In the wake of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s sudden resignation, J. BROOKS SPECTOR ponders whether or not the Trump administration even has a foreign policy apparatus or policies.
Among the US astronaut corps and, even before that, among that irrepressible band of jet test pilots, messing up really big time (as opposed to a genuine equipment failure) was colloquially referred to as “screwing the pooch” – as in, whatever you do, whatever other things go wrong on your flight, don’t crash and burn because of your own stupid mistakes. And now, General Michael Flynn, after less than a month in his position, has done precisely that.
As attentive readers will remember, retired General Flynn had been hired as head of the Defence Intelligence Agency under former President Barack Obama, but had then been fired in 2013 for his appalling, wild and crazy, mercurial, loose-cannon management style. Thereafter, he seems to have had a kind of secular epiphany. Or, perhaps better put, a quasi-religious one.
Just by the way, the US Government has more than a baker’s dozen intelligence agencies and miscellaneous governmental bodies that dabble in those arts, including the CIA, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Naval Intelligence, the NSA (the guys that do all the signals interception), the Defence Intelligence Agency, parts of the FBI, and a separate unit in the Department of Energy, and so forth. They all specialise in various related but different elements of surveillance and analysis.
Despite working for the same government, they can still have snit fights among themselves over turf as well as the proper evaluation of information. As a result, one key task of the DIA head is to work and play well with others in the intel community, and this was one of those areas where the general had been weighed and found wanting.
Still, Flynn had earned three stars in his career as a military man. So somewhere, for his years in the service, his record must have passed muster with numerous promotion boards, especially since the military operates a very tough up-or-out promotion system for all its officers.
Now, what about Flynn’s particular epiphany? It came to him – perhaps in a vision, perhaps on the shell-pocked road to Damascus – that the threat of radical Islamist terrorism was the existential threat facing western civilisation, above and beyond every other thing on the planet. Beyond Russian revanchist daydreams, beyond potential Chinese expansionism throughout East Asia and the nearby seas, beyond North Korean nuclear ambitions, beyond catastrophic climate change and meteorological disasters, beyond a global economic collapse, beyond, well, everything else. And Flynn’s growing, near-religious fervour over Islam fitted neatly with neophyte presidential candidate Donald J Trump’s own “weltanschauung”, together with the more polished, slightly more nuanced views of the candidate’s ideological Svengali, Stephen Bannon, the prophet from the alt.right/Breitbart News.
Thereby energised, Flynn became a convert with the zeal that is usually the lot of converts. Flynn became a tireless campaigner for Trump’s election, including his particularly impassioned speech at the Republican National Convention in which he had mercilessly flogged Hillary Clinton over her use of a private e-mail server.
Meanwhile, however, the good general had been known to cavort with friends in the Kremlin, and from among those at Russia’s government-controlled, global television/radio broadcaster, Russia Today (RT). Along the way, some money had apparently changed hands to the general’s benefit, thereby allowing him to attend a splashy function in Moscow.
And as the Trump victory became reality, the general kept up his warm and friendly connections with the resident Russian ambassador in Washington, DC. Well, okay, that’s not illegal, after all. Flynn was about to become the president’s national security adviser, and understanding Russian attitudes and prospects is part of the job description.
But, and here is where it got more problematic, in those discussions, he managed to discuss the economic sanctions the outgoing Obama administration had just imposed on Russia, rather than just some cheerful, mutual declarations for a wonderful holiday season. The Obama administration had put those latest sanctions in place at the end of its administration in response to the US intelligence community’s determination that Russian intel agencies – presumably under orders from the very tippy-top of the pyramid – had penetrated the Democratic National Committee’s e-mail systems and passed along their harvest to Wikileaks. In addition, it had also carried out a sophisticated and unrelenting campaign of disinformation and fake news that continued to portray Hillary Clinton in the most unflattering of lights.
There are a fair number of people who now believe that this campaign – coupled with the stupidity and cupidity of the FBI in announcing just a few days before the election it was investigating a cache of potentially suspicious e-mails found on a laptop jointly used by Clinton aide Huma Abedin and her wayward, electronic lap-dancing husband, Anthony Weiner – proved to be the collective straws that broke the camel’s back of Clinton’s chances in the 2016 election.
Now the problem for the good general was that telephonic conversations in and out of the Russian Embassy in Washington (as with the US Embassy in Moscow) are routinely monitored by intel agencies – just in case something very interesting and useful comes up. And it was thereupon discovered that Flynn had been speaking with the Russian ambassador and they had been discussing much more than the Moscow winter, festive season greetings, and possible arrangements for a presidential summit after Trump became president.
Instead, Flynn had apparently also been talking about those very economic sanctions, and implying rather broadly that they would be up for reconsideration in the grand bargain that the Trump-Putin bromance would be producing once Trump came to power. To some observers, that was a clear violation of the Logan Act, a 1798 law prohibiting private efforts to conduct American foreign policy in end runs around the president – although, truthfully, in 200 years, no one has ever been charged and convicted under that law.
The bigger problem, of course, was that Flynn had apparently insisted to his White House colleagues – including the vice president – that no substantive discussions had taken place. None. As a result, Vice President Pence defended him publicly, as did the ever-attack-mode Kellyanne Conway, among others. Eventually, Flynn had to commence his painful claw-back, admitting that well, maybe, sanctions came up – or not, who knows? Eventually, White House aides began to mouth noncommittal phrases of not-quite-support and eventually were unable to say whether or not the president still had confidence in Flynn in his position.
As CNN reported it, “His resignation came after reports that the Trump administration was warned last month that Flynn misled administration officials regarding his communications with the Russian ambassador to the United States and was potentially vulnerable to blackmail by the Russians, a person familiar with the matter told CNN.”
