One among the many mysteries of the coming Donald Trump presidency is how the President Elect will approach foreign and national security policy once in office. Some of his statements on the trail, including calls for friendlier relations with Russia and his criticism of the Iraq war, seemed to indicate a more ‘realist’ approach after two plus decades of foreign interventions that have done at least as much to harm the American economy as the trade deals he regularly railed against.
On terrorism, Trump didn’t sound much different from most of the other candidates crowding the Republican field during the primary. However, on the related issue of Israel, he surprised many people by saying he would like to negotiate a fair settlement between that country and what he called “their neighbors” during an early debate.
A few weeks later, when speaking before Israel’s biggest American lobbying group, AIPAC, he took the orthodox position of unwavering support for the Jewish state shared by almost everyone in both of America’s major political parties.
During the speech, he also pleased his hosts by calling the crowning diplomatic achievement of the Obama era, the Iran Nuclear Deal, “Disastrous”, and declaring, “This deal is catastrophic for America, for Israel and for the whole of the Middle East.” He also stated that Iran has “terror cells in the Western Hemisphere very close to home”, an unprovable and quite frankly, dangerous, assertion.
It often seemed that Trump and his surrogates couldn’t distinguish between Iran’s brand of Shia fundamentalism and the more radical Sunni brand of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, let alone the various peaceful interpretations of the religion practiced by most of the world’s Muslims.
Other things Trump said during the campaign were even more disturbing than his militaristic speech at AIPAC, including his promise to bring back torture “including waterboarding and worse” and target the families of suspected terrorists, not to mention a Muslim ban that seems to be turning into an Orwellian ‘Registry’ as he gets closer to office.
Judging by some of those already named for top positions in his administration, it seems that strong anti-Islamic sentiment is going to be the order of the day, a surefire way to create more enemies throughout the world.
On rhetoric alone, Trump and people like his just named National Security Advisor, former Major General Michael Thomas Flynn,.could make the world a more dangerous place. No mean feat in these already chaotic times.
Who is Michael Flynn?
If your only knowledge of Michael Flynn was the speech that he made at the Republican Convention this past summer, you’d most likely be terrified that such a seemingly angry man was being given such power over American foreign policy. Besides leading a chant of “Lock her up,” regarding Trump’s opponent, he spoke fiercely about American Exceptionalism, an idea more often associated with the campaign of the woman he wanted to see behind bars.
As Mike Mullen, a former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has said, the President Elect‘s reliance on former military men to fill top roles in the government should raise concerns among voters, “There are very few senior military officers that understand politics,” he recently told the Financial Times, continuing, “I do worry about that aspect, can former senior military officers handle the politics of the environment that they are going into? I don’t care what any of them say, they don’t know what they are getting into.”
The post of national security advisor is one of the most important in the US government and is also one of the few that doesn’t need to be confirmed by the Senate. In this capacity, Maj. Gen. Flynn will weigh the often conflicting information coming from State Department officials, the military and the heads of various intelligence agencies and try to offer strategic advice to a President who seems to know very little and care even less about the world’s various hotspots.
On paper, Flynn might seem like a good pick for the job, especially considering that he held the post of Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence in the Joint Operations Special Command (JSOC) in Afghanistan under General Stanley MyChrystal, as well as being head of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2012 to 2014. Problematically, he left the latter job a year early having been, as the Washington Post reported at the time, “forced out”.
In a sense, Flynn mixed controversial policies from both the Bush and Obama Administrations when serving under McChrystal in Afghanistan, advocating extraordinary rendition as an intelligence gathering tool, a practice favored under Bush, alongside the targeted killings advocated almost exclusively by the Obama Administration over the past 8 years. As a counter insurgency (COIN) theorist, he also tried to implement programs to win over local populations as opposed to only going after insurgents.
In 2010, he took the unprecedented step for a serving officer in the US military of co-writing a report for CNAS (Center for a New American Security) called “Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan”. The paper offered a nuanced view of the conflict, in part arguing the US’ single minded focus on the Taliban and associated groups actually weakened its ability to win allies on the ground in the country or even fully comprehend its politics and local cultures.
