Presidents typically see their national security adviser multiple times daily. Just as his predecessors did, President Donald J. Trump will count on his national security adviser to keep him abreast of hot-button issues and to present well-considered options for responding to challenges around the globe. Trump's first selection for the post was Michael T. Flynn, who lasted only 24 days before being pressured to resign. Despite Flynn's curtailed tenure, it is important to consider the ideas and policies that he has espoused because many of them are shared by other close associates of the president, and even by the president himself.
Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general, joined Trump's campaign entourage in February 2016 and was a familiar figure at Trump's side during the electoral campaign. Both men share the same wavelength on key security issues, not least the threats they believe are posed by "Radical Islam," as well as by Iran. Public comments by both men evince a marked felicity toward Vladamir Putin and Russia, although Flynn's writings are out of synch with his public statements. Trump's resistance to the finding that Russia worked actively to interfere in and tilt the presidential election of 2016 was probably reinforced by Flynn's animosity toward the CIA and other major intelligence agencies. Trump and Flynn purport that these institutions are politicized and try to please the boss rather than offer the unvarnished truth.
Flynn filled a variety of coveted billets during his military career, but his actions in recent years offer cause to question his judgment and objectivity. Like Trump, Flynn often shoots from the hip while not always aiming at the right target. In 2012, he became director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Pentagon's intelligence apparatus. He was forced into retirement in April 2014 after only two years at DIA. Flynn claims, without evidence, that he lost his job because his views were at odds with those of President Barack Obama. Flynn was pushed out the door because of his poor executive skills and rocky relationship with senior leadership. His bosses concluded that the DIA was adrift under Flynn's directorship.
After he retired, Flynn's disdain for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton was made manifest, including in the absurd claim that Obama was an ally of the late Hugo Chavez, the Castro brothers and Ali Khamenei. In The Field of Fight, which he co-authored with Michael Ledeen, Obama is accused of going easy on Russia, but this does not square with the facts, including the sanctions imposed on Russia for its seizure of Crimea and its other violations of Ukrainian sovereignty. They believe that Obama was not intent on winning the war with "Radical Islamists" and lacked "the will and the desire to win." To make their point they quote Obama: "What I am not interested in doing is posing or pursuing some notion of 'American leadership' or America winning." The quotation is excerpted from a press conference in Antalya, Turkey, in November 2015, and the words are taken out of context. Obama is addressing critics who offer simplistic ideas about winning a complex and nuanced battle:
... I think it's entirely appropriate in a democracy to have a serious debate about these issues. If folks want to pop off and have opinions about what they think they would do, present a specific plan. If they think that somehow their advisors are better than the Chairman of my Joint Chiefs of Staff and the folks who are actually on the ground, I want to meet them. And we can have that debate. But what I'm not interested in doing is posing or pursuing some notion of American leadership or America winning, or whatever other slogans they come up with that have no relationship to what is actually going to work to protect the American people, and to protect people in the region who are getting killed, and to protect our allies and people like France. I'm too busy for that.1
Hillary Clinton's infamous email server was often a focus for Flynn's fulminations. During campaign rallies, Flynn could be spotted on stage leading chants of "lock her up." Flynn argued that Clinton had mishandled classified information and should quit the race. As quoted by The Washington Post, he said, "If I, a guy who knows this business, if I did a tenth, a tenth of what she did, I would be in jail today." Yet, Flynn's own handling of classified information was suspect. While serving in Afghanistan, he violated security regulations by divulging classified documents to unauthorized Afghan and Pakistani officers, earning him a reprimand from then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
Flynn has been an active tweeter, and one of his frequent themes during the campaign was that Hillary Clinton had disqualified herself from high office by using a private email server. Flynn also retweeted lies and fake news, including reports that Clinton was secretly funding jihadis, as well as waging a secret war against the Catholic Church. Flynn promoted fake news at least 16 times after August 2016, according to Politico.2 His affinity for it may be related to his taste for preferred facts, what his subordinates at the DIA called "Flynn facts." Although Iran has caused plenty of difficulties for the United States, Flynn is particularly obsessed with its adversarial role, imposing culpability under rather unlikely circumstances. Following the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, Flynn's first instinct was to look for an Iranian role.
Flynn's central premise, that the United States is at war with "Radical Islam," is the main theme of The Field of Fight. He and Ledeen, his co-author, proclaim, "There is no escape from this war. Our enemies will not permit that." They allege that the United States is losing the war, but how do they measure winning and losing? This, they never share with their readers, which is odd because their common refrain is that the United States is losing. Jihadists inspired by the Islamic State and similar extremist groups pose a serious security challenge, for which Flynn and Ledeen's prescription is the mobilization of government resources to confront the threat of "Radical Islam." The United States and its allies must attack, kill or capture violent Islamists wherever they might be. If states are not able to confront extremist Islamists within their borders, the United States should offer assistance. State and non-state sponsors must be decisively confronted, including U.S. friends such as Saudi Arabia. Washington should be prepared to cut off their economic, military or diplomatic support. Finally, the United States should wage an ideological war against "Radical Islam," something the United States has not been adept at doing.
Of course, most, if not all, of these actions are already part of the U.S. repertoire. The risk of the approach proposed by Flynn and Ledeen is not the actions suggested; these are mostly unexceptional. The risk is the rhetoric that undergirds them. Flynn's public pronouncements consistently conflate Islam and "Radical Islam" and even deny that Islam is a religion. "Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL [caps original]," he tweeted in February 2016. Flynn declared in Dallas, in August 2016, "Islam is a political ideology; . . . it definitely hides behind this notion of it being a religion." Flynn's denigration of Islam, especially if repeated from the White House or amplified by Trump's statements, will alienate hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world.
As for the U.S. domestic front, Flynn and Ledeen misstate the scope of the threat. They allege that "Radical Islamists" are pushing "very hard and very systematically" to install Islamic law (sharia) in the United States. To borrow a phrase from Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Trump, this is an "alternative fact." It is untrue. It is fake news. They also claim, without convincing evidence, that moderate American Muslims who speak out against Muslim extremists are targeted by Islamists and even shunned by U.S. government officials.
For Flynn and Ledeen, a concern related to the threat of "Radical Islam" is the alliance of malevolent states that sow violence and instability and support terrorists. They argue that Iran is the linchpin of an alliance among Syria, Russia and North Korea. The authors offhandedly suggest toppling the Islamic Republic of Iran, believing that Iranians themselves can accomplish regime change, advancing the dubious claim that millions of Iranian dissidents are willing to fight. "You don't have to send thousands of American troops to defeat Radical Islamic regimes. Properly used,…information and ideological warfare can probably bring down the Iranian regime, never mind the sadistic and immoral Islamic State." To buttress their case, they use bad history and allude to the Soviet Union, which was certainly not toppled from within through mass protests and resistance.
The idea of promoting regime change in Iran is not seriously analyzed by Flynn and Ledeen, nor do they betray a credible understanding of power and politics within Iran. Instead, they offer a self-deceiving fantasy of the sort that made the Iraq-invasion fiasco possible. It is worth recalling that Michael Pompeo, the incoming director of the Central Intelligence Agency, also endorsed the idea of regime change in Iran while he was in the House of Representatives.
Flynn and Ledeen argue that Russia and Iran are "the two most active and powerful members of the enemy alliance" facing the United States. Yet, Flynn's views on Russia are conflicted. Despite describing Russia as part of the enemy alliance, he has argued for cooperation with Moscow, notably in paid appearances on RT, the Russian English-language television station. The U.S. intelligence community indicates that the station is a "Kremlin financed" operation that carries out "strategic messaging" for Russia.3
In December 2015, Flynn accepted a paid gig in Moscow to attend the tenth-anniversary celebration of the founding of RT.4 Flynn argues that the United States and Russia have shared interests in the Middle East and elsewhere and need to find ways to work together. He refers to the United States and Russia as being married, though in a "funny marriage." While Flynn was in Moscow, the Russian air force was actively bombing Syrian opposition forces the United States supported. During a 44-minute appearance on RT, he did not even mention what the Russians were doing in Syria.5
There are some real whoppers in The Field of Fight. For instance, the seizure of the Grand Mosque in 1979 is pinned on Iran, but the attackers were Saudi Sunnis led by Juhayman al-Utaybi, the scion of a well-known family from the Saudi heartland in the Najd. They also claim that the 1998 deadly attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were an Iranian operation, but the fact is that al-Qaeda and Egyptian Islamic Jihad joined forces to carry them out. These and similar errors are surprising, especially considering Flynn's military-intelligence pedigree. Perhaps Flynn and Ledeen are so obsessed with Iranian misdeeds that they see Iranians lurking in the shadows everywhere.
One of the deadliest groups to emerge during the U.S. occupation of Iraq was Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad [a.k.a. al-Qaeda in Iraq], led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (d. 2006). Tawhid killed many Shia and targeted important Shii sites, including the Imam Ali Mosque and Shrine in Najaf and the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra. By design, the group played a leading role in inflaming enmities and provoking Sunni-Shii bloodshed. According to The Field of Fight, Zarqawi created his terror network from Iran in the late 1990s. This is hard to square with the facts. Zarqawi was in a Jordanian prison from 1992 until 1999, when he was pardoned by King Abdullah. Zarqawi was briefly in Iran in 2002 and again in early 2003, and he probably did have some contact with the security apparatus there. Flynn and Ledeen suggest that there were Iranian operational ties to Zarqawi but provide no evidence to substantiate the claim.
Flynn's perspectives on important U.S. allies can be mercurial. On July 15, 2016, he was speaking for the Trump campaign in Cleveland — the same day the Turkish military launched an abortive coup. Flynn praised the coup, which he hoped would topple the "Islamist" regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. "That is worth clapping for," he added.
