Trump–Najib White House Meet in September, 2017

April 24, 2018

Trump–Najib White House Meet in September, 2017

By Bradley Hope,Rebecca Ballhaus and Tom Wright

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Donald J. Trump–The Art of the Deal

Najib Razak, whose administration is at the center of the 1MDB corruption probe, may use the trip to play down the risk of further investigations

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose administration is at the center of a major corruption probe by the U.S. Department of Justice, will visit President Donald Trump in September in Washington, according to a White House official and several people in Malaysia familiar with plans for the trip.

Mr. Najib has been eager to emphasize his friendship with Mr. Trump at a time of U.S. scrutiny over alleged corruption in the Malaysian administration. People close to Mr. Najib say he would likely use the White House visit to try to play down the possibility of further investigations. A spokesman for Mr. Najib declined to comment.

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The Justice Department, in lawsuits filed in 2016 and updated in June, alleged that Mr. Najib received $681 million and his stepson, Riza Aziz, received $238 million originating from a state development fund called 1Malaysia Development Bhd.

The fund is the subject of one of the world’s biggest alleged frauds, with a total of more than $4.5 billion allegedly stolen. At least six countries are probing the affair, including Singapore and Switzerland.

The 1MDB issue is one of the most pressing problems for Mr. Razak’s administration in the run-up to elections expected in 2018. Nonetheless, Malaysia and the U.S. have many areas of mutual concern, including China’s expansion of military power in the South China Sea.

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Golf with Trump next?

Mr. Najib has had warm ties with recent U.S. administrations. He has boasted to a Malaysian newspaper and other media that he partnered with Mr. Trump at golf several years ago. Mr. Najib and Mr. Trump won the game, according to Malaysian media reports, and Mr. Najib said he has a signed picture of them together at the event, with an inscription from Mr. Trump: “To my favorite Prime Minister. Great win!” Mr. Najib also played golf with then-President Barack Obama.

Related imageMalaysia’s rich and powerful First Lady of Malaysia and her soulmate Grace Mugabe (below)


The U.S. suit in June also alleged that Mr. Najib’s wife received a $27 million diamond necklace paid for by funds embezzled from 1MDB. Much of the money Mr. Najib received was returned to the offshore company that sent it to him, court filings show. Mr. Najib and Mr. Aziz have repeatedly denied wrongdoing.

1MDB itself has denied wrongdoing or that any money is missing. It has pledged to work with any lawful authority. Mr. Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, hasn’t responded to the allegations.

The U.S. allegations are contained in a series of civil asset forfeiture cases, in which the U.S. government is seeking to seize $1.7 billion’s worth of homes, artwork, a mega-yacht and company stakes, among other items it says were bought with embezzled funds. The suits only target assets and don’t allege crimes against individuals.

Earlier in August, the Justice Department filed a motion to stay all those cases while it conducts a criminal investigation.

The civil cases identify Jho Low, a Malaysian financier close to Mr. Najib’s family, as the central orchestrator of the alleged scheme. Mr. Low has denied the charges and pledged to fight them in court.

Mr. Najib and his wife, Ms. Rosmah, aren’t named in the civil suits, but are referred to as Malaysian Official 1 and wife of Malaysian Official 1. A government minister has publicly confirmed Mr. Najib is Malaysian Official 1. Mr. Najib’s stepson is also named in the suits.

The Prime Minister has repeatedly denied 1MDB was defrauded and that any money went missing. He created the fund in 2009 to help drive investment in Malaysia and as finance minister he was the final authority for making decisions.

In 2016, Mr. Najib hired Ashcroft Law Firm LLC, headed by former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, to advise him on the 1MDB case, according to people familiar with the matter. Mr. Najib and Mr. Aziz, and Mr. Aziz’s film production company, are also represented by Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP.

Amid investigations by several Malaysian authorities into 1MDB in 2015, Mr. Najib replaced his Attorney General over his handling of the case. The new Attorney General (Mr. Apandi Ali) announced his own review of the evidence, found no wrongdoing and closed the case.

Mr. Najib and his supporters have repeatedly said the 1MDB affair is hyped by the political opposition—led by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad—in an effort to oust Mr. Najib and the ruling UMNO party.

—Yantoultra Ngui in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this article.

Write to Bradley Hope at, Rebecca Ballhaus at and Tom Wright at

NY Times Frank Bruni: The Week Trump “Quit” for lacking in moral leadership

August 22, 2017

NY Times Frank Bruni: The Week Trump “Quit”for lacking in moral leadership

As the worst week in a cursed presidency wound down, I spotted more and more forecasts that Donald Trump would resign, including from Tony Schwartz, who wrote “The Art of the Deal” for Trump and presumably understands his tortured psyche.

