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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.
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
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.
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Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and a 2019-2020 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow. He is the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden.