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The United States faces a threat. The danger is potentially existential. Imagine a force that could take the United States into ruinous wars with major powers. Simultaneously, this same threat promises to erode the cultural, regulatory, scientific and social infrastructure upon which the United States’ future prosperity depends. That’s precisely what the US faces under the presidency of Donald Trump, with the grey cardinal figure of Steve Bannon directing policy. The threats posed by Trump and Bannon are both domestic and foreign, and are deadly serious.
On the foreign policy front, Steve Bannon is a military buff. Many are, including myself. The difference, however, is that most who are fascinated by war become repulsed by the reality of it as adults. Not so with Bannon, an impulsive figure with a documented history of violent spousal abuse. China’s footprint in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean is big and will get bigger. The good news is that China sees stability and mutually beneficial trade as the keys to its power. Essentially, this is an extension of the Middle Kingdom strategy present during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. That said, China is returning to its historic role as the world’s greatest power. It is becoming increasingly assertive in areas historically part of China (e.g., the South China Sea), yet is largely disinterested in imperial projection of hard power. Moreover, it has taken the lesson from the former Soviet Union that over investment in the military and Khrushchev adventurism abroad are the paths to ruin rather than stability. Yet China will not tolerate being policed by the United States. China will defend its national interests, and as its power grows, will not kowtow to US military power projected in the South China Sea. War with China, however, is neither inevitable nor desirable, as Bannon asserts on the former and by implication suggests with the latter. China wants trade, not war. A true “America First” policy would not militarily confront China, but would challenge it on the terrain of meeting its obligation to international labor agreements.
Furthermore, Trump and Bannon see Islamic fundamentalism as an existential threat to the US. Concerns regarding Iran should not be discounted, yet the wrong responses, including overreactions, can cause more harm than not. Bannon, a naval officer during the Iran hostage crisis under the Carter administration, still sees Iran as a direct threat to the United States. This view is shared by Sen. John McCain, who only half-jokingly in the past called for bombing Iran. Iran represents a challenge to Saudi (Wahhabi) dominance in the Middle East. It supports Syria’s Alawite Shia government as an ally that can host its natural gas transit pipeline to the European Union. Moreover, through Hezbollah, Iran supports opposition to Israel. While Iran clearly is no friend to the United States, over time, its mullahs have morphed into “mullahgarchs,” whose interests have become anchored as much in the desire to become rich by controlling key sectors of Iran’s economy as they are in imposing religious law and sponsoring Islamic revolution. Furthermore, its burgeoning youth have become increasingly secular in outlook, while increasingly frustrated with a “revolution” that failed to deliver prosperity or personal fulfillment. Iran’s youth are arguably the Middle East’s Islamic population most favorably disposed toward the United States. If the United States backed off from rhetoric suggesting Iran was a potential target of possible US military action, its theocracy would increasingly lose legitimacy at home. In short, the United States should not play the villain from central casting that Iran uses to legitimize its domestic rule.
Meanwhile, Trump and Bannon’s wish for de-escalation of tensions with Russia is eminently sensible, albeit possibly arrived at for the wrong reasons. Whether the proposed détente was desired in order to dilute possibilities for thermonuclear conflict (a decidedly good reason), or to have an ally in “war on terror,” or because of some alt-right vision of Russia as a white Christian power that would be a US ally in war with China or Iran is unknown. Regardless, this one decent Trump/Bannon foreign policy objective already looks to have been sacrificed on the altar of the New Cold War.
President Trump and Steve Bannon’s ramped up military spending is not merely warmed over Reagan-era military Keynesianism. Increased military spending under Trump is revenue neutral under today’s Republican austerity economics. Trump and Bannon’s preparations for real war are paid for by gutting the cultural, scientific, regulatory and social infrastructure upon which our country’s future prosperity and stability depends. Slashing of social programs represents a reprise of Bourbon Monarch (“if they have no bread let them eat cake”) responses to poverty by GOP austerians overstuffed from their all-you-can-eat buffet of tax cuts. Meanwhile, public funding for the arts and humanities is already miniscule. Trump and Bannon’s proposed budget would return us to a medieval state where they are almost entirely funded by rich patrons, whose tastes will dictate content. Furthermore, gutting the Environmental Protection Agency is ill advised. Regulators, already stretched thin, struggle to inspect leaky oil pipelines. Particularly troubling are the proposed cuts to science. Real threats, such as a future influenza bug, or other viruses emerging from rapidly eroding rainforests, are very real and could kill millions. Medical research and public health infrastructure are essential for engaging these real dangers. Moreover, our future prosperity depends on the innovations born from basic research, which, in the US, is mostly publicly funded. Public funding of basic research delivered the internet, microprocessor chips for personal computers and most of the technology in our iPhones. Gutting research spending means the next disruptive innovations enhancing productivity and transforming our economy will likely not be created.
These potential “hot wars” on China and Iran, along with wars on culture, science, the environment and the poor can be ill afforded. There is a decidedly strong threat to the United States, however, it resides (when not at Trump Tower or Mar-a-Lago) at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue more than it does abroad.