by Paul R. Pillar
With Donald Trump’s earliest appointments to senior national security positions, some of the disturbing implications for the making of foreign policy of his own lack of qualifications for office are beginning to appear. A president-elect whose outrage-filled campaign alienated many serious thinkers in both parties has made personal support even more of a paramount consideration in the appointment process than it usually is, and even more than Trump’s own inclinations would have made it in the first place. Not only does the priority given to insight and objectivity thereby lessen; the president-elect’s own thinness of understanding of the national security issues involved makes it hard for him to perceive the lack of insight and objectivity of potential appointees. Some people are thus attaining positions of power and influence not because of perspicacity and temperament that would make them suited for the jobs they are given but instead because they were not sufficiently outraged during the campaign to exile themselves from Trumpland.
Once in office, the same thinness of understanding at the top will leave the new president ill-equipped to question, to critically appraise, and to push back against whatever hobby horses his non-objective appointees bring with them. A president who doesn’t read books and gets what he thinks he needs to know from “the shows” will be a poor corrective to the less constructive tendencies of ideologues below him. Ideology will bounce around inside a small echo chamber without other correctives from the outside.
The prime exhibit so far in this unfortunate pattern is the appointment of Michael Flynn to the important post of national security adviser. Flynn is an unapologetic Islamophobe whose views on this dimension, which fit with much of Trump’s campaign rhetoric, undoubtedly were a large part of what won him the job. His pronouncements on the subject exhibit far more fervor than fact. (His fantastic assertions became so familiar to subordinates at the Defense Intelligence Agency that they acquired the name “Flynn facts”.) Flynn has called Islam a “cancer” and has tweeted that “fear of Muslims is RATIONAL [the fervor, and all caps, in original]”. He has repeatedly shared and endorsed fake news and output of the fringe alt-right. His own Islamophobic and patently false assertions have included that shariah, or Islamic law, is spreading in the United States.
Iran is another subject on which Flynn displays far more simplistically expressed emotion than any careful attention to facts and the pros and cons of U.S. policy options. His attitude is demonstrated in Congressional testimony in June 2015, which can be fairly summarized as saying that Iran is bad in every respect and we should have no dealings with it on anything. (Jim Lobe has collated some of the lowlights from this statement). Flynn stated that “regime change in Tehran is the best way to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program”—with no further elaboration on how this would be brought about, leaving us to suppose that it is the Iraq 2003 model. He has given no indication since then of dropping his blanket opposition to the negotiated agreement that limits Iran’s nuclear program and has successfully been in operation for more than a year, nor does he show any awareness of the U.S. intelligence community’s public judgment that Iran had stopped any nuclear weapons program several years before he was testifying.
Typical of the rest of Flynn’s excoriation of Iran is his statement that Iran deserves special blame for “the severe insecurity and instability of the region”, naming Gaza as a place where it has been responsible for such insecurity. He evidently was confused about which regional country whose name starts with the letter “I” has repeatedly used military force to devastate Gaza, resulting in much human suffering. He also seemed oblivious to such facts as that at the time of his testimony, Iran and Hamas had been estranged for some three years because of differences over the conflict in Syria.
It is bad enough that Flynn has such ill-informed views of matters that involve important issues of U.S. foreign policy. He also is ill-suited by temperament for the job of national security adviser—or to use its more accurate and formal title, assistant to the president for national security affairs. Although a source of individual advice, the most important function of this position is to ensure that a careful, complete, and orderly policy process precedes important decisions by the president, in which the president is presented objectively with the available options and considerations bearing on them. This is not the cloth from which Flynn is cut. He is a hothead as well as an ideologue, as illustrated not only by his pronouncements about Islam but his encouraging chants of “lock her up” at the Republican convention.
Although perhaps not as awful an appointment as Flynn, the choice of Representative Mike Pompeo (R-KS) to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency raises some of the same issues of an ideological echo chamber and whether an ill-informed president with meager knowledge of foreign relations will get the information and analysis he so badly needs. Pompeo is an ideologue in the partisan sense. His main claim to fame is as one of the lead attack dogs politicizing the tragedy at the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya in 2012, for the purpose of cutting down Hillary Clinton. His handling of the matter was even more strident and extreme than that of most of his fellow Republicans. He and one other member of the House Select Committee on Benghazi submitted an addendum to the committee report making accusations of a cover-up; even committee chairman Trey Gowdy did not sign on to the addendum. Reportedly the Trump transition team favored Pompeo for the CIA job over another House Republican, former Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers, because Rogers was deemed to be not tough enough on Mrs. Clinton. This is hardly the sort of criterion that makes for good intelligence.
Pompeo is another reflexive foe of the agreement that limits Iran’s nuclear program. On the eve of the announcement of his nomination to be CIA chief, Pompeo tweeted, “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.” Nothing more from him, any more than from Flynn, on how “rolling back” would mean removing the restrictions on Iran’s enrichment of uranium and other nuclear activities. Most important, it is hard to picture how someone so committed to such a partisan goal could be counted on to present objectively, as an intelligence chief, all the pertinent information and analysis about what is happening under the nuclear agreement and what the consequences would be if the United States withdrew from it.
If Mr. Pompeo gets the CIA job, perhaps he would like to explain, not only to Congress and the public but also to the intelligence analysts charged with following the Iranian program, why he favors killing an agreement that makes possible extraordinarily intrusive monitoring and inspection of Iran’s nuclear activities. With any nuclear program, on-site inspection is the most reliable means to know in real time what is going on. If the agreement is killed, CIA Director Pompeo will have to explain to the president and to Congress why his agency’s analysis of Iranian nuclear activities is weaker and less complete than it would have been if the agreement had lived and the inspectors were still in place.
Being an elected politician is by no means a disqualification for the job of CIA director, and is not the reason Pompeo’s appointment is questionable. There has been no clear correlation between the effectiveness of past CIA directors and whether they came from inside the organization or outside, or whether they had a political background. One of the most respected past directors, albeit one with a short tenure, was George H.W. Bush. Another Republican Congressman, Porter Goss, deserved better press than he got as the agency’s director; he did not bring a partisan agenda to the job, and his earlier experience as a CIA officer underlay his good understanding of intelligence-related issues. Leon Panetta is a recent example of a Democratic politician appointed to the job.
Probably the past head of the agency whose directorship was most subject to ideological warping was not an elected politician but one who was highly political: William Casey, who went straight from being Ronald Reagan’s campaign manager to director of central intelligence. Casey was an inveterate Cold Warrior, and the ideological thrust during his tenure was to try to find Moscow’s hand in every bit of trouble around the world. This resulted in some of the most obvious instances of trying to push intelligence analysis in a predetermined direction, to be exceeded only later during the selling of the Iraq War. The Cold War imperative of fighting what was seen as Moscow’s hand or Moscow’s proxies all over the world also resulted in the fiasco of the Iran-Contra affair.
President-elect Trump already has shown his inclination to reject intelligence analysis when it does not suit his political needs, with his slapping aside of the intelligence community’s judgment about Russian responsibility for hacking of email in the United States. Here the political thrust—similar to, but in the opposite direction of, what it was in Casey’s time—has been to portray the Russians as more innocent, rather than more evil, than what the intelligence analysts were saying. And now Iran and Islam have become principal bêtes noires, taking the place in American political obloquy that the Soviet Union and communism once indisputably held. The president-elect has set a tone making it all the easier for the ideologues surrounding him to bend, twist, and most of all just ignore facts and analysis coming out of the intelligence agencies. His tenuous grasp of world affairs also will make it easier for the same ideologues to go off a deep end in ways that will get him and the nation in trouble. Flynn embodies a return to the White House of the spirit of Oliver North: different rank and service uniform, but the same true-believer fanaticism.
This article was first published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright The National Interest. Photo: Mike Pompeo.