And then, suddenly, the whole house of cards collapsed upon Flynn, and his defence and any support he might still have had in the Oval Office evaporated. He then turned in a resignation letter; although how heavily he was pushed to the cliff remains unclear. As Flynn wrote in a rather self-pitying note, “I inadvertently briefed the Vice President-elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador. I have sincerely apologised to the President and the Vice President, and they have accepted my apology….
“I am tendering my resignation, honoured to have served our nation and the American people in such a distinguished way. I know with the strong leadership of President Donald J. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence and the superb team they are assembling, this team will go down in history as one of the greatest presidencies in US history.”
With that, the shortest tenure in the history of the national security adviser role came to an end. Previously, people were betting he would not last out Trump’s four-year administration, thereby rivalling the fate of Ronald Reagan’s first national security adviser, Richard V Allen, who had himself come to grief over insinuations of influence peddling in lining up exclusive interviews with Nancy Reagan for Japanese publications that had resulted in some fancy watches and a cheque or two being accepted. They had been deposited in a White House safe and apparently forgotten, or so Allen’s defence had gone, but the resulting fuss – and especially since it traduced the reputation of the first lady – led to Allen’s political defenestration.
Curiously, Allen hung around Washington and eventually healed himself sufficiently so that he became a power broker in Republican policy wonk world all over again. So, who knows what lies in Michael Flynn’s future, that is if he can avoid being fired for his third strike, wherever he finally lands after this mess.
Flynn’s exit marks the most public display yet of disarray at the highest levels of the new administration, an administration which has faced repeated questions over varied controversies and in widely reported stories about the constant infighting among Trump’s senior aides just within its first three weeks. While the Kremlin’s leaders have said this is a domestic matter for the US to solve by itself, some members of Russia’s Duma from Putin’s party have already been given to speculating that this whole tawdry mess is a plot, a conspiracy, to drive out of influence those in the Trump White House who had hoped for a Russia-US rapprochement.
Meanwhile, helping underscore the notion of chaos, and putting paid to the idea that Donald Trump has a preternatural bent for tough-minded, tightly focused management, during the Tuesday press briefing, according to reports in The New York Times,
“President Trump was informed weeks ago that his national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, had not told the truth about his interactions with Russia’s ambassador and asked for Mr Flynn’s resignation after concluding he could not be trusted, the White House said on Tuesday.
“At his daily briefing, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said the president’s team has been ‘reviewing and evaluating this issue on a daily basis trying to ascertain the truth’, and ultimately concluded that while there was no violation of law, Mr Flynn could no longer serve in his position. ‘The evolving and eroding level of trust as a result of this situation and a series of other questionable incidents is what led the president to ask General Flynn for his resignation,’ Mr Spicer said.”
And in reporting on the same press conference, The Washington Post had added,
“The president was briefed on the national security adviser’s contacts with the Russian ambassador immediately after the Justice Department raised the issue, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said. He said Trump and the White House counsel believe Michael Flynn’s discussion with the ambassador about sanctions prior to the inauguration were not improper. Rather, he said, Flynn resigned last night due to an ‘evolving and eroding level of trust.’ ”
Huh? In other words, Trump knew there was a huge problem in his unruly stable, but was prepared to let things just drift along until the media attention grew to the unremitting, unrelenting hurricane that forced his hesitant hand.
The stage is now set, less than a month into the Trump administration, for a whole new, potentially chaotic search process for another national security adviser, with all the pushing and shoving that seems the norm in the Trump White House. Leading candidates appear to be Gen. Keith Kellogg, the interim national security adviser, as well as former Vice Admiral Bob Harward, and retired General David Petraeus. Harward or Kellogg are the safer choices, but some think Petraeus may become the pick, even though “he has a lot of baggage”, as one White House insider told reporters, in one of the better understatements of this young administration. In this case, baggage translates to Petraeus being found out giving highly classified information to a woman other than his wife with whom he was having an affair – while he was the field commander in Afghanistan and later the CIA director.
Meanwhile, the foreign policy problems pile up as the Trump White House continues to wrestle with itself over how it will manage itself. North Korea launches a test missile presumably designed to send nukes as far as the US and the president sits in his very own Florida restaurant sharing highly classified documents with the Japanese prime minister as other diners gawk and take photos of the meeting for social media. The Russians launch a new cruise missile in apparent violation of existing bilateral agreements, and there is little or no public concern about things. The roundelay of visiting foreign leaders and telephone calls to yet others continues, including a call to South African President Jacob Zuma, even as there is no national security adviser on station and the Secretary of State seems largely left out of the picture for these discussions – although son-in-law Jared Kushner is sometimes part of the in crowd. Meanwhile, the Great Wall of Mexico imbroglio smoulders, the non-Muslim Muslim travel ban is suspended but lurking out there still, the Middle East is about to have yet another of its regularly scheduled meltdowns as Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu comes to call in Washington, and former National Security Adviser Flynn’s warning that Iran had transgressed a red line over its missile tests apparently still stands, even if he does not.
By now, any rational observer would be forgiven for asking just who is actually in charge with regard to America’s foreign policy – and what the heck does the country want to see happen in the world? The redoubtable baseball manager, Casey Stengel, a man who had won all those league pennants and World Series championships with the New York Yankees over many years, very late in his life had become the manager of a blundering expansion team, the New York Mets. After one particularly egregious loss, he had famously said, as he looked down the bench at his sorry, bedraggled team, “Can’t anybody here play this game?” Sadly, the same is just about to be said by many about American foreign policy under the leadership of Donald Trump. DM
Photo: US Army Lieutenant-General Michael Flynn looks at US President-elect Donald Trump as he talks with the media at Mar-a-Lago estate where Trump attends meetings, in Palm Beach, Florida, US, December 21, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine