Deputy NSC Advisor Pick McFarland: Treat Middle Easterners Like Kids

by Derek Davison

On Friday, Donald Trump’s transition team announced that Fox News national security analyst Kathleen Troia McFarland will serve as his Deputy National Security Advisor, working under National Security Advisor–designate Michael Flynn. McFarland previously served on Gerald Ford’s National Security Council and as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs in the Reagan administration, from 1982 to 1985.

NBC News predicted that McFarland’s appointment “will likely be far less controversial” than that of her new boss, Flynn, which is a fair assessment. It’s not every administration, after all, that appoints a National Security Advisor who says that Islam is “like a cancer,” who argues that “fear of Muslims is rational,” and who has taken money from foreign governments in the very recent past. Neither should McFarland’s appointment raise as many eyebrows as notorious Islamophobe Clare Lopez’s would have. Lopez had been considered a front-runner for the position McFarland has now taken.

But McFarland’s appointment does seem to confirm that the Trump administration’s foreign policy will be shaped by people who fundamentally believe that there is something inferior about the people of the Middle East, and that the United States must pursue confrontation as its primary response to Middle Eastern nations. McFarland may not be as incendiary in her views as Flynn, but consider the “one essential truth of the Middle East” that she claimed to offer readers of her blog back in 2014:

Why? Because we failed to realize one essential truth of the Middle East — that the nations in that part of the world aren’t just like us.

We in the West think of peace as society’s default position. War is a temporary state of affairs that happens when peace fails. For us, war is something that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. When it is over, win or lose, the warring factions lay down their arms, and resume their normal lives.

In the modern Middle East, war and peace are seen through a different lens. War is the default position, the normal state of affairs. Peace is what happens between wars; it is the temporary pause where defeated factions fade into the woodwork to lie low, regroup, and plan their next assault.

If it’s true that “war is the default position” in the Middle East, then it is only because 36 years of American foreign policy have made it so. From supporting Saddam Hussein’s aggressive war against Iran, to going to war to retaliate against Saddam Hussein’s aggressive invasion of Kuwait, to imposing a decade’s worth of destructive sanctions and airstrikes on Iraq throughout the 1990s, to finally invading Iraq and deposing Hussein under the flimsiest of pretenses during the Bush administration, the United States has done just about everything it could to destabilize, militarize, and cannibalize the Middle East. To say that these past four decades of more or less nonstop conflict have been caused by some violent tendency that is innate to the people of the region is no less wrong, and no less offensive, than saying that it’s rational to fear Muslims.

McFarland’s views on the Middle East and its people are further elucidated in this 2015 Fox News essay on the Iran nuclear deal, in which she describes the nation of Iran and the Iranian people as though they were America’s delinquent kindergarten-aged children who need to be strictly parented:

After watching the twists and turns of negotiations with Iran over the last year, I’m convinced that a savvy mom could negotiate a better deal than our experienced diplomats. Why? Because our diplomats seem lacking in good, old-fashioned common sense, which parents need in abundance to survive.

I’ve studied nuclear weapons at MIT, philosophy at Oxford and politics at George Washington University, but some of the most important lessons I ever learned were as a mother enrolled in the school of life. Because learning about weapons’ throw-weights, epistemology or Chinese characters is nothing compared to learning some good old-fashioned common sense. So while the diplomats in Vienna debate enrichment cycles and sanctions relief, they might spend some time sussing out the people they’re dealing with – on both sides of the table. No diplomat can be a good negotiator without the basic skill set most parents learn while navigating the kids through childhood and puberty. In the end, countries are just an aggregate of their leaders and people. They’re motivated by some of the same incentives and disincentives as your typical 6-year-old.

What are these lessons McFarland wants to apply to complex international diplomacy from her experiences as a mother?

  1. Don’t let your kids eat dessert before dinner. That’s what Secretary Kerry is doing. Iran’s supreme leader insists we lift all sanctions upon signing, including unfreezing over $100 billion in assets, and Iran will get around to inspections and changes to their nuclear program over time. If they get everything they want up front, what is the incentive for them to carry out their end of the bargain down the road?