This was one of the areas of disagreement between Flynn and the Obama Administration where the General was arguably right. His belief that the intelligence arms of the US, while obviously going after militants and reacting to attacks, needed to produce better intelligence on the cultural and local level to be better able to cut off the insurgency from local support.
The Obama Administration and the CIA, who were running most of the drone operations in the region, went with the more politically expedient drone war, which provides numbers in the form of dead ‘militants’ (many of whom are later found to be innocent civilians).
“The drone campaign right now really is only about killing,” Flynn told Intercept reporter Jeremy Scahill, shortly after leaving the D.I.A., “When you hear the phrase ‘capture/kill,’ capture is actually a misnomer…Our entire Middle East policy seems to be based on firing drones.”
It’s also true that “winning hearts and minds”, the main motivation of Flynn’s intelligence driven formula for winning in Afghanistan, has proven ineffective time and again since it was introduced in Vietnam. No matter how good occupying armies think their intentions are, there will always be those opposed to foreign intervention in their countries. Judging by history alone, in Afghanistan this is even more likely than in other places.
The Obama Administration’s belief that targeted killings, especially drone strikes, are more politically expedient than the extraordinary renditions favored by JSOC in Afghanistan under McChrystal, makes sense as it creates the appearance of doing something, even if it also contravenes both American and international law.
While the practice of capturing targets to collect intelligence seems more likely to result in success by disrupting insurgent networks, the legal consequences of what amounts to kidnapping people outside of a declared war zone could actually be worse from a purely political standpoint. An innocent person, if later released, will have legal recourse in a way that innocents killed by drone strikes have not thus far obtained.
If torture is used, as Donald Trump has called for and Flynn seems to have equivocated on, the legal consequences could be even more dire. Having seen the lack of accountability for Bush Jr. era torturers and those who ordered it, this might be a gamble the President Elect and his National Security Advisor are willing to take.
Before leaving the military, Flynn often made the point that the American policy makers and allied countries need a better understanding of Islam in relation to the countries where the US and NATO are engaged militarily and this writer is in general agreement with this sentiment. Having said that, his own understanding of the religion seems flawed, something which has become more pronounced since his endorsement of Donald Trump.
The former D.I.A. head has made the regrettable error on many occasions of calling Islam a political ideology rather than a religion. This is true of Islamism, the rightwing ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the more radical reactionaries who pledge allegiance to the Salafi ideology of groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS, but the religion’s influence on politics is usually limited by the pre-existing cultures in which it is practiced.
While Islamism has some widespread appeal to Sunnis, especially in conservative, rural areas, it is not an ideology shared by the vast majority of the world’s almost 1.5 billion Muslims, many of whom are minority populations in countries from India to Canada.
Interestingly, the most successful Islamist government in the world is that of Turkey, a government Flynn has advocated for as a private consultant in his civilian life He recently used an op-ed on the website, The Hill, to call for the extradition of US based cleric Fethullah Gulen, blamed by Turkey’s President Erdogan for fomenting a coup against him.
Flynn has also made public statements about countries that have nothing to do Salafism somehow working in tandem with groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. In his book, The Field of Fight, co-written with Neoconservative think tanker Michael Ledeen and published earlier this year, he wrote, “The war is on. We face a working coalition that extends from North Korea and China to Russia, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.”
This is all in line with what subordinates called ‘Flynn’s facts’, patently false assertions made with full confidence that have become even more numerous since he left government service and began working with the Trump campaign.
An uncharitable person might conclude that Flynn is seeking revenge against enemies in the previous Administration. Others might conclude that someone with the knowledge of Michael Flynn who continually pairs Iran with Sunni terrorism to name just one example, is an opportunist who grabbed Trump’s coattails and lucked out with more power than he ever could have hoped for. Something tells me it won’t be long before we find out which Michael Flynn is going to be advising President Trump.