They struck me not as wishful or fantastical. They struck me as late.

Trump resigned the Presidency already — if we regard the job as one of moral stewardship, if we assume that an iota of civic concern must joust with self-regard, if we expect a president’s interest in legislation to rise above vacuous theatrics, if we consider a certain baseline of diplomatic etiquette to be part of the equation.

By those measures, it’s arguable that Trump’s Presidency never really began. By those measures, it’s indisputable that his presidency ended in the lobby of Trump Tower on Tuesday afternoon, when he chose — yes, chose — to litigate rather than lead, to attend to his wounded pride instead of his wounded nation and to debate the supposed fine points of white supremacy.

He abdicated his responsibilities so thoroughly and recklessly that it amounted to a letter of resignation. Then he whored for his Virginia winery on the way out the door.

Image result for Mike Pence-- President in WaitingThe sober and Presidential Mike Pence

Trump knew full well what he should have done, because he’d done it — grudgingly and badly — only a day earlier. But it left him feeling countermanded, corrected, submissive and weak, and those emotions just won’t do for an ego as needy and skin as thin as his. So he put id before country and lashed out, in a manner so patently wrong and transcendently ruinous that TV news shows had to go begging for Republican lawmakers to defend or even try to explain what he’d said.

Those lawmakers wanted no part of him. The same went for the corporate chieftains he considers his peers. And for the generals he genuinely reveres. The heads of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines all went out of their way to issue statements condemning the hatred that Trump wouldn’t take on. A soft coup against a cuckoo: It confirmed how impotent Trump had become.

On Tuesday he “relinquished what presidents from Roosevelt to Reagan have regarded as a cardinal duty of their job: set a moral course to unify the nation,” wrote The Times’s Mark Landler, in what was correctly labeled a news analysis and not an opinion column. Landler’s assessment, echoed by countless others, was as unassailable as it was haunting, and it was prompted in part by Trump’s perverse response to a question that it’s hard to imagine another president being asked: Did he place the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Va., on the same “moral plane” as those who showed up to push back at them?

“I’m not putting anybody on a moral plane,” Trump answered.

Indeed he wasn’t. And if you can’t put anybody on a moral plane, you can’t put yourself on Air Force One.

On Friday Trump finally dismissed his polarizing chief strategist, Steve Bannon. That’s excellent. And irrelevant. A president’s team doesn’t matter when he himself is this lost.

In The Atlantic, under the headline “Donald Trump Is a Lame-Duck President,” David Graham wrote: “For most presidents, that comes in the last few months of a term. For Trump, it appears to have arrived early, just a few months into his term. The president did always brag that he was a fast learner.”

In Axios, Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei noted that the President had “systematically damaged or destroyed his relationship with — well, almost every group or individual essential to success.” They then listed these “methodically alienated” constituencies: “the public,” “CEOs,” “the intelligence community,” “every Democrat who could help him do a deal,” “world leaders,” “Europe,” “his own staff.”

In The Times, Michael Shear, Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush reported that several of his top advisers couldn’t see how his presidency would recover. “Others expressed doubts about his capacity to do the job,” they added.

Striking a similar note, Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, who has not been among Trump’s frequent Republican critics, told reporters, “The president has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate.”

This is a question of more than competence. It’s a question of basic interest, and when I look back through the lens of the present wreckage at all that’s happened since Trump descended that escalator in Trump Tower in June 2015, I see clearly that he never in fact wanted or set out to be president, not as the position is conventionally or correctly defined.

He revealed that repeatedly as he rejected the traditional rules and usual etiquette, refusing to release his tax returns, bragging about his penis size, feuding with the Muslim father of a fallen American soldier and electing puerility over poetry at nearly every meaningful moment.

Because of his victories in the Republican primary and then the general election, his campaign was hailed for its tactical genius. But it was driven by, and tailored to, his emotional cravings. All that time on Twitter wasn’t principally about a direct connection to voters. It was a way to stare at an odometer of approval and monitor, in real time, how broadly his sentiments were being liked and shared.

Applause. Greater brand exposure. A new layer of perks atop an existence already lavish with them. Utter saturation of Americans’ consciousness. These were his foremost goals. Governing wasn’t, and that was obvious in his haziness and dishonesty before Election Day and in his laziness and defiance after.

He made clear that conflicts of interest didn’t trouble him, drawing constant attention to Trump properties and incessantly pointing out that nothing in the law of the land compelled him to divest his business interests.

