Paul Pillar

Ideology is Supplanting Intelligence

With Donald Trump’s earliest appointments to senior national security positions, some of the disturbing implications for the making of foreign policy of his own lack of qualifications for office are beginning to appear.  A president-elect whose outrage-filled campaign alienated many serious thinkers in both parties has made personal support even more of a paramount consideration in the appointment process than it usually is, and even more than Trump’s own inclinations would have made it in the first place.  Not only does the priority given to insight and objectivity thereby lessen; the president-elect’s own thinness of understanding of the national security issues involved makes it hard for him to perceive the lack of insight and objectivity of potential appointees.  Some people are thus attaining positions of power and influence not because of perspicacity and temperament that would make them suited for the jobs they are given but instead because they were not sufficiently outraged during the campaign to exile themselves from Trumpland.

Once in office, the same thinness of understanding at the top will leave the new president ill-equipped to question, to critically appraise, and to push back against whatever hobby horses his non-objective appointees bring with them.  A president who doesn’t read books and gets what he thinks he needs to know from “the shows” will be a poor corrective to the less constructive tendencies of ideologues below him.  Ideology will bounce around inside a small echo chamber without other correctives from the outside.

The prime exhibit so far in this unfortunate pattern is the appointment of Michael Flynn to the important post of national security adviser.  Flynn is an unapologetic Islamophobe whose views on this dimension, which fit with much of Trump’s campaign rhetoric, undoubtedly were a large part of what won him the job.  His pronouncements on the subject exhibit far more fervor than fact. (His fantastic assertions became so familiar to subordinates at the Defense Intelligence Agency that they acquired the name “Flynn facts”.)  Flynn has called Islam a “cancer” and has tweeted that “fear of Muslims is RATIONAL [the fervor, and all caps, in original]”.  He has repeatedly shared and endorsed fake news and output of the fringe alt-right.  His own Islamophobic and patently false assertions have included that shariah, or Islamic law, is spreading in the United States.

Iran is another subject on which Flynn displays far more simplistically expressed emotion than any careful attention to facts and the pros and cons of U.S. policy options.  His attitude is demonstrated in Congressional testimony in June 2015, which can be fairly summarized as saying that Iran is bad in every respect and we should have no dealings with it on anything.  (Jim Lobe has collated some of the lowlights from this statement).  Flynn stated that “regime change in Tehran is the best way to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program”—with no further elaboration on how this would be brought about, leaving us to suppose that it is the Iraq 2003 model.  He has given no indication since then of dropping his blanket opposition to the negotiated agreement that limits Iran’s nuclear program and has successfully been in operation for more than a year, nor does he show any awareness of the U.S. intelligence community’s public judgment that Iran had stopped any nuclear weapons program several years before he was testifying.

Typical of the rest of Flynn’s excoriation of Iran is his statement that Iran deserves special blame for “the severe insecurity and instability of the region”, naming Gaza as a place where it has been responsible for such insecurity.  He evidently was confused about which regional country whose name starts with the letter “I” has repeatedly used military force to devastate Gaza, resulting in much human suffering.  He also seemed oblivious to such facts as that at the time of his testimony, Iran and Hamas had been estranged for some three years because of differences over the conflict in Syria.

It is bad enough that Flynn has such ill-informed views of matters that involve important issues of U.S. foreign policy.  He also is ill-suited by temperament for the job of national security adviser—or to use its more accurate and formal title, assistant to the president for national security affairs.  Although a source of individual advice, the most important function of this position is to ensure that a careful, complete, and orderly policy process precedes important decisions by the president, in which the president is presented objectively with the available options and considerations bearing on them.  This is not the cloth from which Flynn is cut.  He is a hothead as well as an ideologue, as illustrated not only by his pronouncements about Islam but his encouraging chants of "lock her up" at the Republican convention.