by Jim Lobe
Amid reports that Michael Flynn may be interpreting the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB), prepared by the intelligence community, for Trump, and that he also met recently with the leader of Austria’s extreme right-wing Freedom Party (founded by ex-Nazis)—the Trump transition team, though interestingly not Flynn himself, has denied this report—it may be appropriate to return to the book written by Flynn and Michael Ledeen earlier this year, The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies. We’ve already published several articles about the views expressed in the book, including one by Eli Clifton on his Islamophobia, another on the same subject by the founding director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the CIA, Emile Nakhleh, a third about his questionable understanding of Syria’s alleged nuclear program, and a fourth that mainly excerpted portions of the authors’ chapter on what they called “The Enemy Alliance” (which “extends from North Korea and China to Russia, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua” and also includes Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, ISIS, and “countless other terrorist groups”) “that is working to destroy us.”
What’s important to emphasize is that the book, in my view, is a remarkably muddled and incoherent mess filled with redundancy, contradictions, wild assertions (Bolivia is “working to destroy us;” “There are thousands of Shi’ite clergy in prison in the holy city of Qom”) for which no supporting evidence is offered, and what his underlings at the Defense Intelligence Agency reportedly referred to as “Flynn facts;” that is, factual assertions that are just plain off the wall. (The book has no footnotes.) If the book it is an accurate reflection of the way Flynn thinks, we’re in real trouble. If it is an accurate reflection of his worldview, we’re also in real trouble. The Islamophobia and Iranophobia it expresses is almost entirely consistent with that of the Freedom Party, as well as other far-right and proto-Fascist groups and parties that appear ascendant in most of Europe at the moment. That the book may also reflect more or less how Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, sees the world makes it even more frightening.
Since Trump’s election victory, however, Flynn, like Bannon, has virtually disappeared from public view. Apparently, when he is not receiving the PDB or imparting his interpretation of its contents to Trump or making appointments to key positions on the National Security Council staff, he may be meeting with like-minded foreign dignitaries like the Freedom Party’s fuehrer, Heinz-Christian Strache, perhaps to assure them of the Trump administration’s future support. In any case, no interviews, no press conferences, no public statements. So, aside from his over-the-top warm-up speeches (“Lock her up, lock her up”) during the campaign, the book, which was published in July, probably offers the best and most recent insight into his preferred foreign policy. In his absence from the public sphere, excerpting passages in the book feels like an important public service. After all, Trump chose Flynn to be his national security adviser, a post that formulates options for the president and usually gets the last word before the commander-in-chief makes a decision.
Most of the excerpts below are taken mainly the two last chapters in the book, “How to Win” and “Conclusion,” which followed the “Enemy Alliance” chapter.
During the campaign, Trump repeatedly promised that, under his administration, Washington would get out of the “regime-change” and “nation-building” businesses. Back in August, for example, he told a rally in Youngstown, Ohio, “It is now time for a new approach. Our current strategy of nation-building and regime change is a proven absolute failure. We have created the vacuums that allow terrorism to grow and thrive…” And, earlier this month in Cincinnati, he declared:
…[W]e will pursue a new foreign policy that finally learns from the mistakes of the past. We will stop looking to topple regimes and overthrow governments, folks. Our goal is stability, not chaos, because we wanna rebuild our country.
Yet Flynn appears to diverge from this position, listing this as one of five goals that constitute “winning” (a favorite word of his, as well as Trump’s):
Bringing a direct challenge to the regimes that support our enemies, weakening them at a minimum, bringing them down whenever possible.
Indeed, Flynn sounds positively neoconservative in his eagerness to bring about regime change in authoritarian or totalitarian nations:
Removing the sickening chokehold of tyranny, dictatorships, and Radical Islamist regimes must be something our nation stands for whenever freedom-loving people around the world need help. If we don’t stand for this, we stand for nothing. [How Flynn reconciles this with his fawning admiration for Egypt’s President el-Sisi is not something he ever really tries to explain.]
Moreover, in a passage comparing Jimmy Carter with Obama (“the two worst presidents we’ve ever elected”), he writes:
Reagan knew what both Carter and now Obama reject: that America is the one truly revolutionary country in the world, and part of our national mission is to support democratic revolutionaries against their oppressors.
