by Emile Nakhleh
President-elect Trump’s appointment of Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn will likely create a Kafkaesque situation that Trump himself will find unmanageable. Questions surrounding the appointment could hamper the president’s plans to pursue his policy initiatives and will cast an unnecessary cloud over the new administration. Because of General Flynn’s attachment to fake news, dangerous preconceptions of Islam and Muslim countries, and cavalier attitude toward the truth and objectivity, he would be a constant headache for the president.
Sitting in the West Wing of the White House right next to the Oval Office would give Flynn unprecedented access to the president and the opportunity to filter out which intelligence the president sees on a daily basis. He will also have the authority to manipulate intelligence judgments with an eye toward reflecting his own ideological leanings regardless of the recommendations of the country’s 17 intelligence agencies.
General Flynn’s poor qualifications for the office that he is about to occupy are evident in his writings, especially Field of Flight, the book he co-authored with the neo-conservative writer Michael Ledeen. His statements during the presidential campaign, and his recent tweets peddling fake news about Islam, Sharia law, and Iran corroborate what he wrote and said previously. The general has recruited his son and “Chief of Staff” Michael G. Flynn, Jr. in his campaign to spread a version of alternative reality that is destructive and potentially dangerous for the country and for Washington’s relations with the rest of the world.
Fortunately for the country, once the son’s fake news tweets were associated with the recent shooting at a pizza parlor in Washington, DC., he was removed from Trump’s transition team. Since the father is equally engrossed in tweeting such fictitious news, the president-elect should revisit General Flynn’s appointment.
The heavy responsibilities of the national security advisor include coordinating the daily intelligence briefings, recommending war and peace decisions, advising on the nuclear arsenal and treaty negotiations and obligations, protecting the nation from terrorism, engaging the wider Muslim world, and working with allies and adversaries. The importance of these tasks underscore the urgency of canceling Flynn’s appointment.
Flynn and Ledeen’s polemical book conflates Islam and radicalism, claims that Islam is inimical to modernity and innovation, and presents Islam, Muslims, and Islamic countries as a monolith not much different from terrorist groups. Flynn’s ignorance of Islam is painfully evident when he makes no distinction between Sunni and Shia Islam and when he paints the entire Islamic world with a broad brush of terrorism and backwardness. He claims that scientific discoveries and progress a thousand years ago during the days of the Abbasid Empire occurred before the advent of Islam! One wonders whether such a statement is driven by willful ignorance, rabid Islamophobia, or both.
Even more crucially for the nation’s security, the national security advisor-designate’s call for a “war on Islamic radicalism and terrorism” masks a war on Islam, which he has described not as a body of belief but as a “political ideology” and “cancer.” Both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama went to great lengths to emphasize that the U.S. fight against terrorism and terrorist groups—al-Qaeda and the Islamic State and their affiliates—is not a war against the world’s Muslims.
Right after 9/11, the Bush administration—and the Obama administration since then—called for engaging mainstream Muslims and empowering them to reject the radical paradigm of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. That policy was grounded in the correct view that only a tiny minority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims supports radicalism and extremism and condones the use of violence against the perceived enemies of Islam. The vast majority of Muslims, much like adherents of other religions, have families to feed, bills to pay, and children to educate. They are not much interested in politics. To many of them, Islam is a faith, not a political ideology. They do not view their piety as a political act.
As a senior government official I sat in many meetings with the national security advisor and other high-level Bush administration senior officials at the National Security Council in the days following 9/11. In many of those meetings we discussed strategies to engage Muslim communities at home and abroad and to empower them to delegitimize the radical interpretation of Islam. We encouraged mainstream and moderate voices with the Muslim world to fight extremism through their writings and sermons. The Obama administration advanced the same policy since coming to office in 2009.
Political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood
In discussing “Islamic jihad,” Flynn fails to cite any sources of serious scholarship on the subject. He is quick to describe all political Islam activist organizations and groups as “jihadists” or potential terrorists. Instead of consulting respected scholars on Islamic jihad—for example, Fawaz Gerges at the London School of Economics—Flynn relies on some of the most ideologically driven authors who tend to equate political Islam Sunni groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, with communism and Marxism. Not surprisingly, the shoddy scholarship he consults has led him to peddle factually baseless statements as gospel truths, or more likely as “Flynn’s facts.” This was what reportedly led to his dismissal as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Flynn has scant knowledge of the Muslim Brotherhood’s historical narrative and background, its organization, and involvement in the community. Nor does he differentiate between country-specific Muslim Brotherhood organizations. The US government worked with the Muslim Brotherhood for years in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, and other places. Flynn’s claims notwithstanding, the Muslim Brotherhood was never viewed as a threat to, or in, the United States.
Because he abhors Iran and is dangerously fixated with it, Flynn throws it in the basket of deplorable Sunni extremists and terrorists without any nuanced analysis of the history of the Iranian revolution, the differences between Shia and Sunni activism, and the sectarian divide between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran.
Flynn fails, for example, to chronicle Iranian-American cooperation in the fight against al-Qaeda after 9/11 and in Iraq following the invasion of that country in 2003. Iran supported the American position to keep Iraq unified, persuaded Iraqi Shia leaders to hold elections, and worked with Iraqi stakeholders and the American-led international coalition to adopt a constitution that would allow for power-sharing among Shia, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds.
Had General Flynn studied all the public opinion polls that Pew and Gallup conducted in Muslim countries in the decade following 9/11, he would have realized that his perceived “war on Islam” soured relations between the United States and the Muslim world. That was the reason why Presidents Bush and Obama worked diligently to convince the Islamic world that fighting terrorism was not synonymous with a war on Islam.
Resurrecting such a “war” would endanger U.S. security and pose a serious threat to American interests and personnel overseas. Furthermore, such a policy, terrorists and extremists would use the policies that Flynn is likely to push as an effective tool to radicalize more youth in Muslim countries as well as in the West. The ensuing “clash of civilizations” would result in more mayhem, violence, and instability.
It’s the height of folly to think that friendly, mainstream Muslim governments would cooperate in the fight against radicalism if Flynn despises their Prophet and reduces their religion to a political ideology or to “cancer.”
If President-elect Trump is interested in protecting American national interests and fighting terrorism, Flynn is not the right man to get the job done. His temperament, ideology, disregard for the truth, and penchant for peddling fake news will jeopardize the president’s leadership of the free world and diminish his ability to achieve his goals. There is still time to rescind Flynn’s plum appointment and choose a more measured, open-minded, and reflective individual as national security advisor.