Bannon’s war in the Middle East?
Ever since September 11, 2001, security concerns have played a central role in the United States’ migration policy — but never more aggressively so than now.Americans, anaesthetized by the War on Terror that just drones on, may have forgotten, but a tough and exhaustive vetting process has been in place for admitting refugees and migrants, and even visitors, from Muslim majority countries to the United States for the past 15 plus years. However, for all its strictness, migration policy remained largely independent of foreign policy. Donald Trump’s Muslim ban is a dangerous U-turn.
The worldviews of the President’s strategist, Steve Bannon, and developments that followed Trump’s inauguration paint a clear picture of the relationship between the seemingly disconnected issues in his campaign. Bannon’s convictions about an ongoing war between the “Judeo-Christian West” and “the expansionist Islam,” and his projection of American engagement in a “major shooting war in the Middle East again,” shape Trump’s foreign policy in the region.They also drive the politics behind his Muslim ban. Vilifying Muslims as a threat to national security plays a central role in winning over U.S. public opinion in the war Bannon is determined to engage in.The Muslim ban is the first step in Bannon’s strategy for a military confrontation in the Middle East and an eventual victory against Islam. In not so subtle ways, in Bannon’s world view, refugees and migrants are presented to the public as the fifth column of the expansionist Islam. Keeping them out is pivotal to protecting the nation from an encroaching enemy. The Muslim Ban is the first down payment in Bannon’s existential war with Islam
A war in the Middle East, however, requires a tangible enemy, a state and its proxies to fight against. The series of events and decisions that followed Trump’s inauguration clearly reveal the administrations’ intent to make Iran the central battleground in Bannon’s war. A war with Iran will also be welcomed by Saudi Arabia and Sunni Arab states, and Israel. It will have supporters within Republicans and Democrats. An easy sell. U.S. officials could even claim that they are only trying to make up for their disastrous choice of callously invading Iraq in March 2003, the made-in-USA event that strengthened Iran’s hand in the region more than anything in eons.
On February 29, two days after signing the first travel ban executive order, Trump called Saudi Arabia’s King Salman to discuss joint strategies in Yemen and Syria. Those are the two countries where Saudi Arabia, with U.S. support, has sought to put into place its vicious Wahhabi version of Islam, enforced by bombers and other weapons sold by the U.S. On that same day, Trump ordered a Navy Seal raid in Yemen, an operation that resulted in the death of one American, and 25 civilians including women and children younger than thirteen.
A day later, Michael Flynn, Trump’s National Security Advisor at the time, issued a statement “officially putting Iran on notice” for a recent missile test, and support for Houthi rebels in Yemen.
A few days after Michael Flynn’s statement, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was reported to have considered intercepting and boarding an Iranian ship in the Arabian Sea to look for weapons possibly headed to Houthis in Yemen. Mr. Mattis eventually opted out of the operation because the Iranian ship was in international waters.
The domestic backlash to the travel ban, the botched Yemen raid and other concerns might have helped temporarily pause the reckless train of confrontation with Iran. Bannon’s long-term plan for a war in the Middle East is, however, still in place. But war can be avoided. It requires building a vocal coalition of political forces to defeat White House’s Muslim migration policy as well as its war plans simultaneously.
The chaos and disorder that followed the first executive order, and the suffering it caused for many innocent travelers, resulted in nationwide protests and resistance. The courts found the executive order unconstitutional.Trump returned with slightly revised executive order. The revised order has so far escaped the disorder, and the public uproar and protest. Meanwhile, the portrayal of Muslims as a threat to America’s national security and way of life continues by the Trump team. “Our enemies often use our own freedoms and generosity against us,” tweeted Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly after the announcement of the revised executive order.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters that Trump was exercising his “rightful authority to keep our people safe.”
And the U.S. Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, said in the same gathering with reporters that more than 300 refugees admitted to the U.S. since 2001 were under investigation for terrorist-related activities. No evidence provided.
What lies ahead is a major test for American democracy. The real issue is whether Americans are able to sustain persistent campaigns in opposition to devious plans – or whether they are impulse-driven political actors who marshall such energy only sporadically (and resign far too easily). Debunking these assertions and defeating the wholesale vilification of Muslim migrants and refugees should play a central role in opposition to Trump. Tireless work is needed to win over the public that has been persuaded by Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric. The diverse and colorful protests against the Muslim ban, Jews fundraising to rebuild Muslim mosques and Muslims helping repair desecrated Jewish cemeteries are welcome examples. Meanwhile, despite the dominance of rightwing and belligerent ideology, there is hope.
There has been an inkling of pragmatism in Trump’s White House with respect to Iran and other matters. Violating his campaign promise, Trump has not yet ripped up the Iran nuclear deal for example. So there is still hope that Bannon’s war will remain a pipe dream. That requires steadfast opposition to war by Democratic and Republican lawmakers and the public. A new war in the Middle East will have irreversible and lasting consequences for the rest of the world. The world cannot withstand that outcome.