In these exhortations, however, Iran appears uppermost in Flynn’s mind, as he tells us that the regime there can somehow be brought down without resorting to military force, just as was done in the Soviet Union:
You don’t have to send thousands of American troops to defeat Radical Islamist regimes. Properly used, this form of ideological and information warfare can probably bring down the Iranian regime, never mind the sadistic and immoral Islamic State.
… The Iranians are the heart of the [enemy] alliance, and they are vulnerable. Machiavelli insisted that tyranny is the least stable system, because the people can quickly turn against the tyrant. Khamenei knows that, and lives in constant fear of a ‘velvet revolution,’ a popular uprising that will sweep him away, along with the failed Islamic system created by his predecessor. We can best attack the enemy alliance at its weakest point, the failure of the Iranian Revolution. That attack should be political, not military, and our most potent weapon is what Khamenei most fears; the suffering Iranian masses.
It was a huge strategic mistake for the United States to invade Iraq militarily. If, as we claimed, our basic mission after 9/11 was the defeat of the terrorists and their state supporters, then our primary target should have been Tehran, not Baghdad, and the method should have been political – support of the internal Iranian opposition. Is it too late? …Many think so, but then, many thought so in 2009, before the massive antiregime [sic] demonstrations erupted after the fraudulent election. Perhaps the Iranian people have the courage to challenge the regime again. We should at least consider how to change Iran from within, remembering that such methods brought down the Soviet Empire, certainly a mission more daunting than bringing down the Islamic Republic.
If internal opposition could end the role of the last president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, why not Khamenei’s?
Nation-Building and Much Much More
As noted above, Trump also insisted that, under his leadership, the U.S. would no longer engage in nation-building to fill those vacuums created by regime change. “If I become president, the era of nation-building will be brought to a very swift and decisive end,” he told the rally in Youngstown. Flynn actually avoids the term in the book, in part because his ambitions, like the neocons 15 years ago, are much greater: he wants to change everything in the Middle East, beginning with Islam itself. “The world badly needs an Islamic Reformation, and we should not be surprised if violence is involved,” he writes in the book’s introduction.
Another more fundamental and dramatic effort would be a call for a complete reformation of the Islamic religion. This must start inside the Muslim community in order to succeed – but it must start somewhere. This need for a ‘religious’ reformation is more for political purposes than purely religious. Radical Islam is a totalitarian political ideology wrapped in the Islamic religion. Why are so many constitutions within the Muslim world based on Sharia, providing for an Islamic regime as an alternative to secular models of governance? Models such as those we have in the West…
With nations such as the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and other Arab Muslim nations with some form of Sharia at their constitutional foundations, reforming this political ideology is not simply a matter of necessity; it is a vital aspect of changing the behavior of those radicalized by their misinterpretation and flat-out denial of what this ideology does to those who are corrupted by it. [Italics in original.]
In other words, he wants the entire Muslim world to become secular, and while he concedes that it has to begin “inside the Muslim community,” he suggests strongly that the United States has a role to play in this transformation, beginning with a presumably public “call for a complete reformation of the Islamic religion.” That should go over well.
But there’s more. “Winning” the war against “Radical Islam” necessarily requires granular involvement–i.e., nation-building, and with troops on the ground–in sorting out places like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
We know how to win on the ground, as we demonstrated in Iraq and Afghanistan. Above all, it requires good intelligence and leaders determined to win. We can’t do it exclusively with airplanes and drones; we need our fighting men and women. To be sure, we need to work with local forces – there are plenty of Muslim troops with whom we can profitably ally – but, with the exception of the Kurds (not all of whom are Muslim), they won’t be sufficient. Al Qaeda bases and all the territory claimed by the Islamic State must be destroyed and returned to local control, and we must insist on good governance – not, as we have so often done, turning it all over to the locals and accepting yet more “Islamic republics.” It’s not just a matter of changing local leaders; we want to change the whole system as we used to do. [Emphasis added.]
In other words, Flynn’s ambitions go beyond nation-building and regime change; they include religion-transforming and whole-system-changing. One wonders how he reconciles this with Trump’s view.
