As has been recently reported, President-elect Donald Trump has settled on former Army General Mike Flynn as his choice for national security advisor, to take effect once the new president assumes office in January. Flynn was the former head of intelligence for Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), and former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).
The position of Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs (APNSA) — the official name for the position — though not one subject to Senatorial confirmation, is nonetheless a key part of any administration, especially in the realm of military, diplomatic, and foreign policy. As the name implies, this person serves as the president’s closest advisor on national security issues, and depending upon the proclivities of the particular president, the national security advisor can be imbued with significant power and influence.
Past powerful and influential national security advisors have included Henry Kissinger (Nixon), Zbigniew Brzezinski (Carter), and Brent Scowcroft (Ford and George H.W. Bush). These three, in particular, held significant sway in their respective White Houses, as key advisors to the presidents they served.
Most see the person in this role, in ideal terms, as an honest broker between competing national security views within an administration, as represented by the Departments of State and Defense, particularly, rather than as a proponent of his or her own views. That being said, one would imagine that it is very rare indeed that a national security advisor withholds his own views from these important discussions.
So, just what does General Flynn bring to this role, assuming he does in fact receive an appointment to the position? Reactions to his possible appointment have varied, to say the least, across the political spectrum. Some on the left see a dangerous ideologue who hates Islam and wishes to cozy up to Russia. Some on the right, at least those sympathetic to Trump, see a kindred spirit for the POTUS-e, and a tough military man who will re-focus the government on its fight against radical Islam.
One way to assess Flynn is to look closely at his positions and policy prescriptions across a spectrum of issues, and especially those that have drawn criticism and/or close scrutiny.
He is too close to Russia
One of the main criticisms of Flynn is that he is too accommodating of Vladimir Putin and Russia, and unwisely desirous of closer relations between the U.S. and Russia. Those that take this view would say that Flynn (and Trump) would move closer to Russia at the expense of our NATO allies, and those other states under direct threat from the Putin regime.
There is no doubt that Flynn sees strategic value in teaming up with Russia, at least when it comes to the fight against radical Islam (more on that below). In interviews on the subject, Flynn has expressed that he sees Russia as a valuable partner in the fight against radical Islam, in the same way that the West worked with Soviet Russia to defeat the Nazis.
While there is strategic value in such an approach — namely, teaming up with another nation-state to share the burdens of fighting Islamic terrorism — there is also strategic danger. The peril lies in the temptation to give Russia too much leeway in its aggressive posturing toward NATO countries and its near abroad, specifically, countries which Russia has already physically invaded.
Should the U.S. government allow these aggressive moves to stand, in the name of maintaining a partnership against terror, the United States will lose the goodwill and strategic affinity of alliances and countries with which we share important values and goals. That would be an unacceptable tradeoff.
That being stated, it is not strategically absurd to seek a closer working relationship with Russia. The Trump administration needs to maintain a healthy skepticism, though, and must not allow partnership with Russia to overshadow our other strategic imperatives.
He hates Islam
Another critique of Flynn is that he is rabidly anti-Islam, and considers all Muslims to be the enemy. This would include American Muslims, whom Flynn appears to view skeptically as a community insofar as their allegiance to America vis-a-vis their religion goes.
There is no doubt that Flynn sees radical Islam as the primary existential threat facing America. He sees the struggle as an ideological one, and one that America is losing because the current administration is feckless and weak. He has a number of thoughts on how to counter radical Islam, as he expressed to Business Insider.
General Flynn and President-elect Trump also seem to agree, at least according to the New York Times, that “the United States needs to sharply curtail immigration from predominantly Muslim countries, and possibly even force American Muslims to register with the government.”
Flynn goes on to make the argument that “the Islamic ideology is a political ideology based on a religion.” He sees radical Islam as a “disease” or a “cancer” inside of an ideology. While Flynn would admit that “there are Muslims, who are moderate Muslims, and there’s more of them than there are radicalized Muslims,” his language does make many uneasy, and not just Muslims who happen to live in America.
Some see his tone is unraveling years of American government efforts to portray the war against al Qa’ida (and now ISIS) as one not against a religion, but against a group of terrorists. They worry that Flynn’s language will play into the hands of Islamic terror groups seeking to portray their struggle as one of Islam versus the West, and that such thinking will drive more Muslims into the embrace of these groups.
Those who worry about Flynn’s language when it comes to the fight against Islamic terrorism have a point. While naming the enemy as “radical Islam” is clearly not a major issue, in this author’s opinion, portraying the majority of Muslims as supporters of al Qa’ida and ISIS would be a major strategic mistake. Not to mention, advocating for a database based on religion. That is simply a terrible idea.
