Daniel Larison

Flynn’s Warped Worldview and Iran

A new article on Michael Flynn’s tenure as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency contains some worrisome details. This may be the most disturbing:

During a tense gathering of senior officials at an off-site retreat, he gave the assembled group a taste of his leadership philosophy, according to one person who attended the meeting and insisted on anonymity to discuss classified matters. Mr. Flynn said that the first thing everyone needed to know was that he was always right. His staff would know they were right, he said, when their views melded to his [bold mine-DL]. The room fell silent, as employees processed the lecture from their new boss.

Micah Zenko commented on this excerpt:

This would be a bad trait for anyone in a leadership position, since it implies both supreme arrogance and an unwillingness to admit error, but in someone tasked with running an intelligence agency it is even worse. If Flynn assumes he is always right and expects everyone else to conform to his views, he isn’t going to have much success managing the National Security Council or handling disagreements among its members. More important, it seems likely that his analysis of threats will be driven by his ideological assumptions that will cause him to dismiss contrary evidence. Consider the anecdote about his reaction to the 2012 Benghazi attack:

Mr. Flynn saw the Benghazi attack in September 2012 as just one skirmish in this global war. But it was his initial reaction to the event, immediately seeking evidence of an Iranian role, that many saw as emblematic of a conspiratorial bent. Iran, a Shiite nation, has generally eschewed any alliance with Sunni militants like the ones who attacked the American diplomatic compound.

For weeks, he pushed analysts for evidence that the attack might have had a state sponsor — sometimes shouting at them when they didn’t come to the conclusions he wanted. The attack, he told his analysts, was a “black swan” event that required more creative intelligence analysis to decipher.

“To ask employees to look for the .0001 percent chance of something when you have an actual emergency and dead Americans is beyond the pale,” said Joshua Manning, an agency analyst from 2009 to 2013.

This shows how much of a distorting effect Flynn’s preoccupation with Iran has had on his thinking and his ability to analyze threats. As we have seen in the book he co-wrote with Ledeen, that preoccupation is as strong as ever. Flynn’s apparent certainty that he is always right is married to the warped worldview that I have described several times before. His partnership with Ledeen seems to have been one born of genuine agreement:

The two men connected immediately, sharing a similar worldview and a belief that America was in a world war against Islamist militants allied with Russia, Cuba and North Korea. That worldview is what Mr. Flynn came to be best known for during the presidential campaign, when he argued that the United States faced a singular, overarching threat, and that there was just one accurate way to describe it: “radical Islamic terrorism.”

All of this suggests that Flynn will give Trump very bad advice informed by a warped view of foreign threats, and he probably won’t want to entertain contrary views and evidence. That seems to promise a dysfunctional policy process distorted by ideological obsessions. That is going to deliver bad and misleading information to the president, who will more than likely defer to what his top adviser recommends.

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Trump and U.S.-China Relations

Doug Bandow chides Trump over the Taiwan call:

In contrast, the Trump phone call serves no obvious purpose. He has no power to act for another seven weeks. There are no critical issues to be settled by the two countries. And his phone conversations with foreign leaders almost uniformly have been vacuous, even embarrassing—just read the transcript of his chat with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. His aides said that he and Tsai talked about “the close economic, political, and security ties” between the two governments, which sounds like the usual boilerplate. For that Trump is adding more turbulence to U.S.-China relations?

Talking to Taiwan’s president was a serious mistake by itself, but if it signals an intention to alter U.S. policy it could be much more dangerous. We can hope that this is an isolated episode, but even if it is it has still done some damage. Taiwan has the most to lose from deteriorating relations between the U.S. and China, and so it does them no favors to provoke Beijing. That is especially true when there was nothing of importance to be said between Tsai and Trump. No U.S. interest is served by needlessly antagonizing another major power, and to provoke them over something that matters greatly to them and much less to us is simply dumb and to no one’s benefit.

The “defense” of the call has been that Tsai was the one to call Trump, as if that made the breach of protocol in making contact somehow less irresponsible. The Post reports this relevant detail:

Yet Tsai’s office later said the call was arranged in advance by both sides.

If that’s the case, it means that Trump has been getting some very bad advice on these issues, and that doesn’t bode well for China policy once he is in office.