He opened the White House door wide to unmoored and unserious people, most recently Anthony Scaramucci, who, during his nanosecond as communications director, disparaged Bannon as someone engaged primarily in a limber act of self-gratification. That was on the record. Then Bannon disparaged his administration adversaries as being so threatened by him that they were “wetting themselves.” That was on the record, too.

A President is supposed to fill important posts. Trump dallied. A president is supposed to be involved in lawmaking, but members of Congress who met with Trump about the repeal-and-replace of Obamacare were aghast at his ignorance of the legislation and of the legislative process itself.

A president is supposed to safeguard the most sacred American institutions, repairing them if need be. Trump doesn’t respect them. He has sought to discredit and disempower the judiciary, the free press, the F.B.I., the Congressional Budget Office. He even managed to inject politics into, and pollute, the Boy Scouts. This is the course of a tyrant.

I haven’t mentioned Russia. How astonishing that it can be left out and there’s still a surfeit to rue. Trump hasn’t been exercising the duties of his office. He’s been excising them, one by one. The moral forfeiture of the past week was the capper.

And as I watched the Bushes and the generals and Trump’s former rivals for the Republican presidential nomination step into the public square to enunciate their own principles about murderous bigots and domestic terrorists, I realized that they weren’t going through any typical this-is-what-makes-us-Americans motions. They weren’t preening.

They were, in the words of The Washington Post’s James Hohmann, “filling the void.” If Trump wasn’t going to do his job, others had to.

I kept coming across variations on the verdict that he had “failed to lead,” and that phraseology is off. “Fail” and “failure” imply that there was an effort, albeit unsuccessful.

Trump made none. He consciously decided that he didn’t care about comforting or inspiring those Americans — a majority of them — who weren’t quick and generous enough with their clapping. He was more interested in justifying himself.

So he picked division over unity, war over peace. And make no mistake: He didn’t merely shortchange the presidency. He left it vacant.

Trump’s White House and Thailand’s autocratic descent

August 22, 2017

Trump’s White House and Thailand’s autocratic descent

by Matthew Phillips

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Header image: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meeting for talks with Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha in Bangkok on 8 August 2017, via the US State Department on Flickr.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Bangkok as part of a tour of the region. Top of the agenda was Thailand’s relationship with North Korea, but Tillerson also confirmed arrangements for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to visit Washington in October and paid respects to the recently deceased King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Conspicuously absent from the Secretary of State’s remarks, both to Thai officials and later to staff at the US Embassy, was any criticism about Thailand’s deteriorating human rights record. This apparently pragmatic approach marks a significant shift in Thai–US relations, which had cooled considerably after the military coup of May 2014, led by General Prayuth.

It is a rapprochement that permanently threatens Thailand’s already struggling democracy.

In Thailand, symbols matter. Throughout the Cold War, pronouncements of US support for dictatorship were vital in securing the dominance of the Royal Thai Army. As long as Thai generals could point to American friends guaranteeing economic development, they could align themselves (however loosely) with the principles of freedom and democracy that legitimised their role. For their part, US actors, by claiming to respect Thailand’s cultural traditions (primarily through support for the Thai monarchy) helped frame communism as a threat to the Thai ‘way of life’.

This consensus changed in the early 1990s when a popular movement emerged from within the urban middle class calling for reduced military power and greater accountability. In May 1992 military leaders ordered the suppression of pro-democracy protesters leading to scores of deaths. For many within Thailand, the heavily-censored local media meant that international outlets became the only trusted source of news. With Thailand’s leaders condemned by the international community, it was the protesters who now commanded the respect of global peers.

Thailand, it was clear, was out of step. With the end of the Cold War, and communism no longer a threat, authoritarian regimes through Asia were falling or being forced to adapt. The emerging new order, led by the middle class, was characterised by a shift towards greater democratic accountability and underpinned by a shift toward neo-liberal economics. It was at this point that King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in the fifth decade of his reign, stepped in, aligning his own destiny with the forces of change.

In an exquisitely dramatised exchange, broadcast across state media, His Majesty sternly encouraged then Prime Minister General Suchinda Kraprayoon to reconcile with enraged civilian leaders. The King, in a single stroke, positioned himself in line with global trends, at the same time securing the enduring affection of Thailand’s middle classes. This Royal intervention also marked a historic breakpoint that was followed by economic deregulation and more democracy so that by the beginning of the new millennium, Thailand appeared to have taken its place within a world united around free market economics and liberal politics; what the political economist Francis Fukuyama had boldly described as ‘the end of history’. Portraying himself as a critical agent of change, King Bhumibol helped authenticate the moment as an intrinsically natural and necessary step for the Thai people. He also reaffirmed his status as a benevolent monarch who, by appearing to gift the next step toward democratisation, demonstrated his love and concern for the Thai people: the embodiment of Buddhist virtues that confirmed his divinity.

