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The Real Factions of Trumpland and u.s. Foreign Policy

Emma Ashford

A civil war rumbles on, driven by ancient hatreds and more
recent grudges. From the outside, concerned observers note the
carnage and damage to state institutions. They worry about who will
govern once the conflict is over. With the exception of Russia,
external actors mostly favor the conflict’s moderate
factions, and fret about growing extremism among the combatants.
Whichever side triumphs, the consequences for regional and global
security could be severe.

I’m talking, of course, about the Trump

Three months into Donald Trump’s presidency, top
administration officials contradict one another with regularity,
and both friendly and less friendly states openly wonder who is
calling the shots on America’s role in the world. The
administration seems united in a desire to expand U.S. involvement
in the fight against terrorism, sending thousands more troops to the Middle East. Yet some of Trump’s
other foreign policy decisions have proved more contentious: The
President apparently resisted Steve Bannon’s pleas not to strike Syria
last week, siding instead with his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

Some have portrayed Trump’s foreign policy as a Jekyll-and-Hyde problem, with a coterie of
seasoned advisors trying to persuade the new president to adopt
“good” policies — typically the foreign policy
status quo — while reining in his darker, Jekyll-like
impulses. But the good vs. evil frame is an oversimplification of a
more complicated internal struggle: The Trump administration
isn’t made up of two factions but several, each fighting for
a distinct foreign policy worldview.

The Trump administration
isn’t made up of two factions but several, each fighting for a
distinct foreign policy worldview.

Steve Bannon’s recent fall from grace is one battle in
this internal conflict. And like complex civil wars in Syria and
elsewhere, if you want to understand Trump’s foreign policy,
you need to understand the factions, their disagreements, and what
the eventual ceasefire may look like.

The Factions of Trumpland

Let’s start with everyone’s favorite civil war
faction, the “moderate rebels.” Here, this term is best
applied to scholars and academics who favor moderating the goals of
U.S. foreign policy. During the campaign, numerous articles suggested that Trump would provide an opening
for these realist and restraint-oriented scholars to challenge the
status quo.

Of course, like most moderate rebels, this group doesn’t
really exist, at least not inside this administration. Aside from a
few realist-sounding Trumpian pronouncements and a shared
propensity for transactional foreign policy, there is little evidence of any realist influence on
Trump’s foreign policy.

Even Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s advocacy of
realist ideas was limited to a few statements in his confirmation hearings, most notably the idea
that America “must see the world for what it is … and
understand that our power is considerable but not infinite.”
His tenure has thus far been spent dodging the press and rattling
around the State Department’s empty seventh floor.

Moving to groups that actually exist within the administration,
we find a faction that is often similarly described as moderates,
though perhaps it is better to describe them simply as
“grown-ups.” They have prior experience in foreign
policy and supposedly have the ability to constrain Trump’s
wilder foreign policy ideas. But just like Syria’s moderate
Islamists, this group is only moderate in comparison to its

In reality, this group — all card-carrying members of the
blob – differ widely in their stances on U.S.
foreign policy, and all have some views that might be cause for
concern in another administration. Take Trump’s hawkish Vice
President Mike Pence. Pence dealt with foreign policy as a
congressman, especially during a stint on the House Foreign Affairs
Committee. He supported the Iraq surge, once voted for a congressional bill that would have barred
George W. Bush from setting any timeline to withdraw U.S. troops
from Iraq, and has argued that the United States should confront Russia in Syria.

Or take Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who, despite his
well-deserved reputation as a strategic thinker, has described Iran as “the single most
enduring threat to stability and peace” in the Middle East.
That proposition is debatable: Iran has undoubtedly been a
destabilizing regional force, but other factors such as Saudi
financing for extremism, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the
legacies of the Arab Spring have all contributed to today’s
Middle East turmoil. Yet Mattis dislike of Iran colors his approach
to the region. In April last year, Mattis openly argued, “What is the one
country in the Middle East that has not been attacked by ISIS? One.
That is Iran. That is more than happenstance, I’m

Thanks to Trump’s penchant for a well-pressed uniform,
many of the grown-ups are former or current military officers. This
makes it harder to discern their true views on foreign policy,
though all share some commitment to maintaining and perpetuating
America’s global network of security commitments. Some
— such as National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster —
have pushed back against Trump’s wilder policy proposals,
while others — most notably Secretary of Homeland Security
John Kelly — seem to have bought into Trump’s ideas on immigration, trade, and
foreign policy.

In doing so, Kelly forms a temporary battlefield alliance with
another group, best known as the “Jacksonians.” They
have fairly conventional views on U.S. military power, but not on
trade, immigration, and alliances. The militaristic, Jacksonian-bent of
Trump’s foreign policy pronouncements — a strand of
American thinking first identified by the historian Walter Russell
Mead — has been widely noted, suggesting that this might be
how Trump himself understands foreign relations.

