Trump’s inner sanctum to shape US foreign policy
Washington - Although Donald Trump has been US president for only a few weeks, it is clear that this administration’s major foreign policy decisions will be made by a tight circle of advisers the president trusts.
This should come as no surprise. Trump’s company, while worth billions of dollars, is not a huge corporation with thousands of employees. It is essentially a family-run enterprise supplemented by a handful of close confidantes with special skills — such as David Friedman, Trump’s former bankruptcy lawyer who is his nominee to be US ambassador to Israel.
Trump does not seem to like or trust bureaucracies and especially governmental ones that are staffed by professional civil servants who have no personal loyalty to him. For Trump, everything is personal.
Admittedly, three weeks is not a long time in the life of an administration and things can and do change over the course of a president’s term but Trump’s personality is 70 years old and he is unlikely to change his style of leadership, the way in which he makes decisions or the people he trusts.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis probably will spend more time managing their respective bureaucracies and carrying out official public duties than they will be making policy. At times they may find themselves wrestling to implement policies with which they do not agree or struggling to have their dissenting voices heard by the president.
So who will be shaping US foreign policy under Trump?
Three Trump advisers will play key roles and two of them have virtually no foreign policy experience. The first is national security adviser Michael Flynn, a retired lieutenant-general who for two years served as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) under president Barack Obama. Flynn’s official biography says he retired from DIA in 2014 but sources quoted in the New York Times claim that he was forced out due to poor management skills and a tendency to play with facts.
Flynn is a strong advocate of improved ties with Russia. In 2015 he gave a speech at a gala dinner in Moscow for Russian broadcaster RT and was seated next to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Flynn’s overriding concern, though, is Islamic extremism, which he views as a mortal threat to the United States. His views are clearly laid out in a book he co-wrote in 2016 with Michael Ledeen, a neo-conservative writer and former government official.
In The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies, Flynn and Ledeen call radical Islam a “tribal cult” that grew out of a “failed civilisation”. They argue that, unless it acts decisively, the United States risks being “ruled by men who eagerly drink the blood of their dying enemies” and having sharia law imposed on Americans. They argue that Iran is the “linchpin” of Islamic extremism — including Sunni jihadists — and call for regime change in Tehran.
The second Trump adviser who will influence foreign policy decisions is his political strategist, Steve Bannon, former editor of the right-wing internet site Breitbart News. Except for a short stint in the US Navy, he has no foreign policy experience but many people credit Bannon with devising Trump’s winning campaign strategy that was characterised by a refusal to play by the traditional rules of political decorum.
Like Flynn, Bannon sees Islamic extremism as an existential threat to Western civilisation. On January 31st, USA Today published an in-depth investigation into Bannon’s views based on comments he made in 2015 and 2016. Bannon says that the West is at war with Islam in a “civilisational struggle” that poses a bigger threat than even the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. The United States, Bannon said, would potentially need to become engaged in another “major shooting war” in the Middle East.
The White House issued a statement on February 1st saying that Trump “does not share” Bannon’s views on Islam as revealed by the USA Today investigation but Bannon nevertheless has been given a seat on the Principals Committee of the National Security Council.
The third and perhaps most important member of Trump’s inner circle is Jared Kushner, the president’s 36-year-old son-in-law, whose official title is senior White House adviser. Kushner is closer to and more respected by Trump than any other person in the White House. He has no foreign policy experience, although his family foundation has supported the Israeli settler movement and Kushner formerly served on the board of the US-based Friends of the Israel Defense Forces.
Unlike Flynn and Bannon, Kushner holds his views close to his chest and has rarely spoken to the media but observers say he is a moderating force who frequently has talked his father-in-law out of taking reckless steps.
One thing seems clear: In an argument between Kushner and other members of the inner circle, the president is very likely to heed his son-in-law’s advice.
Until further notice, these three advisers are the ones to watch.