By 2005, however, the Thai establishment had grown weary of elections that repeatedly elected populist parties connected to Thaksin Shinawatra. In 2010, the army violently attacked Thaksin-supporting ‘Red Shirt’ protesters, many of whom had spent months away from rural homes to call for elections. Taking to the internet, the middle classes rallied to support the establishment view that force was necessary. They also joined a chorus of growing disdain for the international media, taking particular issue with what they felt was the uncritical reporting of Red demands for more democracy. Of all the networks, CNN was most notably earmarked for derision.

In late 2013, middle class groups were once again mobilised to topple a Thaksin linked government, finally provoking the May 2014 coup. Since then, Prayuth’s government and the royalists who support him have been relentless in attempts to extinguish both the influence of Thaksin and the political system that produced him. Many from the middle class have cheered them on.

Today Thailand is the polar opposite of what King Bhumibol’s 1992 military-civilian mediation was supposed to foretell. Journalists are silenced; sharing a critical Facebook post can land someone in prison; and many who oppose military rule have been forced into exile.

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His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn

The country also has a new King, Maha Vajiralongkorn,  whose erratic behaviour and strongman persona has helped stabilise autocratic rule. Elections are penciled in for next year, but the new constitution does more to diminish the institutions and symbols of democracy than reinstate them.

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Throughout this time, Barack Obama’s White House had made it clear that Thailand had veered off course. While US economic commitments to the Junta remained largely intact, the symbolic relationship and professions of friendship that secured it deteriorated rapidly, leaving Thailand out in the cold. Come mid-2016, the country failed to win a non-permanent seat on the United National Security Council, scoring a humiliating loss to Kazakhstan by a vote of 55–193.

The election of Donald Trump, however, has blurred if not obscured Thailand’s status as an outlier and threatens to normalise many of those indicators that mark its descent into autocracy. For years now, Thais opposed to Thaksin have rallied against CNN and its counterparts as unreliable, a stance parallel to the new American President’s daily denunciations of “fake news”. Having rejected mainstream international media, conservatives and pro-royalists have turned to a gaggle of Thai nationalists and alt-right American journalists to reaffirm their political positions. Thai hardliners rail against the conspiracy to topple monarchy in favour of a globalist corporate-led government ushered in by Thaksin and his shadowy backers. Trump’s reliance on the same marginal outlets, such as Infowars—hosted by alt-right radio host Alex Jones—combined with his disregard for an informed free press, not only resonates with key segments of the Thai elite; these global conspiracy theorists share much of the same world. At the same time, strong man politics appear all the rage and with two from which to choose, a King and a Prime Minister, Thailand would appear to be ahead of the game.

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the highest level American diplomat to visit Thailand since a 2014 coup, met Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai in Bangkok

Secretary of State Tillerson has already indicated that the State Department is considering dropping “democracy” from its global mission. On Tuesday, he kept his word. His meeting with Prime Minister Prayuth and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai has served to de facto legitimate both the ruling Junta and the anti-democratic forces that support it. Having spent a decade seeking to extinguish Thaksin-linked electoral politics, Thailand’s once liberal elite now sits comfortably alongside the most powerful populist movements of the age. History, with its faux teleology proclaiming the inevitable progression toward liberal democracy—so critical to the American balancing act during the Cold War and as embodied so brilliantly by King Bhumibol—has reached its natural conclusion. A dead end.

Dr Matthew Phillips is based in the Department of History & Welsh History at Aberystwyth University. His book, Thailand in the Cold War, looks at the role that Thai and American consumers played in securing the alliance.



Trump’s White House Strategist, Steve Bannon, shown the door

August 19, 2017

Trump’s White House Strategist, Steve Bannon, shown the door

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White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon is the latest top aide of President Donald Trump to leave his post. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed that Friday was his last day.

His exit follows a review of his position by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.

Mr Bannon, a right-wing nationalist and former head of, helped shape the “America First” message of Mr Trump’s election campaign. But critics had accused the 63-year-old of harbouring anti-Semitic and white supremacist views.

Mr Bannon is known to have competed for influence in the West Wing against more moderate factions, including members of the Trump family.

Mr Trump raised eyebrows earlier this year when he elevated Mr Bannon to the National Security Council, the main group advising the President on national security and foreign affairs.

