Just one day after it was revealed that President Donald Trump's chief political strategist Steve Bannon had been removed from the National Security Council, the United States launched a 59-cruise-missile airstrike against a military airfield in Syria — its first major assault against the government of Bashar Assad since the beginning of that country's brutal civil war in 2011.
The airstrike represented not only a shift in U.S. policy but a radical change in Trump's position, who campaigned on a platform of shifting America's stated priority in the region away from removing Assad and back on the fight against ISIS. The timing of Trump's change of heart and Bannon's departure from the NSC is no coincidence.
New York magazine reports that sources close to Bannon said he argued against the strike but was overruled. If that is true, it could be a harbinger that Trump is moving away from the populist and mostly isolationist "America first" foreign policy he touted on the campaign trail toward a more traditional Republican foreign policy.
The Origins of America First
Though "America First" isolationism has a long history that traces all the way back to before World War II, Bannon has long been considered the architect of Trump's more unique "America first" foreign policy.
The Bannonite worldview managed to break with both the neo-conservative and libertarian-isolationist foreign policy agendas that have heretofore dominated GOP policy circles. Instead, Bannon and Trump's "America First" was characterized by an adamant rejection of interventions against strongman dictators like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi while at the same time promoting a militaristic response to so-called "radical Islamic terrorism."
The populist appeal of "America First" was evident throughout the campaign. It offered conservative base voters who were disillusioned with the Iraq War and critical of former President Barack Obama's intervention in Libya a way to criticize America's failed military ambitions abroad without abandoning the post-9/11 anti-Islam fear-mongering that had come to characterize so much of base-conservative belief.
Trump himself stumbled into these positions by virtue of their simplicity and popularity. During the Republican primary he latched onto the unfavorable view most Americans had about the Iraq War and Syrian intervention, even though he had supported both of them initially. At the same time he played on anti-Islam sentiment among conservatives to out-xenophobe his Republican primary competitors, eventually calling for an all-out ban on Muslim immigration.
Though Trump took all of these stances prior to Bannon's joining the campaign, it was Bannon who eventually helped shape them into a coherent and unique ideology.
For years the populist alt-right website Breitbart had, under Bannon's leadership, been trying to square the same foreign policy circle of an anti-interventionism that could still wage a global war on radical Islam. By 2014, he was already able to articulate that philosophy in remarks delivered via Skype to a conference in the Vatican, where he said that the entire world was at "war against jihadist Islamic fascism," that he paradoxically felt would be best fought not through a coming together of nations but through a series of inward-looking nationalist movements. A global struggle with anti-global ambitions.
This was the unifying theory he could bring to Trump's a la carte foreign policy populism.
America First and Syria
Bannon's "America First" offered an alluringly simple answer to the frustratingly complex crisis in Syria: If Islamic terrorism is the problem, then who cares about removing Bashar Assad? Why try and topple another dictator when he's trying to fight the same enemy you are?
Once again, Trump seemed to have stumbled into that position years prior by virtue of it's simplicity. He was on the record as far back as 2013 opposing intervention against Assad, saying America should stay out an "focus on U.S."
Now, that half-baked answer could be cast as part of a broader philosophy. Toppling Assad wasn't just someone else's problem, it was also a counterproductive step in the greater battle against Islamic terrorism. Assad wasn't the biggest problem in Syria, ISIS was and Assad might even prove to be a useful ally in that fight.
This was also Bannon's thinking. As the Hill reported in 2016, Bannon was open to working with Russia — who backed Assad in the region — in order to fight Islamic terrorism. After Bannon joined the Trump campaign, Trump's support for working with Russia and Assad became more explicit. In a debate with Hillary Clinton, Trump praised the recent ceasefire in Syria that Russia had helped broker before saying, "I don't like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS."
Trump continued to articulate that same position after winning the election, even stating explicitly that U.S.-backed Syrian rebel groups might be "worse" than the Assad regime. "Why are we backing those groups, we don't even know who those people are?" Trump told CBS. "They're probably worse than Assad."
In that same interview, Trump went on to articulate the broader pro-strongman, anti-terror ideology by comparing Syria to Iraq and praising Hussein for having "killed terrorists."
Trump this week
That pro-Assad rhetoric took a dramatic shift this week, at the same time that Bannon appears to be losing the power struggle among Trump's advisers.
The administration had tried to tamp down claims that Bannon is being demoted by arguing the only reason he had been on the council in the first place was to oversee former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. They now claim that their supreme confidence in Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster as head of the NSC has allowed Bannon to end his role.
But many believe that McMaster is gaining influence within the administration and pushing Bannon out. If that is the case, it could mean an even starker change in Trump's foreign policy agenda. Prior to joining the Trump administration, McMaster was involved in crafting high-level military strategies to build up America's ground war capacity in ways that could rival Russia's forces in Syria and Ukraine.
If the current trend within the White House continues it could mean the end of "America First" foreign policy and the beginning of a whole new foreign policy agenda in the Middle East.