The Incoherent Worldview and Virulent Islamophobia of Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor

At times, Gen. Michael Flynn has expressed empathy for those who join terrorist groups—but increasingly, he has substituted nuance for rank bigotry.

Branko Marcetic November 29, 2016

Michael Flynn at a campaign rally for Donald Trump a month before the election. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

For the bet­ter part of a year, Don­ald Trump has been advised by Michael Fly­nn, a reg­is­tered Demo­c­rat and retired gen­er­al who has held var­i­ous posts in the Bush and Oba­ma administrations.

Flynn’s colleagues used to talk about “Flynn facts,” alluding to his tenuous relationship with the truth.

Two weeks ago, Fly­nn was reward­ed for his loy­al­ty with a top posi­tion in the Trump admin­is­tra­tion-to-be, as Trump’s nation­al secu­ri­ty advi­sor. This posi­tion gives him a voice in the president’s ear and a seat on the some­what amor­phous Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil (NSC). While the NSC was orig­i­nal­ly estab­lished in 1947 to sim­ply advise the pres­i­dent on nation­al secu­ri­ty, in the decades since its pow­er and respon­si­bil­i­ties have grown to coor­di­nat­ing the government’s respons­es to a vari­ety of urgent threats and crises, from pan­demics to ter­ror­ist attacks.

Flynn’s appoint­ment has already caused much jus­ti­fi­able alarm, giv­en his pub­lic per­sona as an unsta­ble Islam­o­phobe ped­dling con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries and fear­mon­ger­ing about the threat of Islam­ic extrem­ists. A clos­er look at Flynn’s his­to­ry reveals a slight­ly more com­plex — though no less con­cern­ing — pic­ture of the man who has shaped and will con­tin­ue to shape Trump’s for­eign policy.

Before Fly­nn was the vir­u­lent anti-Islam cam­paign­er he is today, he was an ardent crit­ic of the Oba­ma administration’s mil­i­tary-based solu­tions to the spread of extrem­ism — and before that, he was the archi­tect of the president’s per­son­al para­mil­i­tary squad. The ques­tion for any­one wor­ried about a future Trump for­eign pol­i­cy is, which Fly­nn will the world be get­ting when he steps into the White House come January?

Flynn’s tur­bu­lent career
After grad­u­at­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Rhode Island in 1981, Fly­nn joined the Army, tak­ing part in the Unit­ed States’ 1983 inva­sion of Grena­da and its 1994 inter­ven­tion in Haiti. Ris­ing through the ranks, he was even­tu­al­ly brought on as the direc­tor of intel­li­gence for Joint Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Com­mand (JSOC) in 2004, ini­tial­ly to help clean up and pro­fes­sion­al­ize inter­ro­ga­tions at the noto­ri­ous Abu Ghraib prisons.
At JSOC, Fly­nn served under Gen. Stan­ley McChrys­tal, who presided over the trans­for­ma­tion of JSOC from an orga­ni­za­tion that didn’t do much fight­ing into an elite para­mil­i­tary force that com­bined the trap­pings of an intel­li­gence agency with that of a coun­tert­er­ror­ism unit, able to gath­er, ana­lyze and act on intel­li­gence all at once. This revi­tal­ized JSOC has car­ried out assas­si­na­tions and kid­nap­pings in numer­ous coun­tries around the world, most famous­ly the killing of Osama bin Laden (though that was years after both Fly­nn and McChrys­tal had left the department).
JSOC act­ed like the president’s pri­vate army,” as Marc Ambinder, who wrote a book about the unit, told Wired in 2012. One anony­mous spe­cial oper­a­tions source explained to jour­nal­ist Jere­my Scahill the mind­set that drove this policy:
The world is a bat­tle­field and we are at war. There­fore the mil­i­tary can go wher­ev­er they please and do what­ev­er it is that they want to do, in order to achieve the nation­al secu­ri­ty objec­tives of whichev­er admin­is­tra­tion hap­pens to be in power.

Fly­nn left JSOC in 2007 and soon fol­lowed McChrys­tal to Afghanistan, where he stayed on after McChrys­tal was fired when he and his aides bad­mouthed their supe­ri­ors in a 2010 Rolling Stone pro­file. In 2012, Fly­nn was named the direc­tor of the Defense Intel­li­gence Agency, which pro­duces and man­ages for­eign mil­i­tary intel­li­gence for the Depart­ment of Defense. He would last two years before being forced out early.

