General Mike Flynn will be President-elect Donald Trump’s national security advisor, and if the only things you know about the man come from the mainstream media, you have no idea who he really is or what he really thinks, which means you have no idea what he’s likely to do when he starts his new job.
Yes, he had dinner with Vladimir Putin, and no, he’s not politically correct or even diplomatic. Yes, he was fired from his job as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency because he does not play well with others. And yes somebody should tell him to retire his Twitter feed, or at the very least stop tweeting bombastic insults, fake news and conspiracy theories.
All human beings are greater than the sum of their screwups, and if you want to know what he has been doing for the past several decades and what he wants to do next, skip the news reports and read his book, The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies, co-written with Michael Ledeen.
It has been on bookshelves since July of this year. It’s short—only 208 pages—so you can read it in one day or even one sitting.
First, let’s get a big question out of the way right at the start.
No, he is not friends with Vladimir Putin.
He did sit next to Putin at the 10th anniversary dinner of Kremlin propaganda station RT (Russia Today) and he appeared as a guest on RT as well. He also, like Trump, thinks the United States should team up with Russia to fight ISIS in Syria.
But he’s not Putin’s pal. That comes across as loud and clear as a gunshot in his book.
Flynn divides the world into two sets of enemies. First, there are the radical Islamists, whom he sees as America’s principle foes. Then there is a constellation of hostile anti-democratic regimes that he calls “the alliance” that includes both Islamists and non-Islamists that collaborate against the West because we’re their common enemy. The alliance includes Russia, Syria, North Korea, China, Iran, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
Flynn puts Vladimir Putin and his Syrian client Bashar al-Assad squarely in the hostiles camp. There’s no point wasting much angst on Nicaragua and Bolivia right now, but he’s quite right to declare the Russian and Syrian governments enemies of the United States. Assad is the biggest state sponsor of international terrorism in the entire Arab world, and he’s Iran’s staunchest Arab ally. And since Iran is the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the entire world, that makes Moscow-Tehran-Damascus axis the greatest state-level geopolitical threat to the West.
“This alliance surprises a lot of people,” Flynn writes. “On the surface, it seems incoherent. How, they ask, can a Communist regime like North Korea embrace a radical Islamist regime like Iran? What about Russia’s Vladimir Putin? He is certainly no jihadi; indeed, Russia has a good deal to fear from radical Islamists to its south, and the Russians have been very heavy-handed with radical Islamists in places like Chechnya. Yet the Russian air force and Iranian foot soldiers are fighting side by side in Syria. Somehow, Russian antipathy toward radical Islam does not prevent the Kremlin from constructing all the Iranian nuclear power plants.”
It’s not so hard to understand. Forging ideologically incoherent alliances is normal in wartime. Americans have done it too. We armed Afghanistan’s Mujahadeen to fight the Soviet Union in the 1980s despite the fact that many of them were radical Islamists. We forged an alliance not just with a Communist state but with Josef Stalin himself against Nazi Germany. We also armed and trained right-wing military dictatorships in Latin America when they faced communist insurrections backed by Moscow.
We can only go so far with this sort of thing, though, before ideological incoherence collapses into strategic incoherence. Forging an alliance with Syria and Iran, for instance, in the war against ISIS would be preposterous. Expecting state sponsors of international terrorism to act as an American firewall against international terrorists makes as much sense as placing arsonists in charge of the fire department.
Mike Flynn is many things, but he isn’t stupid. He knows this, which is why he says we should partner with Russia—but not the Iranians or the Assad regime—against ISIS in Syria.
In one of his debates with Hillary Clinton last month, Donald Trump said Russia and Assad are fighting ISIS in Syria, but it’s not true. Russia is fighting in western Syria to prop up the Assad regime against rebel fighters while ISIS territory is in eastern Syria well outside Russia’s theater of operations.
Trump apparently doesn’t know this, but Flynn does because he explains it in his book.
Teaming up with Russia to fight ISIS will require a dramatic transformation of both American and Russian foreign policies—another Russian “reset,” if you will. Vladimir Putin is a scorpion by nature. I don’t expect Trump’s Russian reset to work any better than Obama’s Russian reset or George W. Bush’s old college try, but I guess we’ll find out.
There’s a bit of incoherence in Flynn’s book. He blasts the Obama administration for reaching out to anti-American tyrannies in Syria, Iran and Cuba, but he advocates doing exactly the same thing with Russia right now despite the fact that Russia is neck-deep in the Syrian-Iranian axis. At times I couldn’t quite tell if Flynn is a foreign policy “realist” who’s willing to work with despicable tyrants as long as it suits us, or if he’s a neoconservative who thinks we should always ally ourselves with democracies against dictatorships.
Perhaps the book contradicts itself once in a while because the neoconservative Michael Ledeen co-wrote it. Maybe the differing worldviews of the two authors come through in different passages on different pages. Or perhaps Flynn is just ideologically flexible. It’s hard to say. Mostly he comes across as a Jacksonian who wishes to wage total war against his enemies.
He wrote a chapter on how to win such a war against radical Islamist terrorists, but first he describes what winning means—destroying terrorist armies, discrediting their ideology, forging new global alliances and “bringing a direct challenge to the regimes that support our enemies, weakening them at a minimum, bringing them down whenever possible.”
Bringing them down whenever possible.
Did I mention that Flynn isn’t a pacifist or isolationist?
“I know [our enemies],” he writes, “and they scare me, a guy who doesn’t scare often or easily. They scare me even though we have defeated them every time we fought seriously. We defeated Al Qaeda and the Iranians in Iraq, and the Taliban and their allies in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, they kept fighting and we went away. Let’s face it: right now, we’re losing, and I’m talking about a very big war, not just Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.” [Emphasis added.]
In Flynn’s view, the war against terrorism is enormous. He makes Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld seem cautious and even timid. He says we know how to win this kind of war because we did it during World War II and the Cold War.
He recommends we do four things.
“First, we have to energize every element of national power in a cohesive synchronized manner—similar to the effort during World War II or the Cold War—to effectively resource what will likely be a multigenerational struggle…Second, we must engage the violent Islamists wherever they are, drive them from their safe havens, and kill them or capture them…Third, we must decisively confront the state and nonstate supporters of this violent Islamist ideology and compel them to end their support to our enemies or be prepared to remove their capacity to do so…Fourth, we must wage ideological war against radical Islam and its supporters.”
No one has a clue what’s going to happen after the Obama administration gives way to the Trump administration. Trump has already mellowed out in one policy area after another, and in any case, Flynn’s book isn’t Trump’s policy. It’s Flynn’s policy.
What you just read above, though, is more or less what Trump is likely to hear from his national security advisor. It is almost certainly what Trump has already heard from the man who will become his national security advisor.
“Most Americans mistakenly believe that peace is the normal condition of mankind,” Flynn writes, “while war is some weird aberration. Actually, it’s the other way around. Most of human history has to do with war, and preparations for the next one. But we Americans do not prepare for the next war, are invariably surprised when it erupts, and since we did not take prudent steps when it would have been relatively simple to prevail, usually end up fighting on our enemies’ more difficult and costly terms.”
Or to paraphrase Leon Trotsky, you may not be interested in war but war is interested in you.
Donald Trump’s national security advisor is much more eager to fight a huge war than George W. Bush or Barack Obama. If you voted for Trump because you want less war instead of more, you’re probably out of luck.