There aren’t many mornings, lately, when you can wake up feeling better about global security than you did the day before.
News of Michael Flynn’s unceremonious exit as Donald Trump’s national security adviser, following revelations that he discussed sanctions with Russia’s ambassador before Mr. Trump took office and then misled Vice-President Mike Pence (and the public) about it, made Tuesday a rare exception.
We’ll be puzzling for a good long while about the circumstances and ramifications of General Flynn’s departure after less than a month on the job – what exactly he promised the Russians, why the White House didn’t respond sooner to an alert from the Justice Department about what he was up to and what light it sheds on Mr. Trump’s bafflingly cozy relationship with Vladimir Putin.
But what we do know is that a U.S. president uniquely uninformed about the state of the world will have one less hawkish, conspiracy-minded, seemingly unstable voice in his ear, playing to his most dangerous instincts about how to keep his country safe.
As peculiar and disconcerting as General Flynn’s Russian ties (established before November’s election) may have been, and as much as they warrant ongoing investigation, they were less scary than the way he responded to his career trajectory by diving deeper and deeper into clash-of-the-civilizations paranoia.
General Flynn’s military career seems in one sense to have been a fairly standard example of the Peter principle. As an intelligence officer, his suspicion in conventional wisdom, willingness to take risks and lack of deference to authority served him well as he rose through defense ranks to become chief intelligence officer for Joint Special Operations Command, where he was lauded for helping revolutionize tactics against al-Qaeda.
But when he rose higher still to become the Pentagon’s intelligence chief, the level of authority reportedly exposed his erratic management skills, short temper and tendency to latch on to dubious pieces of information, and he was ousted after just 18 months.
The way he responded to that ouster in 2014, though, could understatedly be described as unusual. Whether something in him snapped or he had just previously been suppressing his feelings, he began to publicly position himself as a truth-teller in the face of a corrupt political and security establishment – culminating in the bizarre spectacle of a retired three-star general (and registered Democrat) leading a “Lock her up!” chant at last summer’s Republican National Convention.
More than anything, that supposed truth-telling was in service of painting his country as being in an existential war with radical Islam – or, when he really let his guard down, just with Muslims in general.
In a speech last year, he assessed that, “Islam is a political ideology” that “hides behind this notion of it being a religion.” Around the same time, he called Islamism “a vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people” that “has to be excised.” He co-authored a book contending that America is already in a “world war” against jihadists, which he suggested his country was losing. He tweeted that “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.”
And he latched onto discredited conspiracy theories, including that all Democrats in Florida’s legislature had voted to impose sharia law.
Not that his willingness to believe and promote outrageously fake news was limited to Islam; this was someone who during last year’s campaign retweeted a story claiming that Hillary Clinton was being investigated for involvement in sex crimes with children. But the obvious impression was that he would latch onto any information, no matter how dubious, if it fit into or advanced his worldview.
That’s the last thing you would want in any national security adviser. It’s especially the last thing you’d want in one advising a President who is disinclined to dig too deep into his briefings, and who is himself drawn to conspiracy theories.
Not that Mr. Trump is now without members of his inner circle willing to feed that appetite – not when Steve Bannon remains his top strategist, and when Stephen Miller is a senior adviser.
Nor is it at all clear whether General Flynn’s yet-to-be-named long-term replacement will be able to bring any order – from a position that is supposed to be about not just advising the President but also co-ordinating between security agencies – to an administration that thus far has been wrought with conflicting agendas, especially when it comes to foreign policy. Maybe the balance will be tilted toward more rational voices, such as Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; maybe it won’t.
But it’s been almost relentless lately, amid North Korean nuclear tests and Russian imperialism and nationalist waves across Europe and Mr. Trump’s early policies serving as propaganda tools for terrorists who do pose very real threats, the sense that the world is getting scarier and scarier.
Take the time to enjoy the temporary reprieve offered by General Flynn being nowhere near Mr. Trump as he reckons with all that.Report Typo/Error