One of the first great media riffs to define the Trump administration before it even takes power blares from the news pages of today’s Wall Street Journal. The paper outlines an “intraparty split over Russia — which pits GOP lawmakers like Sens. John McCain and Lindsay Graham against [President-elect Donald] Trump and his national security adviser designate, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.” The “disagreement,” we’re told, is “over a basic question: How much danger does President Vladimir Putin’s Russia pose to the U.S.?”
Correspondent Paul Sonne’s report elaborates that Senator McCain’s faction “believes Mr. Putin poses a grave threat to the U.S. by undermining democratic values, flouting rules of the international order and countering American influence around the world.” On the opposite side, we are led to believe, is General Flynn. According to the report, Flynn sees Putin’s regime “as a necessary ally in the graver global conflict with Islamist extremism and a potential partner more broadly.”
That’s an awfully thin reed on which to hang an extravagant theory . . . especially when one considers that seven months later — in July 2016, while General Flynn was on the campaign trail as a top Trump adviser — he published a bestselling book in which he places Putin’s Russia at the core of “an international alliance of evil countries and movements that is working to destroy” the United States.
The book, unmentioned in the WSJ report, is The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War against Radical Islam and Its Allies. It is co-authored with Michael Ledeen, the Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and former Reagan State Department adviser (and a close friend of yours truly). A distinguished historian, Dr. Ledeen has written for decades on the strategies and tactics of totalitarian governments (very much including the Soviet Union and KGB, from which Putin emerged) and their propensity to align with jihadist regimes and movements. As The Field of Fight elucidates, a particular concern of Ledeen’s, which Flynn shares, is the bond between Putin’s Russia and the Shiite jihadist regime in Iran.
Yet, Flynn and Ledeen write, “the Russian air force and Iranian foot soldiers are fighting side by side in Syria. Somehow, Russian antipathy toward radical Islam does not prevent the Kremlin from constructing all the Iranian nuclear power plants[.]”
Flynn goes on:
Putin has done a lot for the Khamenei regime. Russian involvement in Persian affairs goes back centuries, and I have pointed out that there are very close working relations between the two countries, the most spectacular example being the Iranian nuclear program. The nuclear reactor at Bushehr is a Russian product, as will be the next two reactors. Iran has contracted for billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment, as well as very good Russian antiaircraft missiles, the infamous S-300s. Finally, there is no denying the fact that the two are fighting side by side in Syria trying to save the regime of their mutual ally, Bashar al-Assad.
So why, if jihadism is a threat to Putin, would the Russian strongman align with the world’s leading state sponsor of that jihadism? Flynn’s explanation of “this superficially unlikely partnership” is anti-Americanism:
In part, it’s the old nostrum: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Putin has declared the United States (and NATO generally) to be a national security threat to Russia, and “Death to America” is the official chant of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Both the Putinists and the radical Iranian Muslims agree on the identity of their main enemy. Hence, one part of the answer is surely that their alliance is simply the logical outgrowth of their hostility toward America.
In fact, the antipathy is even more fundamental, according to Flynn. “The Russians and Iranians have more in common than a shared enemy. There is also a shared contempt for democracy and an agreement — by all members of the enemy alliance — that dictatorship is a superior way to run a country, an empire, or a caliphate.”
That is perfectly consistent with the views of Senators McCain and Graham. They see Putin as an anti-democratic, KGB-bred totalitarian with revanchist ambitions, who is backing America’s principal enemy Iran, is largely responsible for the humanitarian crisis in Syria, and has made significant inroads in the Middle East by exploiting President Obama’s abdication of American leadership.
Flynn, it is worth adding, stresses that “those seeking freedom in Muslim countries invariably call out to us for support, knowing that American traditions and values and, eventually, American leadership is their only chance to gain liberty.” He is virtually singing from the McCain-Graham hymnal.
To be sure, there is nuance in Flynn’s views about Russia — something the senators should appreciate given that their fondness for democracy promotion has led them to open-mindedness (to say the least) about the Muslim Brotherhood, a sharia-supremacist organization they seem to regard as a progressive force in Islam. (Of course, if al-Qaeda or ISIS is your frame of reference, who isn’t a progressive?)
If Flynn looks at that dynamic and sees some potential of prying Putin away from Iran, that is a glimmer of hope based on a perception of Russian self-interest.
One of the many interesting aspects of The Field of Fight is Flynn and Ledeen’s contention that Russian “experts” (their scare quotes) are as clueless as many of our own regarding radical Islam. “The jihadis,” say the authors, “have exploited this ignorance to the point where one of the country’s true experts on Islam [Aleksey Grishin] has shown that official government policies in essence pay for the growth of radical organizations.”
Flynn and Ledeen theorize that, just as in the United States, Islamists have wormed their way into the confusing — and confused — maze of agencies and ministries that haplessly oversee Putin’s counterterrorist operations. The Islamist influence, along with loathing of the West, may go a long way toward explaining dimensions of Putin’s policy, especially toward Iran, that cut against Russia’s interests.
If Flynn looks at that dynamic and sees some potential of prying Putin away from Iran, that is a glimmer of hope based on a perception of Russian self-interest, not a gush of fantasy that Russia could be a reliable American ally. It makes sense to at least consider such possibilities. After all, Russia is a vexing fact of our national-security life, and the Trump administration will have to deal with it. But it certainly would not suggest, to anyone who takes the time to browse through The Field of Fight, that Flynn harbors illusions about Putin.Like many commentators, I am alarmed by the president-elect’s friendly rhetoric toward the Russian despot, who runs his country like a ruthless mafia family determined to retake swaths of its old turf. I take comfort, however, in the fact that President Trump’s top national-security adviser will be a combat general with a rich intelligence pedigree who certainly does not oversimplify Russia as a “necessary ally in the graver global conflict with Islamist extremism.”
As his book explains, General Flynn sees the global conflict with Islamist extremism not as ISIS-centric but as Iran-centric. Viewed through that broader strategic lens, he places Russia firmly in the enemy camp, united with Iran due to its “hatred of the democratic West.” Thankfully, on that core assumption, there appears to be no daylight between Flynn and the McCain-Graham wing of the GOP.
— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior policy fellow at the National Review Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.