If you take Flynn’s word for it, he was fired due to what might be termed polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, by a top brass uncom­fort­able with the stand I took on rad­i­cal Islamism” and who refused to see the glob­al war” the Unit­ed States need­ed to fight. This cer­tain­ly fits in with the nar­ra­tive Fly­nn has been advanc­ing over the last year, claim­ing that U.S. lead­ers were los­ing the glob­al war on ter­ror” because they refused to prop­er­ly define the ene­my as rad­i­cal Islam.”

Oth­er reports of Flynn’s res­ig­na­tion also sug­gest he clashed with supe­ri­ors — just not over his views on rad­i­cal Islam.” Rather, these reports sug­gest offi­cials were unhap­py with Flynn’s aggres­sive attempt to fold the DIA’s intel­li­gence role into an oper­a­tional one, sup­port­ing ground forces — much as he had at JSOC — as well as retool­ing the agency to focus on new threats like cyber warfare.

Regard­less of the exact rea­son, Flynn’s fir­ing in 2014 rep­re­sents a kind of tran­si­tion point in his evo­lu­tion into the alt-right” and increas­ing­ly Islam­o­pho­bic crank he appears to be today. It’s a pecu­liar evo­lu­tion, giv­en that some of Flynn’s ear­li­er posi­tions took a much more nuanced view of the caus­es of, and solu­tions to, terrorism.

An icon­o­clast in the intel­li­gence community

It’s impor­tant to note that even before his fir­ing, Fly­nn was nei­ther a dove nor a friend to civ­il lib­er­ties. After all, as men­tioned above, he helped trans­form JSOC into a para­mil­i­tary hit squad. He was a fierce crit­ic of Edward Snowden’s whistle­blow­ing and a firm pro­po­nent of sur­veil­lance, and believed the Unit­ed States need­ed to up its already con­sid­er­able offen­sive cyber­war­fare capabilities.

Yet Fly­nn also held some icon­o­clas­tic views. Pri­or to his tenure at the DIA, Fly­nn ruf­fled feath­ers by co-author­ing a paper in 2010 for the think tank Cen­ter for a New Amer­i­can Secu­ri­ty, titled Fix­ing Intel: A Blue­print for Mak­ing Intel­li­gence Rel­e­vant in Afghanistan.” As he lat­er made clear, the paper was a blue­print for not just Afghanistan, but every coun­try in which the Unit­ed States was try­ing to stamp out an insurgency. 

The paper was a blis­ter­ing cri­tique of U.S. forces, who were igno­rant of local eco­nom­ics and landown­ers … and dis­en­gaged from peo­ple in the best posi­tion to find answers.” It crit­i­cized the ten­den­cy to overem­pha­size detailed infor­ma­tion about the ene­my at the expense of the polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic and cul­tur­al envi­ron­ment that sup­ports it.” It advo­cat­ed a reori­en­ta­tion from a focus on the ene­my to focus on the peo­ple of Afghanistan,” and to pair tra­di­tion­al coun­tert­er­ror­ism activ­i­ties with a strat­e­gy to acquire and pro­vide knowl­edge about the pop­u­la­tion, the econ­o­my, the gov­ern­ment and oth­er aspects of the dynam­ic envi­ron­ment we are try­ing to shape.” “[M]erely killing insur­gents,” the paper cau­tioned, usu­al­ly serves to mul­ti­ply ene­mies rather than to sub­tract them.”

Fly­nn reit­er­at­ed this idea at the 2014 Aspen Secu­ri­ty Forum, where he dis­cussed the spread of ter­ror­ist groups. Not­ing the pop­u­la­tion demo­graph­ics of Africa, the Mid­dle East and Cen­tral Asia, where large sec­tions of the pop­u­la­tion were aged between 15 and 30, he warned that if they don’t have insti­tu­tions in their coun­tries, if they don’t have jobs, if they don’t have oth­er things to do, then they’re going to turn to oth­er stuff.”

It is about the under­ly­ing social con­di­tions that exist,” he said.

