Steve Bannon slammed the foreign policy establishment during a keynote address at an event in Washington on Monday, where the majority of speakers and audience members represented those very members of the foreign policy elite.
“The geniuses in the foreign policy elite, what they left on President Trump is essentially the Bay of Pigs in Venezuela, the Cuban Missile Crisis in Korea and the Vietnam War in Afghanistan. All at one time,” he told a room of about 500.
“President Trump didn’t do this. The ‘Deplorables’ that voted for President Trump didn’t do this. This is the geniuses of both political parties,” said the former White House chief strategist. “Both political parties delivered this upon us. In addition besides what they’ve allowed to occur in the Middle East.”
The day-long event on countering violent extremism, hosted by the Hudson Institute, took place under the sweeping ceilings of the Atrium Ballroom at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center on Pennsylvania Avenue, just blocks from the White House.
For lunch, guests feasted on a fancy salad bar with choices of butter lettuce leaves or mesclun greens, thick pieces of salmon or steak, and toppings such as Greek olives, roasted tomatoes, mozzarella balls and sautéed onions. Dessert was an airy poundcake with whipped cream and a selection of fresh berries.
The speakers included former cabinet members — former CIA Directors Leon Panetta and David Petraeus, members of Congress, retired generals, and ambassadors, mostly clad in dark suits and ties.
Bannon, the afternoon keynote speaker, wore a black sports coat over black collared shirts and khaki pants.
The ballroom’s lights had gone out during an earlier panel, and Hussain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. and director at the Hudson Institute, joked when introducing Bannon that depending on one’s political views, it either represented either “the forces of darkness up here,” or that the spotlights now directed at the stage represented “illumination.”
The audience sat in rapt silence as Bannon gave a forceful defense of President Trump’s “America First” foreign policy, and why voters chose him instead of Hillary Clinton, whose strength was perceived to be foreign policy.
“President Trump and his whole candidacy from the very beginning … was a repudiation of the elites, the repudiation of the foreign policy establishment, a repudiation of the ‘Party of Davos.’ A repudiation of this concept we’ve had of this rules-based international order … of which the American working class and middle class underwrite with their taxes, and more importantly, with the blood of their children,” he said.
He noted that the Afghanistan War — began 16 years ago — is now the U.S.’s longest sustained military conflict, with no end in sight.
“The working class and the middle class of this country are looking at the taxes we pay, they’re looking at the trillions of dollars that have been spent, they’re looking at the veterans that come home that have PTSD, that are horribly wounded, they’re looking at Section 60 at the National Arlington Cemetery, the young men and women that have died that we’ve buried over there, and I think they’ve looked at the trillions of dollars and I think that it was a rejection,’ he said.
Bannon noted that he himself had some skin in the game, as a Navy veteran whose own daughter is a West Point graduate, an Iraq veteran and an Army captain.
“And so with President Trump, it was let’s try to bring these wars to some sort of culmination,” he said.
But, he said, “America First” does not mean “isolationism” by any means.
Rather, he said, it means defending America’s self-interest and working with allies to the extent that it’s in their self-interest as well — but not taking on a fight for them.
For example, he pointed to the fight against radical Islamic terrorism and Trump’s hosting of a summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in May, to discuss with allies three major challenges in the Middle East — the financing and support for terrorist groups, the engagement of Islam with modernity, and stopping Iran’s aggressive expansion in the region.
Just weeks after the summit, Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia demanded that Qatar stop its support and financing of terrorism — spearheading the fight by themselves.
“Allies understand that we are there for them, but it’s not our fight. It’s your fight. If you’re going to reform Islam and bring it into modernity, that’s a huge civilizational and cultural aspect, and it’s yours,” he said.
“We are prepared to be allies. What I don’t want is these countries to be protectorates,” he added. “We’re there to be a partner if needed. We don’t look at it as a multigenerational that we’re going to have combat troops.”
He also said there has been “tremendous engagement” with countries from Japan, to South Korea, to the UAE, to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain.
“This whole thing of ‘America First’ being isolationist, or it’s ‘us against the world,’ is, I just think it’s total nonsense. He looks at the world in a different way. It’s very — [academic] Walter Russell Mead would say Jacksonian,” he said.
“What’s in the vital national security interest of the United States is what you should commit to. And in those areas of the world where it’s in the vital national security interest of the United States, you will have partners that will be in their national security interests also and you work with us,” he added.
Along those lines, he said he opposed the current strategy in Afghanistan because he believes it is trying to impose a liberal democratic system on a society that “clearly doesn’t seem to want it.”
“We’re not looking to transform the world into our values. I think the world has got to come to its own conclusion how it wants to govern themselves. We have to build the nation called the United States of America,” he said.
Bannon said he trusted the “common sense and decency and judgment” of the “common man,” more than he did members of the elite, recalling a recent rally in Alabama, where he campaigned for Senate candidate Judge Roy Moore.
“I would take the first 100 people who came to the rally to govern the country than the top 100 partners at Goldman Sachs,” he said.
The reaction from one attendee was positive.
“I liked the way he handled the questions. He came across as a very reasonable guy, regardless of whatever you think about what he was saying,” said Michael Pregent, an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute. “It was the first time I’d seen him in person, so, it was good.”
At one point during Bannon’s speech, a woman could be heard murmuring “Amen.” At another point, someone burst out in applause but quickly quieted down.
A senior fellow at a prominent Washington think-tank was reluctant to voice his opinions on the record, only saying he would have to “go away and think” about Bannon’s remarks, and that he could tell that the Breitbart News executive chairman was still “extraordinarily close” to the president.
He also admitted that even though he was interested in the other speakers, he only physically came to the event to see Bannon.
“It was an opportunity to see Bannon in the flesh,” he said.