After Michael Flynn, Time to Forge Ahead
Trump's first national security advisor had challenges to overcome from the start.
The post of national security adviser is a creation of the Cold War era. Unlike the secretary of state, a national security adviser is supposed to serve as an honest broker for the president. Brent Scowcroft is often cited as someone who performed superbly. Henry Kissinger even combined the positions of national security adviser and secretary of state for a period, during the second term of the Nixon administration, before President Gerald Ford told him to relinquish the former. But the post has also had a rather rocky history of fast burnout. Richard Allen departed early in the Reagan administration. Clinton administration NSC adviser Anthony Lake is widely seen as a failure. Gen. James Jones cratered during the Obama administration.
Now comes Michael Flynn, who resigned last night. It was more a question of when, not if, he would resign. What did Flynn in wasn’t his calls to Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. It was that he lied about them to Vice President Mike Pence and other officials. The notion that he “inadvertently,” as he self-exculpatorily put it, forgot about discussing such a key issue as sanctions strains credulity.
No, Flynn isn’t going to be prosecuted for violating the 1799 Logan Act, a recondite law that is now suddenly on the lips of every au courant Washingtonian. Plenty of American citizens have gone quite far in negotiating with foreign governments. And whether Flynn was really vulnerable to blackmail from Moscow, as Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who was fired by Trump for her refusal to enforce his travel ban, claimed, may be wondered. But senators such as Marco Rubio and John McCain, not to mention congressional Democrats, are gearing up to probe further: in a statement on Tuesday, McCain accused Trump of “moral equivalence” toward Russia and said that Flynn’s resignation raises “further questions” about the administration’s Russia policy. Given Flynn’s ardor to fight what he rather hyperbolically depicted as a global Islamic conspiracy in his goofy tract, cowritten with Michael Ledeen, called Field of Fight, however, he seems genuinely to have wanted to work with Moscow in the hopes of constructing a grand anti-Muslim alliance—one that would have included war with Iran.
Whatever Flynn’s grandiose dreams, they were quickly punctured by his own ineptitude. His fibbing is consistent with his reputation as a lousy manager at the Defense Intelligence Agency. If he had fessed up from the start, he probably wouldn’t be in this mess. But it’s also abundantly clear that the NSC itself was functioning poorly under Flynn’s aegis. The shoddy execution of the travel ban, the reports that Stephen Miller chaired a meeting of deputy principals, the loose security at Mar-a-Lago—add it all up and you have a recipe for disaster. Indeed, apart from the brouhaha over his Russia ties, Flynn had a checkered record. The intelligence agencies did not trust him and were clearly out to get him. Flynn’s role as a crowd-pleaser, bellowing for Hillary Clinton to be locked up, during Trump’s rallies, also did not particularly endear him to Democrats. It was no accident that Nancy Pelosi called upon Trump to sack him yesterday.
Now Flynn’s foes have their scalp. Does the fact that Flynn has effectively been sacked weaken Trump? Only to the extent that he fails to reboot. He needs a strong NSC adviser who can work with Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, while ensuring that the two Steves, Miller and Bannon, don’t hijack the process. Trump would be wise not to appoint someone immediately but conduct a serious search. Serious contenders should include everyone from Zalmay Khalilzad, a member of the advisory board of the National Interest, and former ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan and the United Nations, to former senator Dan Coats.
Those who are writing off any kind of reset with Russia should think again. Many of Trump’s opponents’ expectations that he would arrange some kind of grand bargain with the Kremlin were likely overblown. The fact is that the chances for some kind of incipient warming of relations with Moscow may actually be improved by Flynn’s departure. Flynn would never have had the credibility to bring about any kind of improvement in relations that wouldn’t have been suspect from the outset. The only way that the administration can proceed in a serious fashion is to move incrementally. Any deal signed off on by Mattis, Tillerson, and a powerful and respected NSC adviser is going to carry a lot more clout than the likes of Flynn could ever have wielded. But for Trump to reach that point, he will have to dispel the suspicions surrounding his approach to Russia by outlining where he intends to head and how. For now, Trump has simply created a miasma of suspicion that is crippling his foreign policy and emboldening his detractors.
In the end, Flynn may have done Trump an inadvertent, to use Flynn’s new favorite word, favor. The problem isn’t that Flynn resigned. It’s that he was appointed in the first place. Trump is now rid of a serial bungler. Maybe this time, as he searches for a new adviser, Trump can get it right.
Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of the National Interest.
Image: National Security Advisor Michael Flynn at MacDill Air Force Base. Flickr/Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff