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The Battle for Trump's Foreign Policy

News Image By Soeren Kern/Gatestone Institute August 14, 2017
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The ongoing purge of people loyal to U.S. President Donald J. Trump at the National Security Council, the main organization used by the president to develop national security policy, is part of a power struggle over the future direction of American foreign policy.

Trump campaigned on a promise radically to shift American foreign policy away from the "globalism" pursued by his predecessors to one of a "nationalism" which puts "America first." 

He also vowed to: "defeat" Islamic extremism; "tear up" the nuclear deal with Iran; "reset" bilateral relations with Israel by moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem "on Day One" of his administration; and "direct the Secretary of the Treasury to label China a currency manipulator."

Trump's election has set in motion a bitter power struggle between two main factions: those led by White House strategist Steve Bannon — who are devoted to implementing the president's foreign policy agenda, and those led by National Security Advisor Herbert Raymond "H.R." McMaster — who appear committed to perpetuating policies established by the Obama administration.

Since becoming national security advisor in February, McMaster has clashed with Trump and Bannon on policy relating to Afghanistan, China, Cuba, Islam, Israel, Iran, Mexico, NATO, North Korea, Russia and Syria, among others.

McMaster has also been accused of trying to undermine the president's foreign policy agenda by removing from the National Security Council key Trump loyalists — K.T. McFarland, Adam Lovinger, David Cattler, Tera Dahl, Rich Higgins, Derek Harvey, and Ezra Cohen-Watnick— and replacing them with individuals committed to maintaining the status quo.


An analysis of the foreign policy views of McMaster and some of his senior staff at the National Security Council shows them to be overwhelmingly at odds with what Trump promised during the campaign.

President Trump selected Army Lieutenant General McMaster to replace retired Air Force Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who resigned as national security advisor on February 13 after leaked intelligence reports alleged that he misrepresented his conversations with a Russian diplomat. McMaster's views on foreign policy are — by and large — the mirror opposite of those held by Flynn.

Flynn, for example, argued that the West is in a civilizational clash with Islam and that the war on jihadism cannot be won unless the ideology that drives it is defeated. McMaster, by contrast, categorically rejects the notion of a clash of civilizations; his public statements on Islam are virtually indistinguishable from those of the Obama administration.

On February 23, during his first staff meeting, McMaster reportedly urged National Security Council employees to avoid using the term "radical Islamic terrorism" because, according to McMaster, groups such as the Islamic State represent a "perversion of Islam" and are therefore "un-Islamic." McMaster added that he is "not on board" with using the term because it targets "an entire religion" and may alienate Muslim allies in the Middle East.

McMaster pleaded with Trump to remove references to "radical Islamic terrorism" from the president's speech to Congress on February 28. At the time, Trump held his ground: he stressed a commitment to protect America from "radical Islamic terrorism."

More recently, however, McMaster appears to have prevailed. Trump's May 21 speech in Saudi Arabia — the world's greatest purveyor of radical Islam — was conspicuous for its moderation: "We are not here to lecture — we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership — based on shared interests and values."

In a June 4 speech to the "Global Forum" of the American Jewish Committee, McMaster praised Trump's Saudi address, calling it an "extraordinary speech" in which the president "outlined a path of unity and peace to people of all faiths." McMaster also claimed that leaders throughout the Muslim world had condemned "those who are hijacking Islam to justify violence against innocents."

McMaster's public position on the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran remains ambiguous. In July, he spoke at length about why the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is a bad deal and how it has not changed Iran's behavior. On the other hand, he pressed Trump into certifying to Congress — twice in six months — that Iran is complying with the agreement, despite many indications that it is not.

McMaster said that an ongoing review of Iran policy will be completed by late summer. In the meantime, however, he has fired opponents of the Iran deal, including Derek Harvey, who reportedly drafted a comprehensive plan on how to withdraw from the agreement. A White House insider described Trump's Iran policy as "completely gutted" in the aftermath of McMaster's purge.


McMaster has also refused to publish the secret side deals the Obama administration signed with Iran which allow Tehran to maintain critical aspects of its nuclear program. Not surprisingly, many observers are convinced that McMaster will try to prevent Trump from honoring his campaign pledge to rescind or renegotiate the nuclear deal.

