Josh Cohen.


Steve Bannon was hated, but was often a good influence on Donald Trump

The ousted White House chief strategist was anti US military intervention abroad (including in North Korea) and was clamping down on China’s unethical trade practices, says Josh Cohen.

Steve Bannon was hated, but was often a good influence on Donald Trump

STEVE Bannon made many enemies during his stormy, seven-month tenure as the White

House chief strategist.

He clashed with US president Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as well as with top economic advisers and national security adviser , H R . McMaster.

Bannon was also a divisive force for the US, and was instrumental in the travel ban, barring people from several Muslim-majority countries from entering the US; a supporter of building a wall with Mexico, and a conservative blamed for stoking white voters’ resentment towards minorities.

However, his departure could hurt US foreign policy. He added a much-needed voice favouring non-interventionism and the promotion of American economic interests. With him gone, it is more likely that Trump will steer Washington in the wrong direction in places ranging from Afghanistan to China.

Trump’s announcement that he will send more troops to Afghanistan may be an early sign that Bannon’s absence is already making itself felt. Administration officials have reportedly indicated that 4,000 troops, the mid-range of what the Pentagon was planning, would be sent.

Bannon opposed plans by McMaster and secretary of defence James Mattis to supplement the 8,400 troops already in Afghanistan. As a result, according to a New York Times report, Bannon’s hard questions about Afghanistan sowed doubts with Trump, delaying a decision on a multi-year commitment of American troops in support of the Kabul government.

Bannon was on the correct side of the Afghanistan debate. Almost 16 years, thousands dead or injured, and $1trn after first sending American forces there, the war remains at a stalemate and the militant Taliban now controls more territory than at any point since 2001.

And if the US 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 to dive deeper into the Afghanistan morass.

Bannon’s influence also has been visible on trade with China, pushing the US to file a complaint, under Section 301 of the 1974 Trade Act. This would allow the US to impose 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 US.

The US loses billions a year from intellectual property theft, most of it perpetrated by China. Moreover, western business organisations — including the US 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 US 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 US 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, what policy will Trump will pursue on China trade? He has reportedly offered Beijing a better deal on trade, in exchange for co-operation 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 did not always take Bannon’s advice. Bannon did not favour a US 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 prioritises American security and economic interests over the spreading of American values.

Rex Tillerson
Rex Tillerson

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”.

Many people, including Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch and leading Democrats, such as 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.

Josh Cohen is a former USAID project officer, involved in managing economic

reform projects in the former Soviet Union.

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