But he was subsequently removed from the council in a move that was seen as a sign of National Security Adviser HR McMaster’s growing influence over the President.

Mr Bannon has reportedly feuded with Mr McMaster as well as Gary Cohn, the director of the President’s National Economic Council and a former Goldman Sachs chief viewed as a globalist.

Mr Cohn, along with President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and daughter, Ivanka Trump, were viewed as threats to Mr Bannon’s White House agenda.

Taking credit did him in

By Anthony Zurcher, BBC North America reporter

Steve Bannon may be out as a senior White House adviser, but Bannonism – if that’s what it can properly be called – is still firmly entrenched in the White House.

Donald Trump has repeatedly boasted that the success of his presidential campaign should properly be attributed to him, not Mr Bannon. And, in the end, Mr Bannon’s desire to take credit for that win may have been what did him in.

It certainly wasn’t because of any sharp ideological divides between the President and the former head of Breitbart News.

Border security, aggressive trade protectionism, immigration reform and a certain kind of cultural nostalgia – all were themes that Mr Trump ran on from the start, which Mr Bannon only sharpened and focused. They’re also issues Mr Trump has pushed in recent weeks, even as Mr Bannon has been increasingly marginalised.

Mr Bannon’s firing will be seen as a win for Chief of Staff John Kelly, whose attempts to instil discipline in the White House will get a boost without the free-wheeling Mr Bannon roaming the hallways.

Trump was Trump before Mr Bannon came on the scene, however. And as the rollercoaster ride that was politics this week indicates, the President isn’t changing anytime soon.

Mr Trump fuelled speculation when asked last week about Mr Bannon’s future as he replied: “We’ll see.”

Mr Bannon’s interview this week with the American Prospect, a liberal magazine, reportedly infuriated the president.

The White House aide was quoted as dismissing the idea of a military solution in North Korea, undercutting Mr Trump. He told the magazine the US was “at economic war with China” and that he aimed to push out moderates whom he believed were soft on China.

Mr Bannon told associates he thought it was an off-the-record chat and did not realise he would be quoted.

He has pushed for imposing additional tariffs on China and other trade partners to reduce deficits with those countries. He also advocated for a travel ban on citizens of certain Muslim-majority countries.

Ms Huckabee Sanders’ statement said: “White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Steve Bannon have mutually agreed today would be Steve’s last day. “We are grateful for his service and wish him the best.”

Source familiar with the decision said Mr Bannon had been given the chance to leave on his own terms.

Who else left Trump’s White House team?

Anthony Scaramucci, Communications Director – 31 July

Reince Priebus, Chief of Staff – 28 July

Sean Spicer, Press Secretary – 21 July

Mike Dubke, Communications Director, 30 May

Michael Flynn, National Security Adviser – 14 February

This photo sums up White House turmoil

Mr Bannon took over as Chief of Trump’s presidential campaign in August 2016.

He was formerly a US Navy officer, Goldman Sachs investment banker, Hollywood movie producer and head of Breitbart News. He has reportedly told friends he could go back to the right-wing outlet that has boisterously supported Mr Trump.

In a potentially worrying sign for the White House, Breitbart’s senior editor-at-large Joel Pollak tweeted: “#WAR”.


Steven Bannon: Trump ‘Puppet Master’

August 17, 2017

Steven Bannon: Trump ‘puppet master’ believes America must be reborn through fire

HE’s Trump’s top adviser. He believes prophecy destines America to a ‘trial by fire’. But now a blow-torch is being applied to alt-right banner man Steve Bannon’s extreme beliefs.

by Jamie Seidel News Corp Australia Network

He was the man credited with saving Trump’s presidential campaign. Brought in from the alt-right website Breitbart at the eleventh hour, Bannon’s advice to pursue a hard-line populist message among disaffected white America helped win the way to Washington.

He was immediately rewarded with his heart’s desire: a place on the United States National Security Council and the title of Chief Strategist to the President.

Here the formal naval officer would hear the best intelligence American agencies had to offer.

Here, the extreme right-wing news editor could shape his nation’s interpretations and responses.

Here, the 63-year-old believer of dark prophecy could influence President Trump’s policies with his conviction the world is about to enter a tumultuous time of change.

Senior Counsellor to the President Steve Bannon on the South Lawn of the White House. Picture: AFP

Senior Counsellor to the President Steve Bannon on the South Lawn of the White House. Picture: AFPSource:AFP


But Bannon wasn’t the only one to hold the president’s ear. The Republican Party, which provided the foundation and framework of President Trump’s campaign, had an ‘insider’ installed as White House Chief of Staff: Reince Priebus.