During the campaign, Trump repeatedly described the JCPOA as a "disaster" and "the worst deal ever negotiated." On February 1, after Iran launched a ballistic missile, the White House signaled a tougher line on Tehran. "As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice," Flynn had said.

Flynn's ouster less than two weeks later was rumored to have been orchestrated by Obama loyalists in order to preserve the Iran deal:

"The effort, said to include former Obama administration adviser Ben Rhodes — the architect of a separate White House effort to create what he described as a pro-Iran echo chamber — included a small task force of Obama loyalists who deluged media outlets with stories aimed at eroding Flynn's credibility, multiple sources revealed.

"The operation primarily focused on discrediting Flynn, an opponent of the Iran nuclear deal, in order to handicap the Trump administration's efforts to disclose secret details of the nuclear deal with Iran that had been long hidden by the Obama administration."

Meanwhile, McMaster has been described as being "deeply hostile" to Israel, which he reportedly considers an "occupying power." American-born Israeli journalist Caroline Glick, citing White House sources, elaborated:

"According to senior officials aware of his behavior, he constantly refers to Israel as the occupying power and insists falsely and constantly that a country named Palestine existed where Israel is located until 1948 when it was destroyed by the Jews....

"McMaster disagrees and actively undermines Trump's agenda on just about every salient issue on his agenda. He fires all of Trump's loyalists and replaces them with Trump's opponents, like Kris Bauman, an Israel hater and Hamas supporter who McMaster hired to work on the Israel-Palestinian desk. 

He allows anti-Israel, pro-Muslim Brotherhood, pro-Iran Obama people like Robert Malley to walk around the NSC and tell people what to do and think. He has left Ben (reporters know nothing about foreign policy and I lied to sell them the Iran deal) Rhodes' and Valerie Jarrett's people in place."

On May 16, just days before Trump's visit to the Middle East, McMaster refused to comment on whether the Western Wall is within sovereign Israeli territory and dismissed the matter as a "policy decision." McMaster also downplayed the Jewish connection to the Temple Mount: "He [Trump] is going to the Western Wall to connect with three of the world's great religions," McMaster said.

According to Glick, it was McMaster, not the U.S. consul in Jerusalem as initially reported, who pressed Trump into rejecting a request from Israel that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu join the president during a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. "No Israeli leaders will join President Trump at the Western Wall," McMaster confirmed.

A former NSC official told the Daily Caller that McMaster is "subverting" Trump's foreign policy at every turn:

"Everything the president wants to do, McMaster opposes. Trump wants to get us out of Afghanistan — McMaster wants to go in. Trump wants to get us out of Syria — McMaster wants to go in. Trump wants to deal with the China issue — McMaster doesn't. 

Trump wants to deal with the Islam issue — McMaster doesn't. You know, across the board, we want to get rid of the Iran deal — McMaster doesn't. It is incredible to watch it happening right in front of your face. Absolutely stunning."

Another former official confirmed that sentiment:

"I just fear there is a real creeping of status quo thinking that is taking over the place. I was upset while I was there in seeing how empowered Obama holdovers under McMaster were to essentially perpetuate Obama-era policies."

Jed Babbin, a former Pentagon official who served during the first Bush administration, reported that McMaster has retained "several dozen" Obama loyalists, many in positions of significant responsibility. In an essay for the American Spectator, he wrote:

"There are four people in positions of responsibility in the NSC who have been identified by a source as people who had been "direct reports" to Rhodes — i.e., who worked under his direct supervision — who McMaster has protected and retained. They are: Abigail Grace (Special Assistant), Fernando Cutz (NSC Director for South America), Andrea Hall (NSC Senior Director for WMD, Terrorism & Threat Reduction), and Merry Lin (‎Director for Global and Asia Economics).

"Why would any national security advisor working for Trump not rid the NSC of these people immediately and the dozens of others as soon as he could? One source told me there are over fifty such holdovers on the NSC staff.