But Flynn’s reference in the last paragraph to insisting on “good governance” in that last quote is worth examining for a moment for at least a couple of reasons. First, what happens if “the locals” traditionally don’t provide what we call “good governance”? Does that mean we should walk away and thus create a new vacuum? Flynn doesn’t provide an answer. Second, Flynn’s own experience in Afghanistan underlines how difficult it is for the U.S. to insist on “good governance.” In one passage, he writes with evident pride about his relations with a warlord in Helmand province who remains to this day notorious for brutality, ruthlessness, and corruption.
Despite his many unsavory characteristics, I liked Razziq; he was straightforward with me, as I was with him. We actually got along with each other and this paid off down the road. …I didn’t like what he represented nor what he did, but we needed him badly. Through Razziq, I met other Afghans and because I treated him with respect, when I met with others, I got respect back.
So, Flynn admits that he relied heavily on this “local” despite his lack, to put it mildly, of “good governance.” This obviously begs a key question: how does Flynn propose to “change the whole system” when he’s clearly unprepared to seriously challenge, let alone remove someone like Razziq and his cronies. And, needless to say, so long as men like Razziq remain in power, the underlying conditions for an insurgency will persist, and “winning” in any decisive way will likely remain elusive, as we have seen in both Afghanistan and Iraq. He’s right, of course, that “good governance” is the key to success, but that implies the kinds of commitments that his boss has explicitly rejected.
Hasn’t This Been Tried Before?
Indeed, as the Razziq (if you’re googling his name, it’s most often spelled “Razik” in the English media) anecdote underscores, it’s often really difficult to persuade the “locals” to do what you want them to do–whether it’s providing “good governance” or simply cooperating more fully in the “war on terror” by denying “Radical Islamists” safe haven or other forms of support–especially if we need the locals for other goods ( such as cheap energy) or services (such as imposing order no matter the means, as Razziq–or, say, el-Sisi–has done). Of course, both George W. Bush and Obama tried at various times to exert serious pressure on Pakistan to stop sheltering–let alone cooperating with–the Taliban or Al Qaeda, and on the Gulf states, notably Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait, to, among other things, shut down jihadi financing networks, cut off support for jihadis in Iraq, Syria, or Libya, and/or stop exporting Wahhabism (a word that, remarkably, in a book devoted to defeating “Radical Islam,” is never once mentioned). But you wouldn’t know that from Flynn’s account full of ideas that were already clichés by early 2002. For example:
[Islamists] must be denied safe havens, and countries that shelter them have to be issued a brutal brutal choice: either eliminate the radical Islamists or you risk direct attack yourselves.
We can’t be gulled by foreign countries that publicly declare their friendship but then work in cahoots with our enemies.”
Of four “strategic objectives” that need to be achieved in order to “win” in what Flynn calls a “multi-generational struggle,” two are devoted to this theme:
Second, …[a]ny nation-state that offers safe haven to our enemies must be given one choice – to eliminate them or be prepared for those contributing nations involved in this endeavor to do so. …
Third, we must decisively confront the state and non-state supporters and enablers of this violent Islamist ideology and compel them to end their support to our enemies or be prepared to remove their capacity to do so. Many of these are currently considered “partners” of the United States. This must change. If our so-called partners do not act in accordance with internationally accepted norms and behaviors or international law, the United States must be prepared to cut off or severely curtail economic, military, and diplomatic ties. One very precise point on this latter issue. We tend to blame the Saudis and other Arab nations for directly funding the Islamic State and other radical Islamist groups. We must either stop this blame game or we must provide direct and unequivocal evidence to the leaders of these nations and offer them one choice (and one choice only): arrest these individuals and stop this funding or face severe consequences. And we must be prepared to back this up.
I find this latter paragraph quite remarkable for several reasons: 1) I don’t think Saudi Arabia is behaving in accordance with international law when it comes to Yemen (which receives only 2 very cursory mentions in the book); and 2) I find it very hard to believe that U.S. officials over the past 15 years have not provided such unequivocal evidence — if not of “direct funding” by the state (although there seems to be evidence of that), then of Saudi and other Arab “individuals” who have provided such funding and other forms of support to radical Islamist groups. Finally, it will be very interesting to see whether the Trump administration really follows this up and what they will be prepared to do if its demands are not met. I’m betting not much more than has already been done.