It would immediately prove to be a clash of the old and new American right. Bannon — with the bumbling help of fired media director Anthony Scaramucci — eventually proved victorious, toppling Priebus under a cloud of damaging leaks.

But it may have been a short-lived victory. Now machinations are in play to put Bannon’s own neck on the chopping block.

“Bannon was widely seen as losing influence with the appointment of General Kelly to Chief of Staff, given Kelly’s desire to restrict access to the President and steady the Trump Administration,” says Flinders University PhD Candidate in American Studies, Jesse Barker Gale.

“Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law, has long been pushing the President to fire Bannon but Trump has resisted.”

It’s exactly the kind of conflict Bannon’s world view believes to mark the transition to a new era. But now the blame for Trump’s fumbled response to the white supremacist demonstrations in Virginia, and the international shock at his blustering ‘fire and fury’ response to North Korea’s missile tests, is being placed squarely at Bannon’s feet.

Senior Counselor to the President Steve Bannon arriving before the presidential inauguration on the West Front of the US Capitol in Washington, DC. Doubts now surround his future in the White House. Picture: AFP

Senior Counselor to the President Steve Bannon arriving before the presidential inauguration on the West Front of the US Capitol in Washington, DC. Doubts now surround his future in the White House. Picture: AFP Source:AFP


Cataclysmic Cycle

The source of Bannon’s dark vision of America’s future is the book The Fourth Turning: What Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous With Destiny.

Time Magazine was told in a profile on Bannon during last year’s election campaign of his wholehearted embrace of its message.

It’s almost astrological in its assertion of simplistic cycles. It believes America’s fate is tied to a supposed spiral of human behaviour that can be used to predict the future.

It’s not a new idea. One baktun is the cycle of the Mayan calendar which supposedly predicted the end of the world in 2012. Spanning 394 years, each baktun was believed to represent a distinct ‘age’ or ‘era’ or civilisation.

White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. AP

White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. AP Source:AP


The pattern that has caught Bannon’s eye, however, originates with the Ancient Greeks. It’s a cycle called a “saeculum”. Like the baktun, the end of a particular saeculum would bring about the dawn of a new age. But each saeculum is made up of ‘turnings’ — periods of about 20 years each — which define a new stage of each cycle. The ‘fourth turning’ is the last phase before a cataclysmic change.

For some reason, in Bannon’s mind, this Greek cycle of prophecy applies particularly to the United States. The last “turnings” experienced by the US were The Revolutionary War, The Civil War and World War II.

All were sparked by an incendiary event. All had a period of regeneration. All led to disaster and conflict. All ended up in an era of reconstruction and new national order.

According to Bannon’s writings, he believes there must be a reckoning — a cataclysmic conflict — to bring about the new order he desires. This involves war in the Middle East. And with China.

This could explain his behaviour during his eight months as chief White House adviser and National Security Council member.

White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting on cyber security in the White House in the first weeks of the aministration. Picture: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting on cyber security in the White House in the first weeks of the Administration. Picture: AP Photo/Evan Vucci Source:AP


Pawn of Prophecy

Bannon believes the necessary ‘catalyst’ for a new ‘turning’ of the saeculum has already happened: The Great Financial Crisis. The book behind his belief states a “Grey Warrior” will “urgently resist the idea that a second consecutive generation might be denied the American Dream. No matter how shattered the economy …”

Enter Donald Trump. Bannon wants Trump’s presidency to be the ‘regeneration’ era that leads to conflict with supporters of the ‘old ways’. And he’s working to shape it that way.

Combined with his belief in authoritarian leadership and previous hard-line language on international affairs, and you have a disturbing picture of what has been working to direct White House politics and policies this year.

Steve Bannon enters a news conference at Trump Tower in January. Picture: AFP

Steve Bannon enters a news conference at Trump Tower in January. Picture: AFP Source:AFP


Bannon told his alt-right radio show, before joining the Trump team last year as campaign manager, that the United States was in an ‘existential war’ — both in the Middle East and, soon, against China.

It’s an angry, nationalistic world-view of conflict he embedded at the heart of his self-made films and his all-right news website, Breitbart: “Our big belief, one of our central organising principles at the site, is that we’re at war.”

It’s a bleak picture of present and future that has often been echoed in Trump’s own words. Phrases such as the “American carnage” he referred to in his inauguration speech.

“Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge. And the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealised potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”

While Trump claimed to have written this speech himself, it paints a bleak picture almost direct from Bannon’s apocalyptic script book.

