August 22, 2017 / 5:41 AM / 2 years ago

Commentary: Bannon’s departure may harm U.S. foreign policy

Steve Bannon made many enemies during his stormy seven-month tenure at the White House. He clashed with Donald Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner as well as top economic advisers and national security adviser H.R. McMaster. Bannon was also a divisive force for the country, instrumental in decisions like the travel ban barring people from several Muslim majority policies from entering the United States; a supporter of building a wall with Mexico, and a conservative blamed for stoking white voters’ resentment towards minorities.

U.S. troops walk outside their base in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan July 7, 2017. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

However, Bannon’s departure could hurt U.S. foreign policy. During his stint in the administration, he added a much-needed voice favoring non-interventionism and the promotion of American economic interests. With him gone, it’s more likely that Trump could steer Washington in the wrong direction in areas ranging from Afghanistan to China.

Indeed, Trump’s Monday announcement that he plans to send more troops to Afghanistan may be an early sign that Bannon’s absence is already making itself felt. While Trump did not state the number of troops he would send, administration officials have reportedly indicated it would be around 4,000 – said to be in the mid-range of what the Pentagon was planning for. Bannon opposed plans by McMaster and Secretary of Defense James Mattis to add more U.S. troops to supplement the 8,400 already in the country. As a result, according to a New York Times report, Bannon's hard questions about Afghanistan sowed doubts with Trump, delaying a decision on making a multiyear commitment of American troops to help support the Kabul government.

Bannon was on the correct side of the Afghanistan debate. Almost 16 years, thousands dead or injured - and over one trillion dollars after first sending American forces to the country, the war in Afghanistan remains stalemated and the militant Taliban now controls more territory than at any point since 2001. And if the U.S. couldn't pacify Afghanistan with 100,000 troops in 2011, it’s not clear how it could do so with a fraction of this number now. Bannon's departure may have made Trump more likely to listen to his generals and dive more deeply into the Afghanistan morass.

Bannon’s influence also has been visible on trade with China, pushing the U.S. to file a complaint under Section 301 of the 1974 Trade Act. This would allow the U.S. to impose trade sanctions against China for engaging in unfair trade practices. 

Bannon's concern about Chinese trade practices is well founded. Chinese companies consistently hack and steal American companies' intellectual property, using stolen information to manufacture products that compete against those from the U.S. The U.S. loses billions a year from intellectual property theft - most of which is caused by China. Moreover, Western business organizations - including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce - complain that Chinese authorities are trying to force them out of China’s tech market by requiring they use only technology developed and controlled by Chinese companies. Washington also worries that U.S. technology companies - such as Advanced Micro Devices, Hewlett Packard and IBM - are being forced to turn over key intellectual property to China in exchange for market access.

Washington now seems prepared to fight back. Trump has instructed U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to determine whether Chinese trade practices need to be investigated. This arguably represents a win for Bannon’s argument - as well as long-suffering American companies.

With Bannon gone, the question now is what policy Trump will pursue on China trade. Trump has already reportedly offered Beijing a better deal on trade in exchange for cooperation on North Korea, and it’s certainly possible Trump's directive to Lighthizer will go nowhere, thus allowing the theft of American intellectual property to continue.

Beyond Afghanistan and China, Bannon's worldview will also be missed in any future decisions Trump needs to make regarding the use of American military force. For example, Bannon believes that no military solution to the North Korean crisis exists. His departure could increase the chances of Trump ordering a risky strike against Pyongyang's nuclear facilities.

Trump, of course, did not always take Bannon’s advice. The ousted adviser did not favor a U.S. air strike against Syria after Damascus used poison gas against civilians; Trump ordered the attack anyway. Nor was Bannon the only influential non-interventionist voice in the administration. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, for example, possesses a realist view of the world that prioritizes American security and economic interests over spreading American values. And Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross shares Bannon’s hard-line views on theft of intellectual property, writing of “the danger posed by the manner in which Chinese companies and the Chinese government treat America’s intellectual property.”

It’s certainly true that many, including Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch and leading Democrats like Nancy Pelosi, wanted Trump to fire Bannon. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be times when they might secretly wish he still had Trump’s ear.

About the Author

Josh Cohen is a former USAID project officer involved in managing economic reform projects in the former Soviet Union.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.

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