Author : The Economist

Posetd November 26th,2016

WHAT can be deduced from Donald Trump’s confirmed and likely picks for key national security posts? The answer is not much, apart from an apparent enthusiasm for generals—which is slightly odd, given the way Mr Trump lambasted them during the campaign for their failure to win America’s wars.

Mike Flynn, a retired military-intelligence general who guided Mr Trump’s views on national security throughout his campaign, and whose strident views on Islam were reflected in the candidate’s speeches, will be the national security adviser. General Flynn is a divisive figure, who spooks Republican foreign-policy thinkers as much as Mr Trump does. By contrast Jim Mattis, a former Marine general who is likely to be defence secretary, would reassure them; as would David Petraeus, another general, who has been mooted as a potential secretary of state if the job does not go to Mitt Romney. Despite General Mattis’s nickname, “Mad Dog” (earned for his aggression in combat and a talent for cheerfully menacing quotes), he is regarded as combining military dash with intellectual seriousness.

Moreover his views, expressed during his time spent as a scholar at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think-tank, contrast with Mr Trump’s zero-sum, transactional concept of foreign policy. “Like it or not, today we are part of this larger world and must carry out our part,” he said in testimony to the Senate armed services committee in 2015. “We cannot wait for problems to arrive here, or it will be too late; rather we must remain strongly engaged in this complex world.”

Generals Flynn and Mattis do have one other thing in common, in addition to their military service. Both were dumped before they were due to retire by the Obama administration. General Mattis was relieved of his command of CENTCOM (which covers an area from the Middle East to Pakistan) in early 2013 without so much as a telephone call from the president. The White House had become riled by his dogged questioning of its Iran policy. Even if the nuclear issue could be resolved, General Mattis argued, not nearly enough was being done to counter Iran’s threat to stability in the Middle East.

General Mattis has continued to be a critic of Mr Obama’s foreign policy which, he believes, has emboldened Russia, China and Iran, who have exploited the president’s reluctance to apply America’s military power. If appointed, he would attempt to steer Mr Trump away from isolationism and deals with Vladimir Putin.

Bear hug

General Flynn is likely to push in the opposite direction. “We’re in a world war against a messianic mass-movement of evil people, most of them inspired by totalitarian ideology: radical Islam,” he wrote in a book published earlier this year. “But we are not permitted to speak or write those two words, which is potentially fatal to our culture.” In another passage, he asks: “Do you want to be ruled by men who eagerly drink the blood of their dying enemies?…There’s no doubt that they [Islamic State] are dead set on taking us over and drinking our blood.” He tweeted in February: “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.” The tweet included a link to a video claiming that the religion of Islam wants “80% of people enslaved or exterminated”. He holds that jihadism is an “existential” threat to America’s way of life. Defeating it should, in his view, be the overwhelming national priority, far ahead of meeting the challenge of a rising China or a resurgent, nuclear sabre-rattling Russia.

There are other reasons to worry about the judgment of the man who will be the closest adviser on foreign policy to an inexperienced president, as well as the co-ordinator of the national-security machine. It is troubling that, as a retired senior officer, he joined the chants of “Lock her up, lock her up!” against Hillary Clinton at the Republican convention. He offered support at first for the attempted coup in Turkey, and then changed his mind when his lobbying firm was hired by an outfit linked to the government in Ankara. Last year he accepted payment for attending an event in Moscow to mark the anniversary of RT, a TV network funded by the Kremlin, that included a speech and a seat at Mr Putin’s elbow.

General Flynn believes he was fired from his post as director of the Pentagon’s Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) in 2014 because of pervasive political correctness within the Obama White House, which disliked his conflation of Islam with terrorism. It was also infuriated by his insistence that the war against jihadists was being lost, even as Mr Obama was trying to put it behind him.

He was right that the White House claimed victory over al-Qaeda prematurely. And his reorganisation of the DIA, which encroached on the CIA’s turf and expensively duplicated its intelligence-gathering, contributed to his downfall. But it is also the case that, where once he had been respected by military contemporaries, such as Stanley McChrystal, General Petraeus and General Mattis, with whom he had helped to redefine counter-insurgency after the initial disasters of the Iraq war, concerns had grown about General Flynn’s obsessive behaviour and ill-concealed contempt for civilian control. Insiders claim that he peddled weird theories that came to be known as “Flynn facts”.

Were General Flynn to be nominated for a cabinet post requiring congressional confirmation, he would probably struggle. But the job of national security adviser is in Mr Trump’s gift. As for General Mattis, under rules devised to ensure civilian authority over the armed forces, a retired military officer is required to be out of uniform for seven years before he could take charge of the Pentagon. However, under the law, Congress can grant a waiver. Widely esteemed and with the enthusiastic backing of the chairman of the Senate armed services committee, John McCain, General Mattis would be a shoo-in.

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