Although it’s too soon to assess the import of the removal of Trump’s top strategic advisor, Steve Bannon, from the Principals Committee of the National Security Council (NSC), it’s certainly not bad news. Indeed, it’s probably very good news for those concerned about the impact of Bannon’s strongly anti-European Union (EU) and Islamophobic views on U.S. foreign policy.
It’s not yet clear what were the proximate causes of Bannon’s ouster. Various explanations have been offered—from Trump’s sudden apparent disillusionment with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in the wake of this week’s devastating chemical attack to increasing tensions between Bannon and Jared Kushner. For more of the initial speculation, Politico and The Washington Post offer different explanations. What clearly isn’t the case, however, are the clarifications offered by Bannon himself—that he had completed his mission in “de-operationaliz[ing]” the NSC—or that his original function on the council to monitor or “babysit” Gen. Michael Flynn was now no longer relevant. The latter explanation is particularly absurd: if Flynn was placed on the Principals Committee to watch over Flynn, why did Trump appoint Flynn in the first place? That explanation indeed makes look Trump bad.
Of course, it’s important to stress that Bannon’s removal from the Principals Committee doesn’t mean that he’s gone from the White House or no longer exerts a powerful—if baleful and quite dangerous, as I tried to explain a couple of months ago—influence on Trump. His office is still located very close to the Oval Office, and there’s nothing to indicate that his dark and messianic worldview has changed. At the same time, however, such a public departure from the NSC—after the White House spent so much political capital defending his presence there—clearly marks a demotion, if not something of a public humiliation for the former Breitbart CEO. And, if it’s true that the so-called “Strategic Initiatives Group” (SIG) was either dissolved or was never actually constituted, it makes a number of individuals, including Deputy National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland and Sebastian Gorka, currently serving on the NSC much more vulnerable to be redeployed or removed. Although McFarland was more associated with Flynn than with Bannon, her Islamophobic and Sinophobic views as expressed as a Fox News analyst and in other fora are certainly compatible with Bannon’s, while Gorka, the former national security editor at Breitbart, almost certainly wouldn’t be where he is today without Bannon’s strong support.
National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster has made clear in a variety of ways—including the recent appointment of Dina Powell to serve in a parallel position with that of McFarland—that he would prefer to see KT in Singapore. As for Gorka, whose far-right associations in Hungary are exacting a growing political cost to the White House, especially in the U.S. Jewish community, his lack of experience or expertise in counter-terrorism (the position for which he was hired), as well as his bombastic style, almost certainly grates on McMaster, whose reputation as a “warrior-scholar” is well established. Especially annoying to McMaster, who emerges much strengthened by the latest shakeup, must be Gorka’s boisterous embrace and endless repetition of the mantra “radical Islamic terrorism” as the key to defeating the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda. McMaster has argued that the phrase is totally counter-productive to such efforts.
Indeed, the worst fears of the Islamophobes in and out of the White House—people like Frank Gaffney, Robert Spencer, Michael Ledeen, the editorial staff at Breitbart, and perhaps even Bannon himself—when McMaster was appointed to replace Flynn may well be in the process of being realized. Their much-despised “political correctness” vis-à-vis the Muslim world at least appears to be staging a comeback. On the other hand, I’m hearing whispers that Michael Doran, a protégé of both Bernard Lewis and Elliott Abrams, is in the running for Near East director on the NSC. Although not Islamophobic in the same sense as the other named individuals, his interventionism and hawkishness on the Middle East are problematic to say the least.
Centrist European leaders must also feel somewhat reassured by the latest developments. Bannon’s disdain for them and his clear ambition to destroy the EU have clearly been a major and growing concern since the November election. The demonstration of McMaster’s control over the NSC, especially if followed by the departure of other NSC staff who, like Gorka, are seen as hostile to supra-national institutions is likely to cheer the foreign ministries of western Europe, in particular.