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Trump’s Major Taiwan Blunder

Trump made a major error when he made a phone call to answered a pre-arranged phone call from the president of Taiwan today. The Financial Times reports:

Donald Trump risks opening up a major diplomatic dispute with China before he has even been inaugurated after speaking on the phone on Friday with Tsai Ying-wen, the president of Taiwan.

The telephone call, confirmed by three people, is believed to be the first between a US president or president-elect and a leader of Taiwan since diplomatic relations between the two were cut in 1979.

Although it is not clear if the Trump transition team intended the conversation to signal a broader change in US policy towards Taiwan, the call is likely to infuriate Beijing which regards the island as a renegade province.

Standing U.S. policy for over four decades has been that there is only one China, and for the last thirty-seven years our government has recognized the government of that one China to be in Beijing. That has been part of the price of establishing full diplomatic relations with Beijing, and it has been an important part of how the U.S. has helped maintain stability and avoided conflict between China and Taiwan. Ever since that shift, the U.S. has not had diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and Trump’s call represents the first time since then that any president or president-elect has directly contacted Taiwan’s political leadership.

Changing that policy would be a delicate and risky undertaking at the best of times, but doing it abruptly without consulting anyone in the government and doing it even before being sworn into office is the height of irresponsible and clueless behavior. Whatever one thinks of the merits of existing policy on China and Taiwan, it is not the prerogative of the incoming president to start mucking around with U.S. relations with other governments before he is inaugurated. Even if this episode doesn’t lead to any serious problems, it spells trouble for how he will conduct foreign policy once he is in office.

Unfortunately, this episode probably will have some real and meaningful consequences. The article concludes with an assessment of the likely fallout:

“The Chinese leadership will see this as a highly provocative action, of historic proportions,” said Evan Medeiros, former Asia director at the White House national security council.

“Regardless if it was deliberate or accidental, this phone call will fundamentally change China’s perceptions of Trump’s strategic intentions for the negative. With this kind of move, Trump is setting a foundation of enduring mistrust and strategic competition for US-China relations.”

Trump had an opportunity at the start of his presidency to begin with a more or less clean slate with China, and he has now very likely frittered that away for nothing. At best, Trump has pointlessly antagonized Beijing in a way that will have lingering effects on his dealings with them for months and possibly years to come. At the very worst, his careless freelancing could produce a real crisis between China and Taiwan that could end up dragging in the U.S.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Is Michael Flynn Trump’s Machiavelli? Christopher Fettweis reviews Michael Flynn and Michael Ledeen’s Field of Fight.

Top Trump adviser has shifting views on Russia and Eurasia. Joshua Kucera tries to make sense of Flynn’s contradictory positions on cooperation with Russia.

Flynn ties China and North Korea to jihadists. Edward Wong looks at Flynn’s foreign policy views and what they may mean for U.S. policy in East Asia.

Trump and the coming war on “radical Islam.” Uri Friedman considers the foreign policy implications of Trump’s advisers’ hard-line views on Islam and terrorism.

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The Syria Hawk’s Lament

Charles Krauthammer wrings his hands about the end of Western “triumph,” and uses the strangest evidence to support his claim:

That era is over. The autocracies are back and rising; democracy is on the defensive; the U.S. is in retreat. Look no further than Aleppo.

It’s possible that one could find examples that support at least one of these assertions, but it is hard to see what the course of the war in Syria tells us about any of these things. Syria has never been democratic, and the vast majority of the regime’s opponents isn’t democratic, either. The U.S. isn’t “in retreat.” What Krauthammer is really complaining about is that the U.S. is not on the offensive as much as he would like. The proxy war that he and other hawks urged the U.S. to pursue is not going well, but that just tells us that backing rebels in Syria was folly that should never have been attempted.

The U.S. took sides in a conflict in which it had little or nothing at stake, but the failure of that policy is not evidence of “retreat.” On the contrary, it is a clear example of our bungled overreaching and trying to pursue a very ambitious goal of toppling a foreign government on the cheap. The core of Krauthammer’s objection is that the U.S. isn’t doing more to kill people in Syria. That is what he thinks would protect the “liberal-democratic historical moment,” and not doing that means that this moment is on the way out. This is a ridiculous standard by which to judge the status of democracy or the direction of U.S. foreign policy, but it is the one that he uses to make his tendentious point.