As for other countries in the region:
Countries like Pakistan need to be told that we will not tolerate the existence of training camps and safe havens for Taliban, Haqqani, and al Qaeda forces on their territory, nor will we permit their banks and other financial institutions to move illicit funds for the terror network. They are going to have to choose, and if they continue to help jihadis, we are going to treat them harshly, cutting them from American assistance, and operating against enemy safe havens.
But hasn’t the Obama administration done precisely that? It dramatically increased the number of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan when compared with the Bush administration. It undertook the raid that ended with the killing of Osama bin Laden without Pakistani knowledge—at least, it did according to the official version of events. And it has from time to time withheld some military aid to Pakistan partly over Islamabad’s problematic relationship with the Taliban.
Indeed, Flynn argues throughout the book that Washington has failed to do what needed to be done at critical moments. In one remarkable passage he praises Ayatollah al-Sistani, the Shi’a theologian based in Najaf, claiming
His was the strongest and most revered voice in the Iraqi Shi’ite community, and we should have echoed it. In like manner, we should have denounced the Islamists’ embrace of suicide terrorism and their constant efforts to provoke a sectarian civil war.
As I recall, the Bush administration constantly extolled Sistani and repeatedly echoed his warnings against sectarian division and warfare. But Flynn goes on in what to me is one of the book’s most baffling and remarkable paragraphs:
There are plenty of Islamic religious leaders who, like S, detest the radical jihadis. Yet senior Am’n policymakers, ever since 9/11, have shied away from any criticism of Islam, repeating, despite all manner of evidence to the contrary, that ‘Islam is a religion of peace.’
To me, these two sentences make no sense at all. Why can’t Islam be considered a “religion of peace” if there are “plenty of Islamic religious leaders …like Sistani” who detest and denounce radical jihadis? In fact, Sistani and the other Islamic clerics Flynn is referring offer very clear evidence that Islam is a religion of peace. And by asserting that Islam is not a religion of peace, Flynn, of course, undermines Islamic religious leaders like Sistani and their denunciations of radical jihadis.
If any reader can explain to me how this passage does make sense, I would greatly appreciate it.
Given the speculation surrounding the affinity Flynn–and for that matter, Trump and Tillerson–may feel for Vladimir Putin, the book suggests that, at least until recently, he considered Putin irredeemable. The book concludes with this analysis of the Russian president:
Although I believe America and Russia could find mutual ground fighting Radical Islamists, there is no reason to believe Putin would welcome cooperation with us; quite the contrary in fact.
In mid-January 2016, the Kremlin announced its intention to create new military bases on their western border, and to set up the readiness of their nuclear forces. These are not the actions of a country seeking détente with the West. They are, rather indications, that Putin fully intends to do the same thing as, and in tandem with, the Iranians: pursue the war against us. The other alliance members do, too.
Of course, since the book was published, and particularly since it has become known that Moscow worked to influence the election in Trump’s favor, Flynn may have changed his mind about the issue. After all, he has already demonstrated a remarkably flexible view of Turkish politics, initially applauding the July 15 attempted coup against Erdogan and subsequently calling in an op-ed for Washington to extradite the Erdogan’s arch-nemesis, Fethullah Gulen, after Flynn’s consulting firm was hired to lobby on behalf of a Turkish company with close ties to the Turkish strongman.
“Winning” and What It Takes
In my view, this one of the most worrisome themes in the book, and I’ll let Flynn speak mostly for himself here. The first of Flynn’s four proposed “strategic objectives” is the following:
First, we have to energize every element of national power in a cohesive synchronized manner – similar to the effort during World War II or the Cold War – to effectively resources will likely be a multi-generational struggle. One leader must be in charge overall and accountable to the president – if this leader does not meet the test, which is to win, then fire him or her and find another who can. We have to stop participating in this never-ending conflict and win!
In addition to his assertion that this war will last generations and that the mobilization required to win it will be similar to that in World War II, the notion of “one leader” taking charge–a war czar?–makes me uneasy, a discomfort that increased when I read about his desire for a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) to fight the war against Islam or Radical Islam which then evolves into an attack on the “Powell Doctrine”:
[T]his authorization should be broad and agile, with clearer and more decisive language and unconstrained by unnecessary restrictions. These restrictions cause not only frustration in our military and intelligence communities but they also significantly slow down the decision-making process for numerous fleeting opportunities.
