Opinion: Is The Shadow of Steve Bannon Damaging US National Security?
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By Dr. Matthew Crosston
Faculty Member, Doctoral Programs, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University
There was much consternation and confusion in February over President Donald Trump’s maneuverings regarding the National Security Council (NSC). At the time, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Marine General Joseph Dunford and Trump’s selection to head the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), former Indiana Senator Dan Coates, were in essence demoted.
Dunford and Coates were told that “when their specific expertise” was needed, they would be asked to attend the main NSC meetings with the president.
The irony, of course, was that both of these offices have always been oversight and unifying leadership positions on the NSC. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs oversees and coordinates discussion and debate among the heads of all military branches. The ODNI was created to do the same thing at the Department of Homeland Security – to coordinate and improve communication and cooperative transparency across the entire U.S. intelligence community.
Why Trump Removed Two Key NSC Specialists Remains a Mystery
It was therefore somewhat mystifying why those two highly experienced actors with comprehensive knowledge of military and intelligence affairs would be inexplicably categorized as “knowledge specialists” and not needed for the larger, general meetings. It was not as if the ODNI came into NSC meetings in the pre-Trump era as the “Basque subject matter expert” or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs laid claim to being the world’s only Gulf of Aden maritime security specialist.
Ultimately, the demotion maneuvering played out as something of a power-posturing ploy by Trump’s special advisor, Steve Bannon. It is still unclear if Bannon believed there was some personality or philosophical conflict between those two men and the incoming members of the NSC whom Trump had designated.
This conflict, however, seemed especially likely when Trump appointed Bannon as a permanent sitting member of the National Security Council. In reaction to Bannon’s appointment, Washington Post journalist David Rothkopf wrote a January 2017 op-ed article detailing how the NSC was created in 1947 to provide President Truman and his successors with the best possible advice on national security issues from his Cabinet, the military and the intelligence community.
The idea behind the NSC was that the president would be able to meet with these key principals in a single meeting, achieve a consensus and then send them out as de facto ambassadors of that consensus. The goal was to guarantee more efficient and consistent policy implementation across the entire U.S. government system. That sacred purpose of the NSC has remained largely unaltered for 70 years.
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It is true that Bannon was often present at early NSC meetings. However, that is not the same thing as being a permanent participating member of the NSC, which is what Trump soon named Bannon.
There is another curious aspect to that situation. If the NSC is meant to be a meeting of the president with members of his cabinet, military and intelligence, then guess what Bannon was not a member of? Not the Cabinet, not the military and not the intelligence community.
The Military and Intelligence Community Maintain an Apolitical Nature When They Serve the President
The military and intelligence community do not have perfect records. Nor are they devoid of critics. But the one sacred duty of both that has always been taken with the utmost seriousness is the apolitical nature of their duties in serving the president.
The intelligence community gathers facts and information and communicates that data openly and without artifice to the president and Congress. It is the job of the president and his staff to decide how to judge, interpret and act on that intelligence from a political perspective.
The military carries out those decisions regardless of the Commander-in-Chief‘s political party or the political leanings of his advisers. This absence of politicization is what makes the American government system so wonderfully unique.
Bannon’s Goal Was to Undo the Institutional Balance of Power
It seems as if Bannon’s goal at the time was to undo a historic apolitical legacy and institutional balance of power. As Trump’s chief political guru, Bannon was the antithesis of apolitical.
Bannon’s ouster this summer was seen, in general, as a positive move toward political calm. Experts also quietly hoped that our national security institutions would become even more important once again. Indeed, Bannon’s exit was subsequently followed by the return of the formerly ousted leaders, Dunford and Coates, to permanent seats on the National Security Council.
Bannon Is Gone, But Does His Legacy Remain?
The military and intelligence communities see it as their sacred duty to not get involved in petty politics. But if Bannon’s legacy endures, it will end up being about just that – petty squabbles.
While Bannon may be gone from the White House, it is still too early to believe his imprint has been thoroughly removed from the president’s behavior and initiatives. It was the ‘dirt and muck’ of politics in which Bannon was most comfortable and where he believed true policy importance was found.
There is something to worry about when the president openly mocks an unstable world leader as “Little Rocket Man.” There is also something to worry about when Trump cavalierly answers a reporter’s question about U.S. policy toward North Korea at a photo op with decorated military officials by saying this may be “the calm before the storm” and coyly refuses to provide any further details.
National security cannot be structured like a TV reality show. It must be measured, careful, discreet and reluctant to embrace the bright spotlight of international media. National security is not about ratings.
There is even more to worry about because it matters when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson refuses to deny that he called the Commander-in-Chief a moron. There is a rumor that Tillerson supposedly has a secret employment “suicide pact” with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. If one of them is removed from office, they all will resign en masse. There is cause for concern that the true leaders of U.S. national security are in this position. It seemingly does not matter that Steve Bannon is no longer at the White House; a shadow of his legacy continues to affect our national security.
Hopefully, the relevant actors in place at the moment will be successful in rebooting the national security system. If they can do this, then the United States’ national security complex will not have been heinously deformed and pushed from its justifiably rich and proud 70-year legacy.
It is too early to say that will happen. But it is important to emphasize that the Bannon legacy may take some time to dissipate.
About the Author
Matthew Crosston, Ph.D., serves as senior faculty for the doctoral programs in Strategic Intelligence and Global Security (DSI/DGS) for the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. He holds a doctoral degree in international relations and national security studies from Brown University. Other academic credentials include a post-doctoral fellowship in international relations and global security from the University of Toronto; a master’s degree in post-Soviet affairs, democratization and development from the University of London; and a bachelor’s degree in Russian, Central European, East European and Eurasian Studies from Colgate University.
Matthew is currently the Vice Chairman and Senior Editor for Modern Diplomacy. He is an author and international speaker on peace mediation, human rights conflicts, resource dilemmas, intelligence, change leadership, and education.
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