Looking at Donald Trump’s foreign policy team, it appears everything old is new again. Mr. Trump campaigned on a platform of taking down the Washington establishment, but his emerging cadre of foreign policy and security advisors indicates that he intends to return the United States to a past era in which the United States waged righteous struggles against an evil Islamist horde. The Trumpists are striking the banners in preparation for another crusade.
Of course, it is unlikely many have forgotten the first crusade of the modern era. It was only a little more than a decade ago that George W. Bush used the term on the White House lawn to describe the American response to the September 11, 2001 attacks. Less than two years later, the United States found itself the de facto military occupier of two separate Muslim countries and engaged in an ill-defined “Global War on Terror.”
Mr. Trump can learn some important lessons from the early missteps of the Bush administration, starting with his choices of advisors and cabinet officials. Like Mr. Bush, Mr. Trump will assume the presidency with almost no foreign policy knowledge or experience, and thus must rely heavily on appointees for information and advice. So far, nearly all the positions he has announced signal an embrace of highly ideological and religiously-motivated individuals.
Three high-profile hires – Steve Bannon as chief strategist, General Michael Flynn as national security advisor, and Representative Mike Pompeo as CIA director – provide clues to the configuration of an old, but newly minted Trump worldview. These men see the world in Manichean terms, with the United States as a force for good and Islam the root of all evil, the two sides destined to confront each other in a clash of civilizations.
Mr. Bannon has been criticized for the legitimacy of his convictions, but at a 2014 conference hosted by the Human Dignity Institute, a far right European religious group, he advocated for what he called a return of the “enlightened capitalism of the Judeo-Christian West” to lift the world out of a “new Dark Age” left behind by the turmoil of the twentieth century. He decried the secularization of the West, which he sees as unfit to handle the emerging “global war” with “jihadic Islamist fascism.”
General Flynn, meanwhile, has been far more vocal in expressing his views about the nature of the United States’ current predicament. During the campaign, the former army intelligence officer consistently condemned the Obama administration’s approach to combating the Islamic State during media appearances, rallies, and on Twitter. He fixated on the administration’s refusal to use the words “radical Islamic terror” to describe the nature of the “existential threat” facing the nation. He has called Islam a “cancer,” and in his book wrote that he does not believe all cultures are “morally equivalent.”
Mike Pompeo ascends to the top position at the CIA having served just five years on the House Intelligence Committee. He was one of the three Republican Congressmen who mockingly applied for visas to visit Iran earlier this year, appointing themselves both nuclear inspectors and an Iranian election observers in the process. In a letter to Ayatollah Khamenei, they wrote, “It would be a shame if there weren’t any Americans present to validate that the elections were free and fair.” He has also openly speculated about the number of airstrikes necessary (2000, apparently) to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities, calling it “not insurmountable,” and publicly declared his support for regime change in Iran. He will now oversee the CIA’s drone warfare campaign.
At present, there is at least one more soldier preparing to join the cause. Mr. Trump’s announcement of Senator Jeff Sessions, a staunch advocate of the promised Muslim immigration ban, as attorney general guarantees a watchful eye on the homefront to ensure that their campaign is not undermined by disloyal domestic elements.
It remains to be seen whether America will go to war with words or guns, and whether the latter will be open or covert. At the very least, the lessons of history caution against crusading. The crusades of antiquity achieved only fleeting success, and most Christian soldiers who marched on Jerusalem never saw inside the city walls. So far, the twentieth century version hasn’t fared much better. The Bush administration’s military misadventures destabilized the Middle East, increased anti-American resentment around the world, and brought about untold levels of death, destruction, and suffering. Rather than prove the case for Holy War, these experiences caution against allowing ideological fervor, instead of prudent consideration and debate, to guide military and foreign policy.