump administration’s chief strategist and former executive chairman of Breitbart News, has framed Islam as an enemy ideology and is not shy of predicting a clash of civilisations between that religion and what he sees as Judeo-Christian values. His views chime in with those of Sebastian Gorka, who was appointed by US President Donald Trump to be his deputy assistant, empowered to translate their prediction into national strategy.

A former political consultant in post-Communist Hungary long involved with ultra-nationalist policies there, Gorka has built a career in the United States by moderating military seminars and establishing a reputation as an ill-informed Islamophobe.

Contrast his appointment with that of the president’s newly appointed national security adviser, US Army Lieutenant- General H.R. McMaster. A veteran of the Iraq war known for his sense of history and independent streak, McMaster does not share the ideologically charged views of his disgraced predecessor Michael Flynn, or of Bannon and Gorka.

McMaster argues that Muslims who commit terrorist acts are perverting their religion and that the label “radical Islamic terror­ism” is unhelpful because terrorists are “un-Islamic”. His views are much closer to that of former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, who were careful to separate acts of terrorism from Islamic teaching, not least because they under­stood that the United States needed the help of Muslim allies to hunt down terrorists.

McMaster understands that the United States must avoid playing into the jihadist propaganda that this is a religious war. His views are shared by many senior security agency and government officials but not by Bannon, who sees Islam in deeply xenophobic terms.

Bannon and Gorka enjoy walk-in privileges in the Oval Office; McMaster, as of this writing, does not. Which view will prevail is anybody’s guess and, as is becoming increasingly clear with Trump, it is best to watch the acts rather than follow the tweets.

Bannon and other White House officials suggest there will be radical shifts in American policy. However, as Vice-President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other senior cabinet officials have reaffirmed US support for alliances in Europe and Asia, bad-mouthed by the president earlier, US allies can only wait and see.

The bigger question is whether the deep state will prevail. Beyond the fury and the farce of Trump’s first month in office, will his administration settle down into being a more conventional partner for its foreign allies? Might normalisation go so far that, in a few months, Bannon and Gorka are pushed to the sidelines and the president reduced to a ranting and raving titular figure who does not make the important decisions?

After all, early suggestions that the United States might recognise Taiwan or impose a blockade in the South China Sea, swiftly move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, lift sanctions on Russia unconditionally or drop its objections to Russia’s annexation of Crimea have faded away. Maybe the much-trumpeted wall with Mexico will turn into a fence.

It is unlikely that a Trump administration can ever be really normalised. An erratic, ill-informed, dishonest and addicted to Twitter commander-in-chief will at one point of another flirt with disaster. Those who in their heart of hearts wish the administration implodes are unlikely to see their dream come true.

The Republicans command majorities in both houses of Congress and know Trump remains very popular with the Republican base. His economic policies are likely to help the happy 1% of Americans, not the many to whom he promised to repatriate jobs from abroad. Financial and energy deregula­tion will boost corporate profits, not the wages of ordinary Americans. Such folks will discover in time that their famously anti-establishment hero, who wanted to drain the Washington swamp of lobbyists, did not.

Implosion is a dangerous scenario as the likes of Bannon let alone the president could behave in even more erratic ways if either felt cornered. An inexperienced ideologue advising the head of the world’s most powerful military is not a reassuring thought for the next few years. The best to hope for is that men of moderation and experience will fill more senior posts.

That will not prevent the damage done to America’s reputation but its status as a model for the democratic world has been greatly tarnished in recent years. The shining city on the hill as so many Americans like to see their country no longer shines very brightly, not least in the Arab world.

For the latter, the appointment of McMaster, who has tremen­dous talent and experience and repudiates his new boss’s lexicon of Islamophobia and world view that a clash of civilisations is inevitable, can only be wel­comed.