“Trump prefers off-script remarks, rather than the scripted statements he is often pressured to make,” Mr Barker Gale says. “The unscripted remarks, often on the topic of foreign relations or immigration or racism, are very much in line with Bannon’s worldview and play to the constituency that Bannon has cultivated over the past years at Breitbart.”

Dawn of Destruction

President Trump rattled the world when he declared he was willing to hit North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen”.

“Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely.”

Was this reactionary posturing? Or an advised hard-line response? The President’s forceful — and unexpected — words reportedly took new White House chief of staff John Kelly by surprise. His fumbling, lacklustre response to the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, even more so.

So did the spark of an idea for this rhetoric come from Bannon? Does Breitbart’s suddenly hard ‘anti-appeasement’ line have a White House source?

Is Bannon behind the recent attacks on key White House National Security Advisor H.R McMaster over North Korea policy? The President was quick to defend his controversial far-right chief strategist: “I like Mr Bannon. He’s a friend of mine … He is a good man. He is not a racist.”

But Senior Lecturer in Politics and Public Policy Rodrigo Praino says Bannon’s beliefs send a clear message to the public.

“Trump doesn’t understand that, in politics, symbols are extremely important,” Dr Praino says. “Bannon does not have any particular qualification, expertise, or experience that would warrant him his current role in the White House. His presence there is a nod to the alt-right, and this sends a very clear message to the public about where the President stands in terms of supporting this extremist group.”

End Times


Bannon only recently emerged triumphant from an internal White House power struggle with former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. But new Chief of Staff, retired General Kelly, laid down the law with Trump before accepting the job that he had final say on who said what, and when.

Little surprise, then, that Bannon’s future appears to have taken an abrupt about-face.

White House National Security Advisor Lt General H.R. McMaster has refused to say he can work with his security council colleague. Scaramucci — after doing him such a favour with Preibus — has lashed him publicly as a white nationalist.

All the while, replacement White House Chief of Staff General John F. Kelly has remained publicly silent on Bannon.

Steve Bannon and Counselor to US President Donald Trump, Kellyanne Conway. Picture: AFP

Steve Bannon and Counselor to US President Donald Trump, Kellyanne Conway. Picture: AFP Source:AFP


Bannon insists his job is safe. But White House leaks suggest a very different scene behind closed doors. These mutterings suggest Kelly will not tolerate Bannon’s machinations, manipulative leaks and direct disobedience.

Something has changed. Bannon, once a fixture in every Oval Office gathering, has not been seen in recent days. Though he has apparently kept the President’s ear — reportedly advising him on how to respond to the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and North Korea.

But his advice — not to antagonise his far-right power base, and to ram a hard-line home on Kim Jong-un — appears to have backfired. In a big way.

Trump hasn’t had an easy relationship with Bannon. He resented the way his 2016 victory was attributed to his campaign adviser. He also bristles at suggestions Bannon is his puppet-master.

Suddenly, Trump has refused to rule out the disruptive proponent of the far right’s agenda will remain in the White House beyond the week. “We’ll see what happens with Mr Bannon,” Trump said.

But it won’t be an easy call.

“The difficulty for Trump is that (key Republican campaign donors) Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah Mercer have deep ties to Bannon and are critical for future Republican campaigns,” Mr Barker Gale says.

“Any attempt to oust Bannon would play poorly for future campaigns, and Bannon would be free to return to Breitbart News and push stories about White House dysfunction. Added to this is Trump’s desire to aggressively confront what he sees as unfair criticism from the news media with regard to any number of issues.

“Thus Bannon is integral to Trump maintaining his base. He is kept on not because he is a policy expert or integral to the functioning of American democracy, but rather because the Trump Administration is afraid of what trouble he might stir up on the outside.”

Thucydides’ Trap–Singapore Betwixt The US and China

August 16, 2017

Thucydides’ Trap–Singapore Betwixt The US and China

by John Blaxland, ANU

Image result for Singapore Air ForceThe Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) debuted the fighter aircraft (F-15SG) and Gulfstream 550 airborne early warning aircraft (G550-AEW)

Recently the Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, Kishore Mahbubani, dropped a bombshell. He declared that Qatar’s experience of being embargoed by its neighbouring states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) ‘reminds Singapore of the need for small states to behave like small states, and to cherish regional and international institutions’. His answer is for Singapore to ‘exercise discretion’, being ‘very restrained in commenting on matters involving great powers’.

