Is Michael Flynn Donald Trump's Machiavelli?
President-elect Trump has not yet chosen a Secretary of State, but his most important foreign policy advisor has already been named. The national security advisor is the primary aide to the president for international affairs, the first and last one in the room for all major decisions. It will be General Michael Flynn’s job to coordinate the entire foreign policy process, and present the president with coherent choices and options. He will be closer to President Trump, both physically and psychologically, than any of the cabinet members. And since the President-elect will be taking office without much knowledge of, or experience in, foreign affairs, this national security advisor will be even more important than usual.
Which Flynn will advise the new president, the widely praised intelligence officer who helped craft the surge in Iraq, or the partisan firebrand who emerged after he was fired? We do not know what kind of national security advisor Flynn will be, even from a process perspective. Perhaps he will see himself as an advocate for his preferred policies, following the model of Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski; perhaps instead he will play the more neutral “honest broker” role preferred by most who study the foreign policy process. It is possible to speculate in either direction. On the one hand, he does not appear to be a man bereft of deep convictions, or shy about expressing them. On the other hand, he is a career intelligence officer, a man trained to offer analysis and opinion but not be part of the formal policymaking process.
Not much is known about the policymaking style of the General, but his ideological beliefs are quite clear. His recent book, The Field of Fight, which gives as good a window into his thinking and core beliefs, has the potential to be one of the most significant books to come out in quite some time.
It is worth noting up front that Flynn did not write the book alone. His co-author is Michael Ledeen, currently the Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a well-known voice in security circles. Those familiar with Ledeen’s background would immediately recognize his handiwork in The Field of Fight, including the general description of the crisis facing the United States, the familiar stable of fringe scholars and analysts, and the fondness for the exclamation point. The book adheres to Ledeen’s oft-expressed worldview so closely that one might be forgiven for wondering whether Gen. Flynn had much to do with it at all. Nonetheless, the book with the General’s name on it is the best guide to his core beliefs, and therefore to the kind of advice we might expect him to give to the new president.
Beliefs motivate behavior. While situations change and crises come and go, beliefs tend to remain unchanged. The key to anticipating how any individual will interpret and respond to a future contingency lies in understanding his or her central, unchanging, motivating beliefs. Four central beliefs dominate the pages of The Field of Fight.
A large, anti-democratic alliance is waging war against the United States.
If there is a theme to the book, it is that enmity toward the United States has drawn together a vast, disparate set of malevolent actors into an anti-Western alliance. The world’s various authoritarian regimes often find common cause with one another and with the radical Islamists who threaten the American way of life. Al Qaeda, ISIS and their fundamentalist partners are actively supported by Russia, Iran, China, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, Syria and a host of others. While these countries may differ over details at times, their shared hatred of freedom unites them against the West. Like it or not, according to Flynn and Ledeen, the United States will be waging a war against this alliance – and they call it an alliance – for generations to come.
Those unfamiliar with this idea might be surprised at the suggestion that so many actors would be able to overcome their own differences to work together against democracy. Flynn and Ledeen assure us that the tactical disagreements between, say, ISIS and Russia, are not as important as their overall strategic goal of destroying the United States. Their book is an attempt to wake up America to the existential danger posed by this alliance, the existence of which is unknown to all but a select few.
Very few, actually. It is hard to find many people in our foreign policy establishment who endorse such a Manichaean vision of the world, one where evil is united in its efforts to undermine good. Flynn and Ledeen display clear signs of what psychologist Milton Rokeach once called a “closed belief system,” in which nuance among rivals fades under the assumption that hatred for us drives them together. Our ego-centrism makes us assume that we are the primary motivation for the actions of others. During the Cold War, analysts with closed belief systems failed to see divisions inside the Iron Curtain, even during those times when the Chinese and Soviets engaged in open warfare. Today, apparently, the belief that our enemies are united lives on, despite rather substantial evidence of internal divisions in the rival camp.