Bannon’s Dovish Side Emerges as He Contradicts Trump on North Korea


WASHINGTON — For all his fire-breathing nationalism — the demands to ban Muslims, build a wall on the Mexican border and honor statues of Confederate heroes — Stephen K. Bannon has played another improbable role in the Trump White House: resident dove.

From Afghanistan and North Korea to Syria and Venezuela, Mr. Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, has argued against making military threats or deploying American troops into foreign conflicts.

His views, delivered in a characteristically bomb-throwing style, have antagonized people across the administration, leaving Mr. Bannon isolated and in danger of losing his job. But they are thoroughly in keeping with his nationalist credo, and they have occasionally resonated with the person who matters most: President Trump.

Mr. Bannon’s dovish tendencies spilled into view this week in unguarded comments he made about North Korea to a liberal publication, The American Prospect. Days after Mr. Trump threatened to rain “fire and fury” on the North Korean government if it did not curb its belligerent behavior, Mr. Bannon said, “There’s no military solution here; forget it.”

“Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that 10 million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Mr. Bannon said in a phone call with Robert Kuttner, The American Prospect’s co-editor.

Mr. Bannon was saying what virtually every military commander believes — that a strike on North Korea would prompt overwhelming retaliation with untenable casualties in one of the world’s largest cities. In this case, though, his comments undercut not only the president, but also decades of American deterrence on the Korean Peninsula.

And that was not all: Mr. Bannon floated an unorthodox proposal for the United States to withdraw its troops from South Korea in return for China’s commitment to get the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, to agree to a verifiable freeze in his nuclear and missile programs.

Such a plan is not likely to gain traction, any more than Mr. Bannon’s proposal that the United States substitute mercenaries for soldiers in Afghanistan. But his ideas have shaken up White House debates that would otherwise be dominated by the retired and active-duty generals who lead Mr. Trump’s national security team.

Mr. Bannon’s hard questions about America’s future in Afghanistan stalled a policy debate that appeared on a fast track to a multiyear commitment of American troops. They sowed doubts with Mr. Trump, who repeatedly called for America to withdraw from Afghanistan as a private citizen and said almost nothing about the war during his presidential campaign.

On Friday, Mr. Trump is convening his staff at Camp David to deliberate over the policy, which the defense secretary, Jim Mattis, once promised would be finished by the middle of last month.

Mr. Bannon pressed Mr. Mattis to consider the use of private contractors in a one-on-one meeting at the Pentagon last month. He sharply challenged proposals drawn up by the national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, for the United States to keep several thousand troops based in Afghanistan and to work closely with the Afghan central government.

Speaking to reporters this week, Mr. Mattis said the idea of using contractors — which was developed by two outside businessmen, Erik D. Prince and Stephen A. Feinberg, at the behest of Mr. Bannon — was “part of the options being considered.”

Mr. Mattis added, “The president’s open to the advice of the secretary of state, and myself and the director of the C.I.A.” — a peculiar assertion to make, given that those three officials are traditionally the top-ranking members of the president’s national security team.

General McMaster has become Mr. Bannon’s nemesis in the West Wing, the leader of what Mr. Bannon has described to colleagues as the “globalist empire project” — a bipartisan foreign policy consensus that emphasizes active American engagement around the world.

Mr. Bannon flatly rejects that philosophy. During the presidential transition, he was spotted in an airport by a New York Times reporter carrying a copy of “The Best and the Brightest,” David Halberstam’s book about America’s misadventure in Vietnam. “I’m having everyone in the transition read it,” he said.

Once Mr. Trump was in office, Mr. Bannon opposed the missile strike on Syria after President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on his own people. He has expressed doubts about sending more troops to Syria or Iraq. He is skeptical of American military intervention in strife-torn Venezuela, a prospect raised last week by Mr. Trump, who surprised administration officials by speaking of a “military option” there.

To Mr. Bannon, all these ventures distract from his grand project of reviving American manufacturing. He has devoted much of his time to pushing protectionist trade policies against China and other countries. To the extent that Mr. Bannon cares about North Korea, administration officials said, it is because he views it as an impediment to that effort.

Mr. Trump has soft-pedaled his trade talk against China to enlist its support in curbing the North Korean government. Mr. Bannon has told colleagues that he believes China is manipulating the United States by stringing it along on North Korea. The White House delayed its first trade case — on the theft of intellectual property — for a week to secure China’s support for sanctions against North Korea in the United Nations Security Council.

Mr. Bannon’s fixation with China prompted his call to Mr. Kuttner — whom Mr. Bannon views as a like-minded China hawk — and his comments, in a conversation he believed was off the record, laid out his role in a bitter monthslong battle over trade with Mr. Trump’s economic advisers.

“To me, the economic war with China is everything,” Mr. Bannon said. “And we have to be manically focused on that. If we continue to lose it, we’re five years away, I think, 10 years at the most, of hitting an inflection point from which we won’t be able to recover.”

Mr. Bannon said he was working to oust officials from the Pentagon and State Department whom he viewed as too soft on China. He singled out Susan Thornton, a career diplomat serving as acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs. Ms. Thornton has won the confidence of Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson. During a public meeting with Japanese officials on Thursday, he made a point of shaking her hand.

Mr. Bannon appears similarly out of sync with the president on North Korea. But that could change quickly, too.

While Mr. Trump rattled the sabers at Mr. Kim last week, he has previously expressed a willingness to meet with him. When North Korea backed down on a threat to fire a missile into the waters off Guam, an American territory in the Pacific, Mr. Trump acknowledged the move with a respectful tweet.

“Kim Jong Un of North Korea made a very wise and well reasoned decision,” Mr. Trump wrote Wednesday. “The alternative would have been both catastrophic and unacceptable!”



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