Donald Trump’s initial appointments to his national security and foreign policy team have confirmed that he remains committed to his most outrageous campaign pronouncements, especially when it comes to the Middle East or protecting human rights. And if anyone thought—or hoped—that Trump might temper his denunciations of Islam and Muslims, or his full-throated endorsement of torture “or worse” as a legitimate counterterrorism tool, his naming of retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as national security adviser has thoroughly put to rest any such notions.
Flynn, a veteran of more than 30 years in the armed forces, apparently enjoyed a solid professional reputation when he headed US military intelligence operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Retired four-star general Barry McCaffrey recently called Flynn “the best intelligence officer of his generation.” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof referred to Flynn’s reputation as “a brilliant intelligence officer in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
That reputation led to his appointment in 2012 to head the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, an agency of about 17,000 tasked with collecting and providing intelligence to the secretary of defense and senior military leadership. But Flynn was pressured to resign in 2014 after serving only two years into his three-year appointment, reportedly owing at least in part to a “management style” that one Pentagon official characterized as “disruptive.”
You might stop right there and ask why Trump would appoint someone with a tarnished managerial reputation to a job that requires managing a staff that had expanded to 400 under the Obama administration, and coordinating for the US president the views of foreign policy and national security “principals” such as the secretaries of state and defense and intelligence heads.
Trump gave a clue to his thinking with the statement he released when he named Flynn on November 18: “I am pleased that Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn will be by my side as we work to defeat radical Islamic terrorism, navigate political challenges, and keep Americans safe at home and abroad” 1.
Islam as a totalitarian ideology
Flynn repeatedly writes and talks about “radical Islam,” which he attributes to his Afghanistan and Iraq experiences interrogating top Al Qaeda leaders when he was chief intelligence officer for the Joint Special Operations Command. He concluded, he said in a recent interview, that “the religious nature of that threat [of Al Qaeda ideology] makes it very hard for Americans to come to grip with.”2 And in a July 2016 op-ed in the New York Post, he attributed his dismissal as DIA chief not to his contentious management style but to “the stand I took on radical Islamism and the expansion of Al Qaeda and its associated movements.”
Flynn’s recent public pronouncements have become been much harsher, and teeter on the brink of a call for war against a “people”. In his 2016 book, The Field of Fight, Flynn wrote that US counterterrorism efforts constituted “a world war against a messianic mass movement of evil people, most of them inspired by a totalitarian ideology: Radical Islam.” Flynn continues: “Once we’ve understood them, we’ve got to destroy them,” and adding: “They must be denied safe havens, and countries that shelter them have to be issued a brutal choice: either eliminate the Radical Islamists or you risk direct attack yourselves.”
In an undated video of a speech provided by Christian Reporter News, Flynn, speaking in San Antonio, Texas in what appears to be a church, elides any distinction between Islam and its notorious extremist variants. “I don’t see Islam as a religion,” he says to considerable applause. “I see it as a political ideology. In a way it will mask itself as a religion globally, especially in the West, especially in the United States, because it can hide behind, protect itself by what we call freedom of religion.” In February 2015 Flynn re-tweeted, with a supporting comment a YouTube video contesting the very idea of Islamophobia. His accompanying note of endorsement summed up the message: “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL: please forward this to others: the truth fears no questions” (ellipsis in original)
In a global war
In August 2016 Flynn told Dana Priest of The Washington Post, “This is not about countering violent extremist movements, the ‘CVE,’ this is about going after an ideology that is within the Islamic world that is like a metastasized cancer…”
In the same interview, asked about his first meeting with Trump in late summer 2015, Flynn said, “I was very impressed. Very serious guy. … I found him to be in line with what I believed.” Flynn told Priest that Pentagon officials, reviewing the manuscript of his book, “censored some things, yeah.” Asked for an example, Flynn replied, “They didn’t want me to say that North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba were allies of radical Islam.”
A few weeks earlier, in his New York Post op-ed, Flynn wrote exactly that: “We’re in a global war, facing an enemy alliance that runs from Pyongyang, North Korea, to Havana, Cuba and Caracas. Along the way, the alliance picks up radical Muslim countries and organizations such as Iran, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Islamic State.”
This is the world-view of the man who will be the president’s National Security Advisor. Steven Hadley, who held that post under George W. Bush, recently described the role as follows: “You are the first to see the President in the morning when the President shows up for work in the Oval Office and the last person to see the President before he or she makes any major foreign policy or national security decision”3.
President Sisi, our friend
On a number of occasions, Flynn has, like Trump, advocated that the US embrace Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi more closely. Extending his affinity for authoritarian Middle Eastern leaders, on November 8 — just 10 days before being named to his new post—Flynn published an op-ed in Washington-DC-based The Hill criticizing as “unwise” the Obama administration’s “arms-length” policy towards President Recip Erdogan of Turkey. He goes on to portray Erdogan’s nemesis, Fetullah Gulen, as “a shady Islamic mullah” reminiscent of Hasan Al-Bana, who founded Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, and Sayid Qutb, a Brotherhood leader who advocated violent jihad before Egyptian authorities executed him in 1966. “To professionals in the intelligence community,” Flynn wrote, “the stamp of terror is all over Mullah Gulen’s statements in the tradition of Qutb and Al Bana. … From Turkey’s point of view, Washington is harboring Turkey’s Osama bin Laden.”
On one key issue: torture, Flynn once held a position distinct from that of Trump, telling Al Jazeera at one point that US servicemen and officers responsible for torturing Iraqi detainees should be held accountable. More recently, though, he appears to have accommodated himself to the views of his new boss: “I am a believer in leaving as many options on the table right up to the last minute.” He similarly has declined to distance himself from Trump’s proposal to kill families of suspected terrorists, saying he “would have to see what the circumstances of that situation were”4.
1Gretchen Frazee, “Who is Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn?”, pbs.org, November 18, 2016.
2James Kitfield, “How Mike Flynn Became America’s Angriest General”, politico.com, October 16, 2016.
3The Role and Importance of the National Security Advisor, Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs.
4Adrienne Mahsa Varkiani, “Trump’s Military Adviser Embraces Some of the Presumptive Nominee’s Most Controversial Positions”, ThinkProgress, 19 mai 2016.