The two biggest stories of the past few days, President Trump’s immigration ban and his restructuring of the National Security Council to elevate his chief political strategist above top military and intelligence leaders are largely being treated as separate events. But there is a case to be made that they should, even that they must be viewed as two sides of the same coin.
The ban, announced Friday night, bars all refugees from entering the country for 120 days, and singles out refugees from Syria, the victims of a horrific humanitarian disaster, for an indefinite ban. It also bars people from seven majority Muslim countries, including Syria, and those holding valid visas, from coming to the United States for at least 90 days. The ban was initially applied to legal permanent residents, but after multiple federal judges issued stays against enforcement, the Trump administration seems to be backtracking slightly.
As many warned, the decision to implement what amounts to a ban on millions of Muslims coming to the United States, combined with Trump’s spoken assurance that he will give preferential treatment to Christians, was greeted with glee by supporters of terrorist organizations. They predicted that it would reinforce the idea that the United States is at war not with terrorism but with Islam as a whole.
And that’s where Steve Bannon comes in. Trump’s senior counselor and chief strategist does not want to prevent a war between the US-led West and Islam. He believes an apocalyptic “war of immense proportions” has already started and that the real problem is that the West isn’t taking it seriously enough.
That view is largely shared by Michael Flynn, the retired Army General who serves as Trump’s National Security Advisor and chairs meetings of the NSC.
That’s why Friday’s other executive order needs to be seen as a companion piece to the travel ban. The second EO demoted the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- key leaders of the Intelligence and Defense communities, respectively -- from the Principals Committee of the National Security Council. Both will be limited to attending meetings that address issues specifically in their areas of expertise, though many struggled, particularly with regard to the DNI, to think of a national security related subject that would not be in their portfolios.
In their places, it put Bannon, the former publisher of the alt-right Breitbart News, an individual with no relevant national security experience.
The reason the refugee ban and Bannon’s elevation to the NSC need to be viewed as connected is that it is Bannon’s worldview that plainly informs Trump’s decision-making on issues like terrorism and relations with the Muslim world.
In 2014, in a lengthy video-conference presentation to the Human Dignity Institute at the Vatican, Bannon laid out his vision on the need for a “Church Militant” to fight an ongoing war between the Judeo-Christian west and Islam. It is not a struggle for land or influence, in Bannon’s view, but a truly existential fight between Islam and the West.
“We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict,” he said. “If the people in this room, the people in the church, do not bind together and really form what I feel is an aspect of the Church Militant, to really be able to not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”
Bannon continued, in increasingly apocalyptic terms, to describe “a major war brewing, a war that’s already global. It’s going global in scale, and today’s technology, today’s media, today’s access to weapons of mass destruction, it’s going to lead to a global conflict that I believe has to be confronted today. Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is, and the scale of it, and really the viciousness of it, will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act.”
Given Bannon’s perspective, the travel ban is not a massive and counterproductive overreaction to a real but limited threat. It’s an early step in the belated prosecution of a war that -- it can’t be stated clearly enough -- he believes has already begun.
“Ask yourself, 500 years from today, what are they going to say about me?” he urged the Vatican audience. What are they going to say about what I did at the beginning stages of this crisis?”
He closed with this: “See what’s happening, and you will see we’re in a war of immense proportions. It’s very easy to play to our baser instincts, and we can’t do that. But our forefathers didn’t do it either. And they were able to stave this off, and they were able to defeat it, and they were able to bequeath to us a church and a civilization that really is the flower of mankind, so I think it’s incumbent on all of us to do what I call a gut check, to really think about what our role is in this battle that’s before us.”
With that view in mind, it feels safe to say that if Trump’s immigration ban exacerbates existing divisions between Islam and the West, Bannon will view that as a feature of the new program, not a bug.