Indeed, Trump’s speeches never fail to emphasize military
power, brash nationalism, and American greatness — all ideas
typical of a Jacksonian approach to foreign policy. His antipathy
towards alliances, insistence that other countries pay their own
way, and hostility to the decades-old open liberal trading order
that the U.S. has built likewise fit into this framework. Trump’s budget proposal, boosting
military spending at the cost of diplomacy and foreign aid, also
emphasizes these priorities.

The Jacksonians are a small group within the administration:
Michael Anton, a former Bush administration official, has attempted
to articulate the intellectual case for a Trumpian foreign policy,
arguing that the United States should focus on global prestige, peace, and prosperity. The
president’s initial insistence on keeping K.T. MacFarland as
his deputy national security advisor, typically attributed to his
fondness for cable news stars, could also be related to her Jacksonian bent.

Yet, while Jacksonians are often hostile to multilateral and
multinational cooperation, they are generally content to remain at
home, with little desire to go abroad in search of monsters to
destroy. They are certainly not antiwar, but oppose nation-building
and global campaigns, a stance which contrasts strongly with the
final faction within the administration, Steve Bannon’s
civilizational crusaders, or “Trumpian jihadis.”

This group draws implicitly on the ideas of Samuel Huntington. While Huntington himself
argued that the clash of civilizations was in many ways regrettable
and should be vigorously avoided if possible, his work has often
been favored by those who seek a civilizational war against Islam.
Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, has described Islam
as worse than communism and fascism. To extend an analogy, if
Trump’s Jacksonians are like Syria’s domestic extremist
groups — focusing largely on domestic issues — then
Trumpian jihadis may be more akin to the self-proclaimed Islamic
State, with broader aspirations to reshape the globe in their

One key member of this group has already been eliminated: Mike
Flynn. He had argued that “we’re in a world
war against a messianic mass movement of evil people, most of them
inspired by a totalitarian ideology: Radical Islam.” But
others with similar views remain, including Sebastian Gorka, a self-proclaimed terrorism
expert with questionable expertise, and Stephen
Miller, formerly of Breitbart, who was reportedly the architect of the Trump
administration’s Muslim travel ban.

These individuals, centered around the Strategic Initiatives
Group, were initially expected to act as a counterweight to
McMaster’s National Security Council in intra-administration
struggles. But with last week’s surprise removal of Bannon as a formal member
of the National Security Council, the White House downplaying the importance of the
Strategic Initiatives Group, and growing rumors that Trump is dissatisfied with Bannon, it remains
to be seen how much influence they will have.

Finally, as in all conflicts, there are some wildcards:
individuals who move between groups based on issue or short-term
advantage. These wildcards are largely foreign policy neophytes,
from Trump’s U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley to Jared Kushner to
Ivanka Trump. Kushner has no real foreign policy experience and
little is known about his views. Yet it may be this lack of
alignment with any major administration faction that has resulted
in an impressive laundry list of foreign policy problems
-Mexico,China, Iraq and Israel — that Kushner has been
assigned by his father-in-law. In recent weeks, Trump seems have
somewhat reverted to his nepotistic roots, relying more heavily on
family members than on advisors such as Bannon.

The Battles

Every administration has to contend with internal splits on
foreign policy at some point in its tenure. Indeed, the Obama
administration often faced criticisms for insufficiently consulting
with the Defense and State Departments prior to making decisions,
while a variety of memoirs describe the administration’s internal disagreements
over whether or not to intervene in Libya in 2011. Yet the scope of
today’s discord inside the Trump administration is

For starters, there is little agreement inside the
administration on America’s role in the world, and on whether
the United States should commit to maintaining the postwar liberal
international order. The Jacksonians and jihadis tend to view
America’s security commitments as a bad deal, pointing to
NATO’s free-rider problem, and the wealth and prosperity of
many allies for whom the United States essentially foots the

There is a grain of truth to this criticism of U.S. alliance
spending: Only four other NATO member states spend at least 2
percent of GDP on defense as called for by NATO guidelines, and
the alliance is heavily reliant on the United
States for essential military capabilities. Yet Bannon and Trump
also seem to carry an impressive level of antagonism towards any
form of international cooperation Both have been notably hostile to the European Union, and both supported the
Brexit vote. Indeed, Trump has described the trading bloc as a “vehicle for
Germany” and has repeatedly questioned which country will
leave the European Union next.

For many critics, this dispute implies a battle between good and
evil, with the administration’s grown-ups valiantly trying to
restrain Trump’s willingness to destroy key components of the
liberal international order. This battle is primarily one of public
relations: From Secretary Mattis’ trip to Japan and South
to reassure them of U.S. defense commitments, to Mike
Pence’s comments at the Munich Security Conference, traditional
Republican elites continue to push back publicly against
Trump’s reflexive hostility to U.S. alliances.

This conflict over America’s role in the world is not
limited to security issues. Trump’s proposed budget bolsters
military spending but cuts diplomacy and foreign aid. Such an
approach to foreign policy is fundamentally Jacksonian in nature,
but will be problematic for others, even former military leaders
like Mattis, who once told a congressional committee, “If you
don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy
more ammunition.”