There is a middle ground, however, between the Obama administration’s overly-PC approach to talking about the war against terror, and an approach that seeks to demonize all Muslims as suspect in their allegiance to western values and norms. Hopefully General Flynn will moderate that language and not go down the road of declaring war on Islam, or further dividing the world into Muslims versus the rest.
He doesn’t value NATO
Flynn notably took credit for convincing candidate Donald Trump that NATO should pay its dues, and shoulder its share of the burden of the alliance. In an interview with ABC, he said, “We [Trump and Flynn] did talk about NATO and I told him this business about NATO doesn’t pay their bills.” He went on, “The United States – we pay too much of the bill. NATO is a 20th century model and needs to be retooled for 21st century threats that we collectively face, you know cyber is one of them. So, I said those things to him when we first talked.”
Trump’s dim view of NATO on the campaign trail was indeed depressing to those who see the strategic value of the alliance as a bulwark against international threats. While many would not argue with the point that NATO countries should pay their fair share of the bill when it comes to the alliance, tying this precondition to a commitment to act in NATO’s interests is not healthy for the alliance.
The U.S. government has been pushing NATO countries for years to pay more of their share of the budget. That is nothing new, nor should it change. But Trump, and Flynn, should not tie this to our fundamental commitment to NATO countries, and their security. That simply cannot work in a strategic relationship that is too valuable for America to throw under the bus. Combined with a desire for increased coziness towards Russia, NATO’s historic adversary, this is a step in the wrong direction.
He was a poor manager
One area in which many seem to agree is that Flynn was fired from his job as head of DIA, in part, because he was a poor manager of the bureaucracy, and exhibited a leadership style that led to poor morale and ineffectiveness in the organization.
Within DIA, many saw Flynn as autocratic and pushing for ill-conceived and impractical changes to the agency. He also reportedly pushed his own views on intelligence matters instead of relying on the analytical consensus of his own agency.
Flynn’s supporters would counter that he was trying to modernize and improve DIA, and that those who complained were simply entrenched bureaucrats. In other words, they would attribute antagonism to Flynn as born out of attempted disruptive reforms.
One Flynn supporter, in particular — Jason Criss Howk, who worked alongside the general — wrote in Observer that those who opposed Flynn at DIA and within the larger Department of Defense were “idiots” and “scumbags.” They simply did not want to modernize the ailing bureaucracy, in his view.
That is an absurd and insulting argument, on its face, and one that bodes ill for how Flynn will approach differing viewpoints within the national security establishment should he become national security advisor. If the only response Flynn and his supporters have to those who disagree with them is derision and insults, then the best ideas are never going to percolate through the interagency policy process that Flynn will head.
He will cause a chill throughout the policy community, and it will be rightly feared that he will push his own ideas over all others, and discredit those with differing viewpoints. That is a dangerous approach to formulating national security strategy.
While it is widely accepted that Flynn’s tactical acumen helped kill terrorists in Iraq, as part of JSOC, the national security advisor is a strategic-level job. Flynn will have to move beyond tactical level thinking, and absorb a plethora of strategic ideas, and sift out those that will best serve America. He must do this in a smart and critical way, not hamstrung by his own prejudged conclusions.
While the above are the main areas in which Flynn is receiving the most criticism, there are other statements that he has made that have also drawn condemnation. For one, he would have preferred to capture Usama Bin Ladin, instead of killing him (nevermind the legal, propaganda, and other issues that would arise). He has also repeatedly called for Hillary Clinton to be locked up (nevermind the whole issue of due process).
He has also praised the Kremlin’s state-run media outlet, RT, and claimed that it is no different than CNN or MSNBC (nevermind that it is beholden to the regime in Russia). Finally, he has appeared willing to overlook the Turkish government’s crackdown on dissent and opposition, and has even advocated for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen (a Turkish opposition figure) from the U.S. to Turkey (nevermind that he acted as a paid lobbyist for a Turkish business group, and that extradition requests must go through a legal process and not be subject to political whims).
There are thus a number of areas in which reasonable people may take issue with General Flynn. And they will. However, it is also true that he does not represent an appointment to national security advisor that is beyond the pale. He is qualified for the job, given his experience and resume, though his temperament and management style, not to mention some of his policy prescriptions, leave much to be desired.
If his appointment goes forward, and he does assume the role, stay tuned for more critical analysis of how the national security establishment is faring under the Trump administration.
(Photo courtesy of Getty)