Globally, there has been some backsliding in established democracies as some have moved towards illiberal majoritarianism and one-party rule. That mostly has to do with popular dissatisfaction with the quality of leadership over the last two decades. Insofar as “democracy is on the defensive” in some places, that is the result of a domestic reaction against the shortcomings of the political class in those countries. The era of “Western dominance” overlapped quite a lot with the era of incompetent and sometimes disastrous Western governance, and the only surprising thing is that it took so long for the backlash to happen.

It is worth remembering that it was only three years ago that a majority of people in both Britain and the U.S. rebelled against a proposed intervention in Syria. The House of Commons rejected the idea, and Congress refused to authorize the attack in one of the most impressive displays of popular resistance to unnecessary war in modern times. The U.S. didn’t illegally attack the Syrian government in 2013 because for once our representative system of government worked as it was supposed to. If that’s a world where “democracy is on the defensive,” I hope we see more of it in the future.

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The Trouble with Mattis

Noah Millman is impressed by the Mattis choice. He counters my concern about Mattis’ hawkishness:

The key question is not whether Mattis sees an opportunity for rapprochement with Iran but whether he is going to be actively looking for ways to get into conflict with them, or, worse, advocating policies aimed at regime change. I don’t think he is — and that fact is enormously important, because there will be other people advising Trump who will want to get into such a conflict, including his likely Secretary of State (whoever that turns out to be).

Millman is right that Mattis is by far the most competent and qualified nominee put forward by Trump up to this point, and it’s also true that he is preferable to any of the other names mentioned for the position. I would be even more alarmed by the nomination of a Jon Kyl or Tom Cotton to this office. The flip side of worrying about civilian control of the military is remembering that military officers tend to be less cavalier in their willingness to send American forces into harm’s way than their civilian counterparts. We have had decades of civilians at the Pentagon that never saw a war they didn’t want to fight, so maybe having a former general and veteran of some of our unending wars will help to correct that failing. That’s as much of a silver lining as I can see.

That said, I am inclined to agree with Andrew Bacevich’s assessment of Trump’s fondness for appointing generals from wars that the U.S. hasn’t won and doesn’t know how to win:

Yet President Trump is also likely to double down on the use of conventional military force. In that regard, his promise to “quickly and decisively bomb the hell out of ISIS” offers a hint of what is to come. His appointment of the uber-hawkish Lieutenant General Michael Flynn as his national security adviser and his rumored selection of retired Marine Corps General James (“Mad Dog”) Mattis as defense secretary suggest that he means what he says. In sum, a Trump administration seems unlikely to reexamine the conviction that the problems roiling the Greater Middle East will someday, somehow yield to a U.S.-imposed military solution. Indeed, in the face of massive evidence to the contrary, that conviction will deepen, with genuinely ironic implications for the Trump presidency.

The problem here isn’t that Mattis is a bad choice for running our endless wars in the Near East compared to the alternatives, but that choosing him confirms that those wars are going to continue for the foreseeable future and new ones might be started. One problem I see with Mattis’ preoccupation with Iran is that it means that alarmist claims about Iran from other members of the ad ministration aren’t going to be countered by a more realistic assessment of the threat that Iran poses. Mattis is on record saying that Iran is the “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East” and has asserted that “Iran is not an enemy of ISIS.” The first claim is very questionable in light of the destabilizing behavior of the Saudis and their GCC allies, and the second is plainly false.

As it regards U.S. involvement in conflicts in the region, Mattis seems pretty clearly to be in favor of a more aggressive approach than the one Obama has had. As Secretary of Defense, he will be in a very influential position to put that preference into practice. He may well be the best nominee Trump has chosen, but that frankly isn’t saying much, and it doesn’t mean that we should be glad about what the choice seems to imply for U.S. foreign policy.

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Report: Trump Is Choosing Mattis for Secretary of Defense

Trump will nominate retired Marine Gen. James Mattis to be Secretary of Defense:

President-elect Donald Trump has chosen retired Marine Gen. James N. Mattis to be secretary of defense, nominating a former senior military officer who led operations across the Middle East to run the Pentagon less than four years after he hung up his uniform, according to people familiar with the decision.

To take the job, Mattis will need Congress to pass new legislation to bypass a federal law that states secretaries of defense must not have been on active duty in the previous seven years. Congress has granted a similar exception just once, when Gen. George C. Marshall was appointed to the job in 1950.