"None of the four — and the other holdovers — should remain employed at the NSC. Every one of them should be viewed as a political operative dedicated to thwarting whatever Trump wants to do.

"McMaster recently told an NSC staff meeting, "There's no such thing as a holdover." That is simply bizarre.

"The problem is that McMaster is the ultimate holdover. He comprises a significant threat to national security."

White House insiders told the Washington Free Beacon that McMaster is purging Trump loyalists who dare to clash with career government staffers and holdovers from the Obama administration "on issues as diverse as military strategies for Syria and Afghanistan, whether to tear up Obama's landmark Iran deal, the controversial détente with Cuba, the U.S. role in confronting Islamic radicalism, and the Paris Climate Accord."

More purges are said to be on the way: "McMaster basically has this list.... They're taking out people who were chosen to best implement the president's policy that he articulated during the campaign."

On May 4, McMaster hired Kris Bauman to be the Trump administration's new senior advisor on Israel. Bauman's views on Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are indistinguishable from those of the Obama administration.

Bauman's first official function was to attend a reception honoring Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas — whose term of office expired eight years ago. Those in attendance included Martin Indyk, the Obama administration's special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, who has blamed Israel for the failure of peace talks. Indyk's chief of staff during the negotiations, Ilan Goldenberg, was also in attendance.

In September 2016, Bauman and Goldenberg published a document outlining "a security system for the two-state solution" based on "1967 borders with reciprocal swaps." The report was presumably prepared with the expectation that Hillary Clinton would win the presidential election and eventually implement the plan.

Trump, by contrast, has said that Israel must be allowed to maintain defensible borders; Israeli leaders have long insisted that the 1967 borders are militarily indefensible. It is safe to assume that Bauman will use his new position on the NSC to advocate for pressing Israel into making substantial territorial concessions to the Palestinians.

Investigative journalist Daniel Greenfield has reviewed Bauman's 320-page doctoral thesis on the Middle East peace process:

"In the hundreds of pages, Bauman makes occasional efforts to pretend that he's delving into the narratives of both sides, but his conclusion makes it painfully clear whose side he's on. Kris Bauman is eager to whitewash the Muslim Brotherhood terrorists of Hamas.... Bauman accuses, 'Israel and the Quartet refused to engage with Hamas and instead turned Gaza into an open-air prison.' This isn't even an anti-Israel position. It's Hamas propaganda....

"In Kris Bauman's twisted mind, the obstacle to peace isn't PLO and Hamas terrorism, but supporters of Israel in America. He favorably quotes Walt and Mearsheimer's anti-Semitic tract, The Israel Lobby. Bauman urges overcoming the 'Israel Lobby' which he claims 'is a force that must be reckoned with, but it is a force that can be reckoned with.

"Progress in the peace process requires that the United States apply diplomatic and economic pressure on Israel. And indeed, Bauman's recommendations mirrored the policy of Obama, Hillary and Kerry."

Greenfield also notes that Bauman's dissertation extensively quotes Robert Malley, an anti-Israel apologist for Hamas who was a key Middle East advisor to President Obama. In May, Conservative Review reported that Malley has continued to attend National Security Council meetings at the Trump White House, even while criticizing Trump's policies:

"So who is bringing Malley into these National Security Council meetings? Sources close to the situation say that much of the NSC professional staff still consists of holdovers from the Obama administration and that some of these holdovers served directly under Malley when he was a senior director at the NSC for the Middle East region."

On May 17, the Zionist Organization of America, one of the oldest and strongest pro-Israel groups in the United States, issued the following statement:

"The ZOA has asked General McMaster, Director of the National Security Council, to reconsider his appointment of new National Security Council advisor on Israel-Palestinian matters, pro-Hamas Kris Bauman. This Administration should be 'cleaning out the swamp' from proponents, architects, and protégés of the Obama administration's dangerous Middle East policies. Mr. Bauman's ideas are particularly dangerous."

Bauman replaces Yael Lempert, a controversial NSC staffer from the Obama White House who remained in her position during the first four months of the Trump administration. During that time, she reportedly "poisoned" Trump's mind by persuading him that Jewish settlements in the West Bank are to blame for the stalled peace negotiations.

