Donald Trump made national security a central part of his campaign. Akshay Narayan examines how his National Security Advisor and Secretary of Defence have conflicting views.
The two most significant national security officials in the US government are the National Security Advisor and the Secretary of Defence. Donald Trump’s choices for both roles are very different men and have opposing views on several matters. One of them is likely to be a solid, smart choice, but the other is likely to be a dangerous man in an influential position.
Michael Flynn is a retired US Army lieutenant general who was one of the most respected military intelligence officers of his generation. However, he last served as the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) from 2012 to 2014 and was forced out reportedly due to his chaotic management style. He is Trump’s National Security Advisor and in terms of character, he is the exact opposite of what a National Security Advisor should be. Flynn’s comments display a kind of narrow-mindedness in which emotions dominate over facts. The fact that he has Trump’s ear is cause for concern.
Flynn is convinced that the most significant threat faced by the United States is “radical Islamic terrorism”, so much so that he wrote a book arguing that the US is fighting a religious world war. Flynn vastly exaggerates the threat that Islamist terrorism poses to the United States, and his views on Islam itself do not help. He has argued that Islam is a political ideology that has become a “malignant cancer”. One of his tweets stated that “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL”. Such rhetoric from a National Security Advisor is in fact detrimental to national security. As Obama has stated, if the Americans divide their own society, then they are doing the terrorists’ work for them. It is beneficial to terrorist organisations if the conflict becomes one between Islam and the West, as that would attract Muslims to their side. If Flynn gets his way, this might actually become the case.
Flynn also has an uneasy relationship with facts, which is surprising for an intelligence officer who built his career by gathering them. He has repeatedly shared fake news stories on Twitter, including the ridiculous “Pizzagate” conspiracy. Unfortunately this is trademark Mike Flynn; when he was Director of the DIA, his unsubstantiated assertions were so common that his subordinates reportedly began to call them “Flynn facts“. It is fairly disturbing that someone who will help dictate the foreign policy of the most powerful country on earth is known to repeatedly ignore the truth.
The Trump administration has a strange affinity towards Russia and Flynn is no exception. Just 18 months after he was fired from his position as Director of the DIA, Flynn attended an anniversary party for Russia Today (RT) and sat next to Vladimir Putin. During his appearances on RT programmes, he has argued that Russia and the US need to cooperate more closely to fight so-called Islamic State, despite the role of the Russian military in the bombardment of eastern Aleppo. A National Security Advisor should not be talking about cooperation with countries accused of war crimes. Even though the threat posed by so-called Islamic State is significant, Russia should not be on the list of countries to cooperate with to defeat it.
Mr. Flynn is not good news. His fear of Muslims is irrational and his apparent trust in Russia is disturbing. The influence he wields over foreign policy is dangerous, but hopefully it can be balanced out by other members of Trump’s cabinet.
James “Mad Dog” Mattis is a retired US Marine Corps (USMC) general and is the better of the two national security officials. He is Trump’s Secretary of Defence, and his views contrast significantly with those of Mr. Flynn. Mattis is revered in the USMC because of his charismatic leadership and aggressive fighting style, hence the nickname “Mad Dog”. His combat experience includes several distinguished actions in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Throughout his career in the Marine Corps, Mattis was regarded as an intellectual by his superiors. He had a personal library that once contained thousands of books, and was essentially a scholar-soldier. He co-authored a manual for US troops that is credited with reducing sectarian violence in Iraq before the American withdrawal. Despite his aggressive style, he is fully aware of the need for cultural sensitivity, a must when fighting insurgencies. He emphasised to troops under his command that restraint was often required. He told them that “Whenever you show anger or disgust towards civilians, it’s a victory for al-Qaeda and other insurgents” and urged them to demonstrate “chivalry and soldierly compassion“. As the commander of the 1st Marine Division, he ensured that all troops under his command underwent cultural sensitivity training before they were deployed to the Middle East. He had a penchant for publishing required reading lists for troops to ensure they knew about the culture and history of the area in which they would be operating. The point is that James Mattis is smart. He is a tough yet intelligent officer with a deep understanding of conflicts.
However, some of Mattis’ views are not optimal. In 2010 he was promoted to the head of US Central Command, and his area of responsibility included the Middle East. He quickly became a vocal critic of Tehran and in 2013 he was forced out by the Obama administration due to concerns that he was too eager for a military conflict with Iran. Hopefully Mattis realises that war with Iran would be catastrophic; the result would undoubtedly be a prolonged insurgency followed by a mess worse than present-day Iraq. It would be a shame if a brilliant scholar of military history were to make such a big blunder.
Flynn and Mattis are conflicting choices. Although Mattis’ plans on what to do with Iran could go down the wrong path, he is much better than Flynn. Mattis must act as a moderating force to prevent dangerous national security decisions being made by the likes of Trump and Flynn. If he can wield more influence over the President than Flynn can, Mattis can prevent the geopolitical chaos that would otherwise ensue.