Mattis was the most frequently mentioned candidate for the position and was considered the favorite, so this isn’t all that surprising, but it is still quite unusual. As the report says, there will need to be a special bill passed to permit Mattis to serve as Defense Secretary because of his recent retirement from the military, which makes the selection remarkable in itself. The possibility of choosing a former general to run the Pentagon has also caused concern about the effect this would have on civilian-military relations. It is also a somewhat odd choice because Mattis seems to some observers to be a poor fit for the role that he will be asked to fill. Erin Simpson, a Mattis admirer, explained why a few days ago:

The point is not that Mattis is unqualified. Rather, the point is that he hates this shit. Budgets, white papers, and service rivalries, not to mention the interagency meetings and White House meddling — these tasks are not what you go to Jim Mattis for. Not only does the role of secretary of defense not play to Mattis’ strengths, but success in that role would compromise much that we admire most in him: his bluntness, clarity, and single-minded focus on warfighting. The secretary’s job is by necessity much more political than all that. You can’t run the Pentagon like the First Marine Division.

The choice also fits what is becoming a pattern of embracing officers that were forced out under Obama for one reason or another. In Mattis’ case, he was reportedly pushed out because of disagreements with the administration on Iran. Like all of Trump’s other national security appointments thus far, Mattis is extremely hawkish on Iran, and his selection bodes ill for the future of U.S. policy towards that country. Insofar as Mattis could act as a brake on Trump’s impulsiveness and offers a corrective to his ignorance, his presence in the Cabinet could be a good thing. However, he will be joining a chorus of Iran hawks in the administration, and that reinforces much of what was already going to be wrong with Trump’s foreign policy.

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The Starvation of Yemen Continues

IRIN Photos/Flickr: The UN-administered camp at Mazrak, north-west Yemen, seen on 12 November 2009 is now stretched beyond capacity after a Saudi military offensive against the Huthis starting early November uprooted a fresh wave of IDP families.
IRIN Photos/Flickr: The UN-administered camp at Mazrak, north-west Yemen, seen on 12 November 2009 is now stretched beyond capacity after a Saudi military offensive against the Huthis starting early November uprooted a fresh wave of IDP families.

The terrible conditions created by the war on Yemen continue to worsen:

Every day children are perishing in rural Yemen, where two-thirds of the nation’s population lives. Parents are forced to decide between saving their sick children and preventing healthier ones from following the same perilous route. Cemeteries in this desperately poor and rugged stretch of villages in the northwest contain the bodies of children who have recently died of hunger and preventable diseases. Most are buried in unmarked graves, their deaths unreported to authorities.

The U.S.-backed, Saudi-led war on Yemen continues to be largely ignored. One reason for this is that the near-famine conditions that exist throughout much of the country and the deaths that result from them are invisible in official accounts of how many have been killed by the war. Many of the war’s victims are killed by hunger or preventable disease, and yet the warring parties have caused their deaths all the same. The humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen is every bit as terrible as any in the world, and it is probably the worst of all in some respects, but because the victims are largely cut off from the outside world their plight remains mostly unknown. Even when it is made known, it tends to be greeted by indifference because the people suffering are perceived to be on the “wrong” side or because it is an embarrassment to the U.S., Britain, and their client governments.

The starvation of Yemen’s civilian population is one of the greatest man-made disasters of this century, and it has been brought about in large part by U.S.-backed clients as they pursue a senseless and atrocious war against one of the world’s poorest countries. When the starvation of Yemen occasionally receives some decent coverage, there is barely any mention of the responsibility of the Saudi-led coalition and its Western patrons for helping to create these horrible conditions. The coalition and its Western backers, including the U.S., are not the only ones responsible, but they bear the largest responsibility because they are the ones that have been blockading the country and devastating its infrastructure and ports with bombs, and they were the ones that escalated and prolonged the war for all this time.

Except for a brief surge of attention a few months ago, the war and the U.S. role in enabling it have received very little scrutiny or criticism. The U.S. continues to sustain the Saudi-led war with weapons and fuel despite ample evidence of repeated and sometimes deliberate coalition targeting of civilian sites, and our government could withdraw that support at any time if it wished to do so. Our government does not wish this, but has chosen to continue its indefensible policy of support. Obama has helped to cause a humanitarian crisis that threatens the lives of tens of millions of people, and he has created countless new enemies for the United States for the sake of “reassuring” a group of despots. As we begin to consider his “legacy,” support for the war on Yemen should be ranked as one of his worst and most inexcusable errors.