Flynn is entitled to his views on Turkey under the leadership of the increasingly authoritarian Erdoğan, who has overseen the jailing or firing of over 125,000 people since the July coup attempt. But what are Flynn's views? On Election Day, November 8, 2016, Flynn published a jaw-dropping article on Turkey in The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper.6 The timing of the piece was odd — perhaps Flynn took Donald Trump's expected defeat for granted — but the content was stranger still, considering Flynn's earlier comments in favor of the July 15 coup attempt. Flynn now insisted that the United States needed to stand with our ally Turkey and with President Erdoğan.
The Turkish government could hardly have written a more fawning piece. Flynn's motives are arguable, but he failed to note that his consulting group was a registered lobbyist for Innova, a company owned by a well-connected Turkish businessman. Perhaps Flynn was simply taking care of business. Flynn adopts the Turkish government's post-coup narrative and pours fire on Fethullah Gülen, accused by Erdoğan of being a terrorist and the mastermind of the failed coup. Turkey has formally requested that Gülen be extradited from the United States for his alleged role in the coup, although there is no publicly available evidence that substantiates the accusations. The 76-year-old cleric lives in exile in Pennsylvania. He is the founder of the powerful modernist Hizmet social movement, which, until 2010-11, was closely aligned with Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Hizmet is well known for its international network of high-quality secular schools. The movement's opacity and its avowal of Islamic values evoke suspicion in some Turkish quarters, but Erdoğan's campaign against the movement rings of opportunism.
Flynn inanely opines, "If [Gülen] were in reality a moderate, he would not be in exile, nor would he excite the animus of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his government." He takes Gülen's exile status as proof of his radicalism and claims the extensiveness of the Hizmet movement is proof that it poses a danger. He insists that "professionals in the intelligence community" would see the "stamp of terror" all over Gülen's statements, but the claim is debatable. Flynn implausibly equates Gülen with Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood (which is supported by Turkey); Sayyid Qutb, whose powerful polemics inspired many contemporary Islamists; Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian revolution; and al-Qaeda's Osama bin Laden.7
In December 2016, in preparation for the change of adminstrations, Flynn conducted telephone conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States. Flynn denied that he had discussed sanctions imposed on Russia by the Obama administration in retaliation for Russian interference in the November presidential election, particularly the hacking of Democratic Party institutions. Intelligence intercepts revealed that Flynn was not telling the truth about his conversations. It is possible that Flynn broke the law by unauthorized negotiation with a foreign government. He also lied to Vice President Michael Pence, who, in turn, repeated the denials on national television. Flynn's dishonesty was revealed to President Trump by the acting attorney general in January 2017. Curiously, Flynn was asked to resign only on February 13 after The Washington Post published an article revealing his mendacity.
Surveying Flynn's writings, including The Field of Fight, and his speeches and interviews, one encounters a jumble of facts, rants, factoids and fabrications. He seems more intent on settling scores and trafficking in stereotypes than presenting serious analysis. Notwithstanding Flynn's military career, his suitability to tackle weighty security challenges was always questionable. His removal from the nexus of national-security policy should be cheered.
2 Bryan Bender and Andrew Hanna, "Flynn under Fire for Fake News," Politico, December 5, 2016, http://www.politico.com/story/2016/12/michael-flynn-conspiracy-pizzeria-trump-232227.
3 "Background to 'Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections': The Analytic Process and Cyber Incident Attribution," Director of National Intelligence, Washington, D.C., January 6, 2017, pp.6-12, https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/3254239/Russia-Hacking-report.pdf.
4 Dana Priest, "Trump Adviser Michael T. Flynn on His Dinner with Putin," Washington Post, August 15, 2016.
5 "Q&A with U.S. frm. Director of Defense Intelligence Agency Michael Flynn on MidEast crisis," RT 10th Anniversary Conference, Moscow, released December 28, 2016, discussion of U.S.-Russian marriage begins at 24:00 minutes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4RIUE68cpGc . Also see his interview with RT, December 10, 2015: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S32sG42IlFo.
6 Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn (R), "Our Ally Turkey Is in Crisis and Needs Our Support," The Hill, November 8, 2016, http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/foreign-policy/305021-our-ally-turkey-is-in-crisis-and-needs-our-support.
7 Ekim Alptekin, the Turkish businessman who was doing business with the Flynn Intel Group, often tweets (@ekimalptekin) in favor of Donald Trump. Alptekin also suggested the parallel with Osama Bin Laden in a tweet dated August 2, 2016: https://twitter.com/ekimalptekin/status/760354048415531008. Flynn told the Daily Caller in mid-November 2016 that his business relationship with Innova had expired and would not be renewed. Chuck Ross, "Michael Flynn Flip-Flopped on Turkey Coup Attempt in Recent Months," Daily Caller, November 21, 2016, http://dailycaller.com/2016/11/21/michael-flynn-flip-flopped-on-turkey-….