…[S]olving tough, complex problems such as eliminating Radical Islam from the planet will require extraordinary intellect, courage, and leadership. Leadership that isn’t obsessed with consensus building; instead, leadership that is tough-minded, thoughtful, patriotic, and, when it matters, decisive.
We will have to shed some of the feel-good doctrines that have constrained us in recent years. One of the most unfortunate of these is known as the Powell Doctrine, named after General Colin Powell. According to this view, we should never use military power unless there is a strong domestic consensus in its favor.
…Colin Powell is a great American, but the doctrine is backwards. The consensus that matters is not the one that exists at the beginning of fighting, but the one at the end of the war. If we win, our victories will be hailed, while if we lose, they will be despised. Things have not changed much since Machiavelli told his prince “if you are victorious, the people will judge whatever means you used to have been appropriate.” Winners are always heroes and losers are almost always …losers. [Last ellipsis in original]
He goes on in the “Conclusion:”
We have to stop half-assed participation, repeatedly deploying token forces year in and year out, and we must win!
…The attacks in our country will happen again and again until we crush this enemy. Let’s stop participating in this never-ending nonsense, call it and our enemy what they are, war and Radical Islam, and let’s win!
Aside from the exclamation marks that follow the word “win”–which, in any other context, would be seen as a parody of Trump tweets–I find these passages rather alarming, not only for the invocation of Machiavelli’s notions about ends justifying means, but also the suggestion that the use of more-than-“half-assed” military force over many generations should not be subject to Congressional approval or judicial review but should rest with a strong, decisive, and “patriotic” leader. If people have concerns that Trump may have authoritarian tendencies, I think Flynn is likely to reinforce them.
And then there’s this dash of paranoia, echoing the views of the most radical Islamophobes, like Frank Gaffney and Pamela Geller—both of whom he follows on Twitter, that we face a fifth column right here at home:
It is no accident that Radical Islamists in America are pushing very hard and very systematically to gain legal standing for Sharia, and to forbid any and all criticism of Islam; these are all steps toward creating an Islamic state right here at home. We have to thwart these efforts and encourage criticism of those who support them. [Eli reviewed the book’s Islamophobia in this post.]
I hesitate to suggest that there’s a somewhat proto-Fascist feel to the book, if only because the word is so rhetorically charged and deployed far too carelessly. Nonetheless, the combination of the Flynn’s Manichean worldview; the depiction of the enemy (Iran and “Radical Islam,” above all) as absolutely evil; the repeated stress on ideological, as well as actual warfare; the notion that this is a life-or-death “civilizational” struggle; the naked Islamophobia surrounding Sharia; the conviction that extraordinary measures are needed to prevail; the deployment of highly questionable, if not fake, facts; and the call for a strong, decisive leader contemptuous of public opinion carry a certain familiar whiff.
Have a Very Scary Xmas
Flynn introduces his conclusion thusly:
Perhaps if we go back to an earlier event in the war, nearly half a century ago, we can recapture its essence and make the threat we face more urgent. I’m totally convinced that, without a proper sense of urgency, we will be eventually defeated, dominated, and very likely destroyed.
…On November 28, 1971, the Jordanian prime minister was shot to death by PLO assassins in a Cairo hotel. As he lay dying, ‘one of his killers bent over and lapped the blood that poured from his wounds.’ …
Do you want to be ruled by men who eagerly drink the blood of their dying enemies? Such questions are almost never asked. Yet if you read the publicly available ISIS documents on their intentions, there’s no doubt that they are dead set on taking us over and drinking our blood. It’s not just a fight for a few hundred square miles of sand in the Syrian, Iraqi, and Libyan deserts. They want it all…
…What will our lives be like if we lose this war? It’s actually a very easy question to answer: we’d live the way the unfortunate residents of the ‘caliphate’ or the oppressed citizens of the Islamic Republic of Iran live today, in a totalitarian state under the dictates of the most rigid version of Sharia.
Aside from questions about whether the blood-lapping actually occurred–at least one detailed contemporaneous news account of the assassination of Wasfi al-Tal did not record it–the fact that the PLO (or, more precisely, its Black September Movement offshoot) was a secular nationalist organization with absolutely no ties either to Radical Islam or Iran is apparently irrelevant to the man set to become the next president’s national security adviser.
But fear has its uses, especially for aspiring authoritarians.