For many opponents of Donald Trump, the departure of controversial chief strategist Steve Bannon from the West Wing on Friday was a welcome and long overdue change.
The former head of Breitbart, who has now returned to his post there, was seen as the chief representative of Trump’s populist nationalism. To the degree there ever was such a thing as “Trumpism,” it was probably most coherently represented and articulated by Bannon.
For all his noxious positions, one thing Bannon stood out for was his relative dovishness on foreign and military policy. He opposed the cruise missile strikes on Syrian government targets. In an interview shortly before his ouster, he argued against the viability of any military option in North Korea. Bannon was, like Trump himself seemed to be for a while, a skeptic of NATO.
Bannon was also reportedly one of the few internal voices of opposition against a policy Trump is reportedly set to announce on Monday evening: To send an additional 4,000 soldiers to Afghanistan, America’s seemingly never-ending war.
On these issues, Bannon has been at odds with the more establishment-oriented foreign policy wing of the administration, including National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis.
Bannon wasn’t able to curb traditional Republican hawkishness
But those eager to see a more restrained U.S. policy when it comes to military interventions, probably need not worry too much about Bannon’s departure. To the degree that he was in opposition to traditional Republican hawkishness, he was a decidedly ineffective opponent.
Note the list of major foreign policy decisions above: On each and every one of them, President Trump ended up siding with the hawks. He bombed Syria, threatened nuclear “fire and fury” against North Korea, eventually reaffirmed his commitment to NATO, and is now sending thousands more American soldiers to a war soon to enter its third decade.
Bannon’s peculiar nationalist and protectionist reasons might not have been particularly pleasant, but they provided him with an ideological grounding that Trump himself never had. While as a candidate Trump was eager to cast aspersions on the Iraq and Libya wars, that seemed to be more because he could lay the blame on his political opponents.
Instead, the president’s overriding impulse is for a bellicose shoot-first simplicity. That overrides any coherent policy preference against interventions or nation-building. After all, this is the man who is narcissistically focused on declaring himself a winner and looking tough.
The notion of being blamed for “losing” in Afghanistan, or Iraq and Syria, matters more to him than the reality of stalemates and mission creep. The idea of backing down from a fight, is even more at odds with who Trump is.
Trump’s ‘libertarian streak’ was always a sort of wish-fulfillment
Those who read a sort of libertarian non-interventionist streak into Trump’s candidacy were always engaging in more of a wish-fulfillment than a rational policy analysis. The only lesson he was interested in taking from America’s failed wars was that voters should pick him instead of Hillary Clinton of Jeb Bush.
So Bannon’s departure won’t make Trump any more of a war hawk: Trump already was one, and Bannon was never any serious restraint on that. Instead, his influence showed itself almost exclusively in the nationalist and protectionist measures he pushed.
These included the ban on travel from several Muslim nations, and the president’s divisive and inflammatory comments after events in Charlottesville. These are not topics where lovers of liberty and smaller government have any cause to mourn his departure.
At the end of the day, the administration’s troubles and missteps have been caused more by Trump than by Bannon. His departure will change little on policy front, and little with regard to the backstabbing and infighting.
(Photo of Stephen “Steve” Bannon, chief strategist for President Donald Trump, arrives to a swearing in ceremony of White House senior staff in the East Room of the White House on January 22, 2017, by Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images.)