Monday, February 13, 2017

Michael Flynn: Trump's Unsteady Security Advisor

Over the next four years, indeed, in the coming days and weeks, President Donald Trump will have to deal with an array of national security threats.  These may come in many varieties, including provocations from North Korea, terror assaults, Chinese or Russian tests of U.S. resolve, or perhaps a renewed offensive by the Syrian army and its allies.  Trump will count on his staff and particularly Michael Flynn, his national security advisor, to keep him abreast of hot button issues and to present well-considered options for responding. Indeed, even on routine days Trump will see Flynn multiple times daily.
Unfortunately, there is reason to worry about Flynn’s objectivity and judgment.  Like Trump, Flynn often shoots from the hip and he is not always aiming at the right target. Flynn, a retired army lieutenant general, has filled a variety of coveted military billets, but his actions in recent years offer cause to question his judgment.
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 the
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 his rocky relationship with the senior leadership of the DIA.  His bosses concluded that the DIA was adrift under Flynn’s directorship.
By the summer of 2015 he was in contact with the future president, and in February 2016 he joined Trump campaign entourage. Flynn’s hostility toward Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was quickly manifested, including in his absurd claim that Obama was an ally of the late-Hugo Chavez, the Castro brothers and Ali Khamenei.
Flynn has been an active tweeter of lies and fake news, such as reports that Hillary Clinton was secretly funding jihadis, as well as waging a secret war against the Catholic Church. 
Hillary Clinton’s infamous e-mail server was often a focus for his 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 that she 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, Flynn 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’s perspectives on important states are mercurial.  On July 15, 2016, he was speaking for the Trump campaign in Cleveland.  That same day the Turkish military launched a coup (which fizzled within a day). Flynn praised the coup, which he hoped would topple the “Islamist” regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.  “That is worth clapping for,” he added.
On Election Day, November 8, 2016, Flynn published a jaw-dropping article on Turkey in The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper. The timing of the piece was odd.  Perhaps Flynn took Trump’s expected defeat for granted. Considering Flynn’s enthusiasm for the failed July 15 coup, the content was stranger still.  Flynn now insisted that the United States needed to stand with our ally Turkey and with President Erdoğan. 
Flynn’s shamelessly pro-Turkish government piece raised a question about his integrity, since he failed to note that his consulting group was a paid lobbyist for a company owned by a well-connected Turkish businessman. Perhaps Flynn was simply taking care of business.
The views that Flynn has expressed on Russia are similarly conflicted.  He has charged that Russian and Iran are “the two most active and powerful members of the enemy alliance” facing the United States. Yet, he has often argued for cooperation with Russia, including in paid appearances on RT, the Russian television station. While attending an anniversary celebration for RT in Russia, Flynn referred to the U.S. and Russia as being in a “funny marriage”.  The U.S. intelligence community indicates that RT is a “Kremlin financed” operation that carries out “strategic messaging”. 
In December, Flynn conducted telephone conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S.  Despite his denials that he had discussed sanctions imposed on Russia by the Obama administration, intelligence intercepts revealed that Flynn was not telling the truth.  Not only is it likely that Flynn violated the law by interfering in U.S. policy, but he also apparently lied to Vice President Mike Pence when he denied discussing sanctions.  As a result, Pence made public statements that were untrue.  On several levels, Flynn's judgment proved to dubious. 
Flynn's wisdom vis-a-vis a variety of topics is also suspect.  In the 2016 book, Field of Fight, which Flynn co-authored with Michael Ledeen, Iran is depicted as the linchpin of an alliance between Syria, Russia and N. Korea. The authors almost offhandedly suggest toppling the Islamic Republic of Iran. They advance the dubious claim that millions of Iranian dissidents are willing to fight and that all the U.S. would need to do is contribute a vigorous information (propaganda) campaign.  This is the sort of self-deceiving fantasy that made the Iraq invasion fiasco possible.
Flynn’s central premise is that the U.S. is at war with “Radical Islam”, which threatens America at home and abroad.  No doubt, Islamic State jihadists and similar extremist groups pose a serious security challenge. Yet, with characteristic hyperbole, Flynn misstates the scope of the threat. He alleges that “Radical Islamists” are pushing “very hard and very systematically” to install Islamic law (shari’a) in the U.S. This is, as Flynn’s subordinates in the DIA used to say, a “Flynn fact.” It is untrue. It is fake news. 
“Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL [caps original],” he tweeted in February 2016.  Flynn conflates Muslim terrorists with all of Islam. In a speech in Dallas, he denied that Islam is a religion: “Islam is a political ideology. It 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, will alienate hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world.

Surveying Flynn’s writings, 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, he is ill-equipped to tackle weighty national security challenges and his proximity to President Trump is a cause for profound concern.  
Augustus R. Norton is professor of anthropology and international relations at the Pardee School, Boston University.


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