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The Case Against Mitt Romney for State

Frank Bruni makes the case for Romney as Secretary of State:

Over his own two presidential campaigns, Romney became ever more fluent in international issues, and he even showed some prescience, identifying Vladimir Putin’s Russia as a grave menace before other politicians woke up to that. He was ridiculed for dwelling in the past. Turns out he was living in the future.

The idea that Romney “showed some prescience” in 2011-12 about Russia (or anything else) is silly revisionism, but I expect we’ll hear about it a lot if Trump ends up choosing him. Even granting that a stopped clock can be right twice a day, Romney wasn’t right about any major foreign policy issues four years ago. Specifically, he called Russia our “number one geopolitical foe,” which wasn’t true then and still isn’t now. It was a silly line that was deservedly mocked because it was false (and because it showed Romney had no clue what he was talking about). He proposed to take actions intended to provoke and annoy Russia on the assumption that any attempt at conciliation or engagement is tantamount to appeasement. That is not prescience, but rather the most unimaginative hawkish line one could possibly take.

One of the purposes of engaging with Russia–or with any other powerful state–is to reduce tensions and minimize the risk of conflict. Romney’s agenda in 2012 was to increase tensions and to cast Russia as our principal foe in the world. That’s not clever or far-seeing, but represents an irresponsible and reckless approach to foreign policy. Putting Romney in a position where he would have a chance to put these bad ideas into practice is folly, and the only reason that it is being taken seriously at all is that his most likely competition appears to be even worse.

The fact that Russia has done aggressive things that the U.S. and our allies oppose in the last few years doesn’t mean that Romney showed “prescience.” He was taking a reflexively anti-Russian position, and he maintained that engaging with Russia was a mistake. Support for engaging with Russia is arguably one of the few sensible positions Trump took during the campaign, so it would make even less sense to give the job to Romney if he intends to follow through on that. Indeed, putting Romney at State would be as clear a sign as one could want that repairing relations with Russia will be a low priority in Trump’s foreign policy.

Does anyone think that U.S.-Russian relations would be better today if Romney had been president for the last four years? Does anyone think that the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria would not have happened or would have been less destructive if the U.S. had followed his more confrontational course? If we’re being honest, I don’t think anyone outside of a group of hard-liners would claim either of those things. If that’s right, Romney’s supposed “prescience” amounts to nothing, which is what you would expect from someone with such a poor grasp of foreign policy issues as Romney had and presumably still has.

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Flynn’s Dangerous Goal of Regime Change

Illustration: Winai Tepsuttinun / shutterstock
Illustration: Winai Tepsuttinun / shutterstock

Christopher Fettweis reviews Flynn and Ledeen’s Field of Fight. Here he comments on their fixation on Iran:

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 [bold mine-DL], 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.

Even if it were desirable to destabilize yet another country in the region, this shows just how deluded Flynn and Ledeen are when it comes to achieving their goal of regime change. First, they assume that Iranians would cooperate in pursuing a goal that most of them don’t actually support. They mistakenly view the election protests of 2009-2010 as a movement aimed at overthrowing the regime, but it was something quite different and had the goal of reforming the existing system. Flynn and Ledeen fault the U.S. for not doing more to help that movement, but this wrongly assumes that the movement’s leaders wanted U.S. help (they didn’t) and that U.S. assistance would be useful to them (it wouldn’t have been). They assume they know what most Iranians want, but ignore their enduring resentment against foreign interference in their politics generally and hostility to American interference in particular. They also make a typical hawkish mistake in both grossly exaggerating the threat from a foreign regime and assuming that eliminating that threat will be easy and cheap. This is all consistent with the shoddy analysis we have seen from other parts of their book, and it confirms that Trump is going to be getting some very bad advice from his top security adviser.

In addition to all of their errors of analysis, Flynn and Ledeen have the wrong goal. If the U.S. tried to do what Flynn and Ledeen want, it would increase regional tensions and hurt the Iranian opposition. Neither the U.S. nor most Iranians would benefit from this, but it would strengthen the hand of regime hard-liners. It would give those hard-liners a ready-made excuse for increased repression, and would increase the likelihood of armed conflict over the longer term. When our government has made regime change in another country the official policy in the past, it has usually not been long before force is used to achieve it. A war with Iran might not come right away, but if Flynn convinces Trump that regime change should be the goal of our policy it becomes much more likely in the future.

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