  2. You DO want to see what’s in that backpack, especially if your kid’s been caught smoking pot in the past. You want to have surprise inspections of his room. Of course your kid will argue with you, with all the standard techniques, like “Heh, Mom, don’t you trust me?” And then, as a negotiating tactic, he will concede a small thing, but not the big thing, like, “OK, Mom, give me an hour and then you can inspect my room. But my backpack is off limits.” No way a savvy Mom falls for that!

Yet, according to press reports, that is exactly what Secretary Kerry is considering! Iran’s supreme leader has rejected the idea of anytime/anyplace inspections and flatly rejects the idea of inspectors coming onto military installations. Iran’s Parliament voted to ban inspectors from military sites, documents and scientists while some legislators chanted “Death to America.”

Really? What is the most logical place for Iran to conduct nuclear weapons research? On their military bases, of course! Any agreement that doesn’t allow for anytime/anyplace inspections isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. As Ronald Reagan said, “Trust but Verify.”

Leaving aside McFarland’s fear-mongering about how the nuclear deal treats military sites, a point that actual arms control experts have repeatedly debunked, the broader issue is this: in conducting international negotiations, the United States can’t treat other countries as though they were its wayward children. The reason for this is pretty simple: they aren’t America’s wayward children. Washington doesn’t get to send Ayatollah Khamenei to bed without dessert; it doesn’t get to take away his iPad and ground him for the weekend; and the only way it will get to check his “backpack” is by negotiating access to it in a way that no parent ever would (unless they’re prepared to muster a force of several hundred thousand soldiers to invade their child’s bedroom). If you want to strike a deal that curtails any Iranian ambitions for a nuclear weapon and gets the U.S. and Iran off of the road to a military confrontation, then that deal can’t be made entirely on America’s terms. Iran has to get something, too.

The kind of thinking that treats Iranians, or America’s other potential geopolitical foes, as children is insipid and belittling on its face, but it’s also incredibly dangerous when given a high-ranking voice within a U.S. presidential administration. What foreign leaders would possibly be willing to engage in tough negotiations with the Trump administration if its top officials approach them as defective inferiors? More ominously, if the Trump foreign policy team views Middle Easterners as juvenile delinquents whose brains are somehow broken, according to enlightened Western standards, how concerned can we expect Trump will be about minimizing civilian casualties when he inevitably orders some kind of strike against a Middle Eastern target? Trump’s approach to foreign policy, as nebulous as it still is, looks more frightening by the day.

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.



  1. “the Trump administration’s foreign policy will be shaped by people who fundamentally believe that there is something inferior about the people of the Middle East, and that the United States must pursue confrontation as its primary response to Middle Eastern nations.”

    I’d not have a problem seeing this attitude applied to Israel and Saudi Arabia.

  2. USA and its ally Saudi Arabia are the real
    Cause of conflict in the middle East. Currently the Syrian conflict arose due to funding ,training and arming a dissident army of Syrians and mercenaries from the region,j just to appease the Saudis.
    Israel as a middle eastern nation? Another fallacy which correctly be located some where near Serbia based on the origin of people .

  3. That the majority of Israelis are of European derivation is, of course, why the US treats them so differently, not to mention why the Israelis treat the Palestinians the same way as McFarland treats Arabs, the folks she’s really talking about, as you imply.

    The Saudis oil/money buys them out of the condescension.

  4. So predictably left wing and anti-American. The only thing missing was an attack on Israel, not part of the story, but then again, usually included irrespectively. A degree from the Unicersity of Chicago doesn’t really help your skewed, pathetic thought process

  5. McFarland’s understanding of war and peace is in reverse field — as if she were viewing reality through a photo negative. But perhaps her view is not all that different from the rest of the clowns getting appointed to the Trump administration. In reality — reality as perceived by plenty of “Washington’s children” — life under American hegemony has been perpetual war, punctuated by cease-fires that pass for peace.

    Moving day. The GOP clown car is pulling up to the White House, and it’s pulling a U-Haul.

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