Image result for kishore mahbubani and Singapore's Future

Kishore Mahbubani and Bilahari Kausikan–In Debate about Singapore’s Security Policy vis-a- The US and China

Prominent Singaporean pundits denounced his declaration but its resonance could be felt around Southeast Asia. ASEAN is not the GCC and the great power dynamics at play in the Middle East differ considerably from those affecting ASEAN and, in particular, Singapore. But the parallels are sufficiently resonant to make Mahbubani’s comments unsettling. After all, like Qatar, Singapore is a small state that has been the base for a considerable regional US military presence. Yet there are limits to the parallels, in part because of the different great power dynamics in Asia.

Image result for destined for war graham allison


Graham Allison’s book Destined for War has brought into vogue the term ‘the Thucydides trap’, which refers to the work of the ancient Greek historian Thucydides. Writing about the Peloponnesian wars in the middle of the fifth century BCE, Thucydides recorded details of the clash between the rising great regional maritime power, Athens, and the land-locked city-state of Sparta. Worried that leaving Athens’ power to grow unchecked would lead to its own downfall, Sparta embarked on a catastrophic war that saw both states suffer greatly. The implication is that the structural stress that results when a rising power challenges a ruling one make war almost inevitable.

Great power dynamics can certainly generate tensions but the jury is out on whether such a war is inevitable in Asia. Smaller states sometimes play disproportionate roles, and other times not. During that war, for instance, Athens subjugated the city-state of Melos, which had sought to stay neutral in the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides observed that in subjugating Melos, Athens demonstrated a truism: ‘the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must’.

There is a sense that Mahbubani seems to have tapped into a fear that Singapore may have some Melian-like tendencies and that if not careful, the city state could become a casualty in a great power clash in and around Southeast Asia reminiscent of Thucydides’ war.

The seizure of Singaporean armoured vehicles en route from Taiwan in late 2016 by Chinese authorities in Hong Kong pointed to a growing concern that China was sending a message to Singapore: that China was unhappy with Singapore’s close associations with Taiwan, and by implication with the United States. The implication was that Singapore should heed Mahbubani’s advice to exercise greater discretion.

Mahbubani has been criticised by some eminent contemporary Singaporean pundits including Singaporean Law and Home Affairs Minister Shanmugam and by diplomats Bilahari and Ong Keng Yong, who have declared Mahbubani’s commentary ‘questionable intellectually’. Their view is that, for Singapore at least, size does not matter.

One pointer to that being so comes from the neighbourhood. Indonesian President Joko Widodo has spoken about Indonesia as the maritime fulcrum, poised between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, as a gateway between East and South Asia. That arguably applies to all maritime Southeast Asia, but nowhere more so than to the city state of Singapore.

At the mouth of the Malacca Strait, Singapore sees a vast proportion of the world’s maritime trade pass its front door on the way to and from Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Northeast Asia. That location means great powers will always be interested in what happens to Singapore. Singapore has understood that very well and worked assiduously to cultivate a range of constructive relations to shield the city-state from the kinds of great power challenges the Melians experienced.

In light of its centrality, the US Navy operates a logistical hub from Singapore. Likewise, due to its location and importance to its engagement with Southeast Asia, Australia has established a comprehensive strategic partnership. In addition, Australia and Singapore, together with Malaysia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, form the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA). This little-known arrangement has helped Singapore develop its joint (inter-service) and combined (international) military capabilities. The benefits of these ties make the FPDA more relevant than ever to help bolster Singaporean security. Even Indonesia, against which the FPDA was originally intended, now has observer status on FPDA activities, thus helping to renew and revitalise the FPDA as a component of Singapore’s internationalist hedging.

Today, the Singapore Defence Force (SDF) is a robust, high-tech and highly regarded organisation with considerable reach and power. Indeed, the SDF trains extensively in Australia, the United States and elsewhere. The SDF also looks likely to be included in the club of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter recipients.

Most importantly, Singapore is a founding member of ASEAN. Founded fifty years ago, at the height of the Cold War, ASEAN today has its critics, but it has served Singapore well as a forum for bolstering prosperity and security. It has done so particularly through the establishment of defence and security mechanisms including the ASEAN Defence Minister Meeting (ADMM) and the ADMM Plus, as well as facilitating the quadrilateral Malacca Straits Patrol which has remained operational for more than a decade.

Mahbubani certainly caused a stir with his remarks. But reflections since then and the responses generated indicate that while Thucydides’ work remains eminently readable, due to geography, alliances, regional architecture and other ties, its application to Singapore is of limited utility.

John Blaxland is Professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies, Director of the ANU Southeast Asia Institute and head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.