In a February 10 interview with Israel Hayom, Trump surprised many when he adopted a harder line on settlements. "I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace," he said.

Analyst Lee Smith reported that, according to a former official in the Clinton administration, Lempert "is considered one of the harshest critics of Israel on the foreign policy far left." The source added:

"From her position on the Obama NSC, she helped manufacture crisis after crisis in a relentless effort to portray Israel negatively and diminish the breadth and depth of our alliance. Most Democrats in town know better than to let her manage Middle East affairs. It looks like the Trump administration has no idea who she is or how hostile she is to the U.S.-Israel relationship."

Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Planning

On July 21, McMaster fired Rich Higgins, a former Pentagon official who served in the NSC's strategic-planning office, after he argued in a memo that President Trump is under sustained attack from people both within and outside the government who are trying to defeat the president's nationalist agenda.

The Atlantic, published excerpts of the memo:

"Through the campaign, candidate Trump tapped into a deep vein of concern among many citizens that America is at risk and slipping away. Globalists and Islamists recognize that for their visions to succeed, America, both as an ideal and as a national and political identity, must be destroyed. ... Islamists ally with cultural Marxists because, as far back as the 1980s, they properly assessed that the left has a strong chance of reducing Western civilization to its benefit. Having co-opted post-modern narratives as critical points, Islamists will co-opt the movement in its entirety at some future point."

According to the Atlantic:

"Higgins had also "pushed for declassification of documents having to do with radical Islam and Iran," according to a source close to the White House. A source close to Higgins said that specifically, Higgins had been pushing for the declassification of Presidential Study Directive 11, a classified report produced in 2010 by the Obama administration which presaged the Arab Spring, outlining unrest throughout the Middle East."

PSD-11 reportedly remains classified because it reveals the Obama administration's "embarrassingly naïve and uninformed view of trends in the Middle East and North Africa region." In June 2014, Gulf News reported that as part of a Freedom of Information lawsuit, the U.S. State Department had released documents about the Obama administration's dealings with the Muslim Brotherhood:

"The President personally issued Presidential Study Directive 11 (PSD-11) in 2010, ordering an assessment of the Muslim Brotherhood and other 'political Islamist' movements, including the ruling AKP in Turkey, ultimately concluding that the United States should shift from its longstanding policy of supporting 'stability' in the Middle East and North Africa (that is, support for 'stable regimes' even if they were authoritarian), to a policy of backing 'moderate' Islamic political movements."

Before joining the NSC, Higgins had warned:

"National Security officials are prohibited from developing a factual understanding of Islamic threat doctrines, preferring instead to depend upon 5th column Muslim Brotherhood cultural advisors....

"The 'Islam has nothing to do with terrorism' narratives have effectively shut down the intelligence process for the war on terror in any meaningful sense. Sure, we CT officers could look at organizations and people and places, some of which had Islamic names, but we could never dig into the political and ideological reasons the enemy was attacking us — which is supposed to be the first order of business in any strategic threat assessment."

Personnel is Policy

In January 2001, the Heritage Foundation published a report titled "Personnel Is Policy: Why the New President Must Take Control of the Executive Branch." The report, addressed to President-Elect George W. Bush, is even relevant for President Trump, a political neophyte:

"To be successful, the new President...must protect his right to select appointees based not only on their managerial prowess but also on their commitment to his policy agenda and their ability to advance, articulate, and defend it....

"It is often said, correctly, that personnel is policy. The nexus between personnel management and policy management is therefore crucial. Good policies cannot be advanced without good, capable, and committed personnel to formulate, implement, aggressively promote, and steadfastly defend them. 

Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald W. Reagan were noteworthy in this respect for making strong and effective Cabinet appointments and solid White House staffing decisions. Reagan, in particular, demonstrated the value of having trusted 'lieutenants' in the policy and supporting roles of his Administration....

"The President's ultimate success will in large part depend on the degree of commitment to his agenda among the people he appoints to ensure its success.... The most important rule of presidential personnel management is to appoint people who are fully committed to the presidential agenda."

Originally published at Gatestone Institute - reposted with permission.


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