Even into late 2014, Fly­nn was advanc­ing sim­i­lar argu­ments. In Octo­ber of that year, he tweet­ed out that War alone will not defeat Islamists.” That Decem­ber, he approv­ing­ly tweet­ed out what he called an inter­est­ing per­spec­tive” from The Hill that argued the glob­al war on ter­ror­ism isn’t work­ing,” crit­i­cized fur­ther mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion, called for an end to the hyp­ing up of ter­ror threats to Amer­i­cans and put for­ward a vari­ety of non-mil­i­tary solu­tions, includ­ing human­i­tar­i­an assis­tance. They were all posi­tions that would soon become anath­e­ma to Flynn’s worldview.

Yet by that time, Fly­nn had also become increas­ing­ly errat­ic, as per­son­al emails from for­mer four-star gen­er­al and Bush Sec­re­tary of State Col­in Pow­ell make clear. In an email to his son this sum­mer explain­ing why Fly­nn had been fired, Pow­ell wrote, Abu­sive with staff, didn’t lis­ten, worked against pol­i­cy, bad man­age­ment, etc. He has been and was right-wing nut­ty every [sic] since.” Accord­ing to the New York Times, Flynn’s col­leagues used to talk about Fly­nn facts,” allud­ing to his ten­u­ous rela­tion­ship with the truth.

This lines up more close­ly with the Michael Fly­nn that the pub­lic has got­ten to know over the last few months: the hard­line, Islam­o­pho­bic, Trump-esque Fly­nn that has been dom­i­nat­ing the air­waves and head­lines, par­tic­u­lar­ly since being tapped by Trump for the nation­al secu­ri­ty advi­sor position.

This is the Fly­nn who chant­ed Lock her up!” at the Repub­li­can Nation­al Con­ven­tion, where he also told the crowd that the Unit­ed States was found­ed on Judeo-Chris­t­ian val­ues” and that empa­thy towards ter­ror­ists is not a strat­e­gy for defeat­ing these mur­der­ers.” The Fly­nn who casu­al­ly writes about the supe­ri­or­i­ty of the West,” and believes that North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran and var­i­ous ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions form a glob­al alliance that is wag­ing war against the Unit­ed States. The Fly­nn who reg­u­lar­ly cites fake news and con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries and called vile Bre­it­bart troll Milo Yiannopou­los a phe­nom­e­nal indi­vid­ual”; who said that under cer­tain cir­cum­stances, he might sup­port Trump’s stat­ed pol­i­cy of killing the fam­i­lies of ter­ror­ists; who believes we should be cap­tur­ing, not releas­ing, more GIT­MO pris­on­ers”; who co-wrote an entire book with neo­con Michael Ledeen argu­ing the West is los­ing a glob­al war and rag­ing against the polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness” that for­bids us to denounce rad­i­cal­ized Islamists.”

Flynn’s Islam­o­pho­bia has gone into over­drive over the last year, as even a cur­so­ry tour through his Twit­ter account makes clear. There was his now-infa­mous tweet in Feb­ru­ary that Fear of Mus­lims is RATIO­NAL,” link­ing to a video that argues Mus­lims who live in West­ern coun­tries want to trans­form them into Mid­dle East­ern-style autoc­ra­cies. In July, he retweet­ed a pic­ture of Hillary Clin­ton wear­ing a hijab, claim­ing it was show­ing dis­re­spect for Amer­i­can Val­ues and Prin­ci­ples.” The same day, he chal­lenged Arab & Per­sian world lead­ers’ to step up to the plate and declare their Islam­ic ide­ol­o­gy sick.”

Fly­nn also works on a day-to-day basis” with ACT for Amer­i­ca — the largest grass­roots anti-Mus­lim group in Amer­i­ca” accord­ing to the South­ern Pover­ty Law Cen­ter — serv­ing in an advi­so­ry role to the organization’s board of direc­tors. This August, at a Dal­las event held by ACT for Amer­i­ca, Fly­nn repeat­ed this point. Islam is a polit­i­cal ide­ol­o­gy,” he said. It def­i­nite­ly hides behind being a religion.”

A mud­dled worldview

Even as Fly­nn has tran­si­tioned into an Islam­o­pho­bic car­i­ca­ture, he may have held onto some of his pri­or, less bel­li­cose views.