Running parallel to this conflict, however, we also find a
multisided struggle over how America should be fighting the War on
Terror. For the Jacksonians, the focus is on more military might,
particularly building up the campaign against the Islamic State in
Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as Trump promised during the campaign.
Many of the former military men are in favor of such troop increases, and regard
the Obama administration as having been too cautious, particularly in the fight
against ISIL.

At the same time, there is no agreement between the two groups
on how to proceed after ISIL is defeated. While the grown-ups
increasingly suggest that a long-term troop presence is necessary
in Iraq and Syria for stabilization and peacekeeping, Trump’s
Jacksonians are far less likely to favor a nation-building strategy
so similar to the one they disparaged in Iraq after the 2003
invasion. Nor is there agreement on how to deal with the Assad
regime, despite last week’s airstrikes.

The two groups also disagree strongly about how to label the
problem of terrorism more broadly. Trump’s inaugural address
referenced the problem of “radical Islamic terrorism,” a description
previous administrations have hesitated to use because it risks
antagonizing and demonizing Muslims more broadly. Trump’s
campaign promise to institute a “Muslim ban” on entry to the United States
has come to at least partial fruition, with the
administration’s attempt to implement executive orders
suspending travel from some Muslim-majority countries.

Bannon’s cohort seek to link Islam to
terrorism even more explicitly. Before his White House job,
Bannon’s films argued that the United
States was at risk of losing its identity to “radical
Islamism.” The administration’s more radical elements
have been tied to Islamophobic groups like Frank Gaffney’s
Center for Security Policy, and have apparently considered
designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group.

Certainly, this approach has met with strong pushback from many
of the grown-ups, not least for the logistical difficulties created
by alienating the Muslim nations who support the War on Terror.
Thus far, however, their impact has been minimal, with H.R.
McMaster apparently failing to prevent Trump from using the phrase
“radical Islamic terrorism” in his speech to Congress,
and obtaining only a partial modification to the travel ban —
the removal of Iraq.

The Ceasefire

The conflicts in the administration thus deal with some of the
key questions in U.S. foreign policy: the extent of America’s
role in the world and the roots of the War on Terror. And just like
the core issues at the heart of many civil wars, these disputes
will be difficult, perhaps impossible, to resolve. Of the two
possible outcomes in the administration’s civil war —
victory or a negotiated settlement — the latter is more

Though most civil wars end in decisive military victory for one
side or the other, it seems unlikely that any of the groups engaged
in the foreign policy infighting will triumph. The struggle may
certainly claim the heads of faction members, such as Mike Flynn or
perhaps Steve Bannon. Yet neither Jihadis nor Jacksonians can fully
triumph, for the simple reason that they lack sufficient
governmental experience. Indeed, the addition of more status quo
thinkers to the administration was in itself a tacit admission that
Trump needed to draw from existing foreign policy elites simply to
staff a bare minimum of appointed positions.

At the same time, widespread hopes that more traditional GOP
foreign policy elites would mold Trump’s foreign policy has
not been borne out. Non-traditional advisors like Jared Kushner
continue to have substantial input on key foreign policy decisions,
and Trump’s apparent unwillingness to appoint any sub-cabinet level foreign policy
experts limits the size and reach of Washington’s typical
foreign policy elite. It remains unlikely that they will be able to
disabuse Trump of his long-held personal antipathies in foreign

As a result, the future course of U.S. foreign policy is likely
to deemphasize areas of disagreement between the groups, and focus
on limited areas of agreement. Rather than seek to substantively
alter the U.S. relationship with NATO, for example, Trump is likely
to increase U.S. commitments to the fight against ISIL. Instead of
seeking to improve U.S.-Russian relations, the administration will
probably opt to dial up the pressure on Iran.

Yet, with no overarching agreement on U.S. strategic goals, such
policies will also be short-term and tactical in nature. Indeed,
the steps that the Trump administration has already taken in the
Middle East — adding several thousand troops to Iraq and Syria,
missile strikes on the Assad regime, loosening the rules of engagement, stepping up support
for the Saudi-led war in Yemen – are all fundamentally

Increasing the pace of the fight against ISIL may be satisfying,
but the White House appears to have no plan for post-conflict
stabilization, or any mechanism for preventing America’s
fractious allies from fighting each other. Adding to the carnage in
Yemen will likely strengthen al-Qaeda in the long-term. Meanwhile,
loosening the rules of engagement will increase civilian casualties
in Middle Eastern conflicts, making it harder for local governments
to cooperate with the United States.

Ultimately, the disparate Trump administration factions are most
likely to form temporary alliances on foreign policy problems where
short-term escalation is popular, easy, and painless. But there is
little hope of actually resolving any of America’s foreign
policy challenges. Their infighting is a recipe for escalation, and
the creation of a four- or eight-year military quagmire with no
clear endgame. A civil war indeed.

Emma Ashford
is a Research Fellow in Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the
Cato Institute.