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.
The closed belief systems of Flynn and Ledeen lead them to search through the historical record for evidence that can link the ideologies of the alliance members. They find such a source in the late Laurent Murawiec, from whose “masterpiece” The Mind of Jihad they quote extensively. Murawiec traced the intellectual origins of radical Islamism back to both the Bolsheviks and the Nazis, uniting all the major evil movements of the twentieth century in one neat package. It would perhaps have been worth noting that Murawiec was a longtime associate of Lyndon LaRouche who existed on the conspiratorial periphery of the neoconservative movement, and is taken seriously by precious few. Among those few, however, is our future national security advisor.
Iran is at the center of that alliance.
Not only is evil always united, it also generally has an epicenter. For Flynn and Ledeen, Iran has become to the twenty-first century what the Soviet Union was for the second half of the twentieth: the origin and supporter of the world’s problems, from terrorism to radicalism to proliferation. The “road to victory” in the war on terror, therefore, goes through Tehran. Flynn and Ledeen spend much of the book cherry-picking events from history to argue that differences between Iran and the other members of the alliance are more apparent than real. Even ISIS, whose members are Sunni radicals, finds common cause with Tehran when it comes to the broader war against the United States.
“There seems to be a curious American tendency,” observed George Kennan toward the end of his life, “to search, at all times, for a single external center of evil, to which all our troubles can be attributed, rather than to recognize that there might be multiple sources of resistance to our purposes and undertakings, and that these sources might be relatively independent of each other.” Both Ledeen and Flynn appear to be paragons of this curious tendency, and place that external center of evil squarely over Tehran.
The regime in Tehran is fundamentally fragile.
Although regime change in Iran is the central goal of the global war on terror, Flynn and Ledeen do not advocate military action. Instead they believe that the task can be accomplished politically, by lending support to the internal Iranian opposition. The Soviet Union was brought down internally, after all, so why not Iran?
How exactly the United States could trigger the collapse of the Iranian regime without sparking a war is left to the imagination of the reader. Flynn and Ledeen are uninterested in details. Instead we are told that it would take only determination and courage to motivate the Iranian people to send the Mullahs into oblivion, without having to fire a shot. Failure to enable 2009’s “Green Revolution” is, by their estimation, one of President Obama’s many unforgivable decisions.
Flynn and Ledeen make the paradoxical assertion that our central enemy is simultaneously terrifyingly powerful and essentially fragile. The diabolical madmen in Tehran are able to orchestrate a worldwide conspiracy that threatens the very existence of the United States, but with a minimal amount of effort on our part they could be easily overthrown. It is commonplace for analysts of international politics to doubt the basic legitimacy, and therefore the stability, of enemy regimes. Actors assume that the people’s hatred of their governments is stronger than their feelings of nationalism, which means that they would welcome help in dispatching their oppressors. The same logic led Dick Cheney to assume that we would be greeted as liberators in Baghdad not too long ago, and for people to continue to believe in an impending implosion of governance in Pyongyang. The enemy regime is always a house of cards on the verge of collapse, which makes it vulnerable to our pressure – but also insecure, desperate and even more dangerous.
The United States is in real danger of losing the war on terror.
Over and over throughout the book, Flynn and Ledeen warn that the United States is losing the war against the evil alliance. “I’m totally convinced,” they summarize, “that without a proper sense of urgency, we will be eventually defeated, dominated, and very likely destroyed.” They devote a big chunk of the concluding chapter to a description of what exactly life would be like under the caliphate. And it is grim indeed.
How exactly the United States could possibly “lose” in any real way is another little detail left, shall we say, under-explained. Flynn and Ledeen apparently believe that not only is the Iranian regime a house of cards ready to tumble at the slightest push, but so is the United States. Somehow we are one step away from an uncontrollable descent into Sharia and totalitarian despotism. Without decisive action, we are doomed to lose the war against the enemy alliance, fated to “be ruled by men who eagerly drink the blood of their dying enemies.” The book shies away from understatement.
Overall, General Flynn’s beliefs certainly appear to place him on the fringe of the foreign policy community. Realists can hope that he comes to realize that the most important role of the national security advisor is to run the process in a neutral fashion, to present the president with clear options for making decisions. If he sees his role otherwise, as a Machiavelli advising President Trump to enact policies that fit his worldview, then the United States – and the world – may well be in for a long, violent period in the years ahead.
Christopher J. Fettweis is Associate Professor of Political Science at Tulane University in New Orleans. His most recent book is Making Foreign Policy Decisions.
Image: Army Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn speaks during the change of directorship for the Defense Intelligence Agency on Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling/United States Department of Defense