In April 2015, Fly­nn told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that there has to be an eco­nom­ic trans­for­ma­tion beyond just build­ing some more schools” in coun­tries where ter­ror­ism thrives, and sug­gest­ed that a 21st cen­tu­ry Mar­shall Plan has to be seri­ous­ly con­sid­ered.” Around the same time, he tweet­ed: Alter­na­tives exist, war is not it. A Mar­shall Plan for the Mid­dle East is pos­si­ble,” and that Drop­ping bombs won’t work. We need a wider Mid­dle East strategy.”

Yet mere months before, he appeared to dis­miss such beliefs, seem­ing­ly endors­ing an arti­cle that dis­missed pover­ty as a root cause of ter­ror­ism in favor of reli­gion. The arti­cle argued that to ignore reli­gion was some com­bi­na­tion of wish­ful think­ing, PC gone crazy.”

In Octo­ber 2015, speak­ing to The Inter­cept, Fly­nn dis­par­aged the U.S. government’s drone pol­i­cy, com­plain­ing that our entire Mid­dle East pol­i­cy seems to be based on fir­ing drones.” Refer­ring to the White House’s cel­e­bra­tion over killing indi­vid­ual ter­ror­ists via drone strikes, he said: It doesn’t mat­ter. It just made them a martyr.”

In Jan­u­ary 2016, Fly­nn com­plained that we invest in more drones, we invest in more bombs, we invest in more weapons” rather than real­ly tak­ing a seri­ous look and say … what are the big excus­es these guys are using?’ And if it’s lack of, you know, if it’s poor eco­nom­ic con­di­tions, if it’s poor social con­di­tions, then let’s fix those.” And in April, he wrote an op-ed for Fox News show­ing some empa­thy for ISIS rank-and-file:

ISIS effec­tive­ly appeals to the deep resent­ment many young Mus­lim men in par­tic­u­lar feel about being trapped in soci­eties where they have few prospects for upward advance­ment, or hope of achiev­ing their dreams. Many ISIS for­eign fight­ers are first- or sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion immi­grants or trou­bled con­verts who feel an acute sense of alien­ation, and they long to belong to a cause greater than themselves.

Of course, his solu­tions to this war of ideas” still involve force of arms” and over­whelm­ing infor­ma­tion oper­a­tions,” but it is a nuance you’ll rarely find on his Twit­ter feed.

When chal­lenged a few months after this that his sup­port of Trump con­tra­dict­ed those views, Fly­nn sim­ply avoid­ed answer­ing the question.

It’s pos­si­ble to rec­on­cile Flynn’s insis­tence that mil­i­tary solu­tions aren’t a suf­fi­cient solu­tion to ter­ror­ism with his oft-stat­ed belief that reli­gion is at its root. The expla­na­tion could lie in his fre­quent com­par­i­son of the bat­tle against rad­i­cal Islam” to old­er bat­tles against Nazism and com­mu­nism. I think the most impor­tant thing is, attack this ide­ol­o­gy, just like we attacked com­mu­nism, just like we attacked Nazism,” he told the Fox and Friends crew. As he tweet­ed in June 2016: We did­n’t defeat Ger­mans and Rus­sians, we defeat­ed nazi­ism & com­mu­nism, defin­ing 1’s ene­my shapes an effec­tive strat­e­gy 2 win. We need 1!”

This should strike alarm bells. After all, in the bat­tles against both fas­cism and com­mu­nism, the Unit­ed States has in the past brought the full force of the state against indi­vid­u­als who held what were viewed as threat­en­ing beliefs. Flynn’s state­ments sug­gest that a Trump admin­is­tra­tion could revive attempts to crim­i­nal­ize or per­se­cute those who devi­at­ed from the norm on the basis of nation­al secu­ri­ty — law-abid­ing Mus­lims, in this case, rather than Left­ists or sup­port­ers of fas­cist move­ments, as in the past.

Indeed, Fly­nn has said there must be a ban for indi­vid­u­als who espouse this notion of rad­i­cal Islamism, peri­od.” He’s also praised West Point cadets who went under­cov­er and infil­trat­ed extrem­ist web­sites and forums to steer dis­af­fect­ed youth toward non-extrem­ist Mus­lim voic­es, say­ing, more ini­tia­tives like this 1 will b need­ed 2 fight this ene­my.” While the lat­ter is rel­a­tive­ly benign, it’s not hard to see it as a taster of more extreme infil­tra­tion mea­sures to come.

Hard­er to rec­on­cile are Flynn’s beliefs about the caus­es of ter­ror­ism. Does Fly­nn believe Islam is to blame, as he has stressed ever more urgent­ly over the last year? Or does he still think it’s eco­nom­ic and social alien­ation at the root? The lat­ter would neces­si­tate laud­able poli­cies like a 21st cen­tu­ry Mar­shall Plan” for impov­er­ished nations, while the for­mer could fea­si­bly lead to increased sur­veil­lance, a Mus­lim reg­istry and a host of oth­er fright­en­ing poli­cies put for­ward by the Right.

This is not even to touch on Flynn’s myr­i­ad con­flicts of inter­est. For years, Fly­nn ran a con­sult­ing firm called Fly­nn Intel Group, and was receiv­ing clas­si­fied brief­in­gs as Trump’s for­eign pol­i­cy advi­sor dur­ing the cam­paign at the same time his com­pa­ny was lob­by­ing the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment on behalf of for­eign clients. One of his clients was a front orga­ni­za­tion for a com­pa­ny whose own­er has close ties to Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Recep Tayyip Erdo­gan. As jour­nal­ist Ken Sil­ver­stein has point­ed out, ear­li­er this year, Fly­nn wrote an op-ed for The Hill titled Our ally Turkey is in cri­sis and needs our sup­port,” call­ing for, among oth­er things, Erdogan’s anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic crack­down to be put into per­spec­tive.” It is dif­fi­cult to square Flynn’s Islam­o­pho­bia with his rev­er­ence for the Erdo­gan admin­is­tra­tion, giv­en its sup­port among con­ser­v­a­tive, reli­gious Turks and the fact that it has led to the steady ero­sion of sec­u­lar gov­ern­ment in Turkey.

Which Fly­nn is the world getting?

The big ques­tion is what this all means. Are Flynn’s fre­quent­ly con­tra­dic­to­ry, often errat­ic diag­noses and pol­i­cy pre­scrip­tions sim­ply run-of-the-mill ide­o­log­i­cal inco­her­ence? Does Fly­nn gen­uine­ly believe all, or any, of what he’s say­ing? Has he cyn­i­cal­ly adopt­ed a range of pol­i­cy pre­scrip­tions and beliefs in a Trump-like attempt to appear all things to all people?

The best-case sce­nario — that Flynn’s more hard-line and big­ot­ed beliefs were adopt­ed as some kind of polit­i­cal gam­bit — is hard­ly a com­fort, not to men­tion high­ly unlike­ly. A brief look through Flynn’s Twit­ter account and pub­lic state­ments over the last six months, not to men­tion the pri­vate words of fig­ures like Col­in Pow­ell, sug­gests that his Islam­o­pho­bia and insta­bil­i­ty are core beliefs, and grow­ing more­so. It appears that the more retweets and likes Fly­nn has racked up, the more he has fall­en under the sway of his ugli­est intel­lec­tu­al tendencies.

It could be, how­ev­er, that despite this, Fly­nn still sub­scribes to the idea that mil­i­tary force alone is a self-defeat­ing coun­tert­er­ror­ism tool and that an eco­nom­ic trans­for­ma­tion” facil­i­tat­ed by the West is a nec­es­sary solu­tion to the alien­ation and hope­less­ness that helps breed ter­ror­ism. That will remain to be seen.
In the mean­time, giv­en Flynn’s his­to­ry, Trump’s nat­ur­al pro­cliv­i­ties and the oth­er fig­ures sure to play a role in the new Trump admin­is­tra­tion, there’s much more rea­son to be wor­ried about Flynn’s role advis­ing Trump than not. The Left should get ready to fight back, as it did under Bush, against every illib­er­al pol­i­cy he push­es for, from increased sur­veil­lance to extra­ju­di­cial assassinations.
Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin mag­a­zine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing fel­low. He is work­ing on a forth­com­ing book about Joe Biden.
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