On paper, Michael Flynn seems like a perfect fit for the post of Trump’s national-security adviser.
A former three-star general who led major intelligence operations across the globe, he has vast experience. Confronting a dangerous world, America’s next president will need all the experience he can get.
Yet experience does not alone equal effectiveness. Serving as the assistant to the president for national-security affairs is not easy. The adviser must guide the president on complex long-term and short-term security issues. He or she must also control the national-security bureaucracy to present the president with good options at short notice. Flynn will also have responsibility for domestic agencies that pertain to national-security concerns such as counterterrorism. It’s a big job, and history tells us what happens when the national-security adviser fails: American foreign policy sinks into the sea of bickering government agencies.
Let’s hope that Flynn excels in his new role. Unfortunately, there are reasons for doubt.
For a start, critics say that Flynn exaggerates his accomplishments. Take Flynn’s service as the director of intelligence at Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) during the Iraq War. Appointed by acclaimed JSOC Commander General Stanley McChrystal, Flynn was involved in operations to destroy al-Qaeda in Iraq. But Flynn’s opponents believe that he takes too much credit for his Iraq experience. One individual who served with Flynn at JSOC describes him as General McChrystal’s yes man. McChrystal was a good leader, the individual says, Flynn had a tendency to bully anyone who disagreed with his assessments on operational strategy.
This individual, who requested anonymity, also says Flynn was not responsible for the intelligence successes that helped JSOC effectively crush al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). He says two other officers, Wayne Barefoot and Michelle Schmidt, were key. Barefoot is the “rock star,” he says, who revolutionized JSOC’s understanding, penetration, and targeting of AQI networks and cells. But this individual also told me that Flynn’s unpredictable nature at JSOC earned him the nickname “firehose.” The meaning? That unless held firmly to a task, Flynn would spray off dangerously in all directions.
These criticisms join with others. Flynn’s highest station in government was his 2012–14 tenure as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. And while some have praised Flynn for attempting to shake up the DIA bureaucracy, others question his success there. Former NSA officer John Schindler is among the critics. “Flynn’s tenure as DIA director was frankly disastrous,” he told me. “His mission to reform the notoriously stodgy agency was well intentioned, but it drowned in a mixture of naiveté and arrogance.”
Schindler also challenges Flynn’s claim that he was fired from the DIA for his well-reported efforts to push President Obama to take ISIS more seriously. Instead, Schindler says, Flynn was fired for “alienating the [DIA] workforce, not due to anything about ISIS, as Flynn now maintains.” Other national-security analysts, such as Peter Bergen and Shane Harris, have praised Flynn’s early focus on ISIS but have also suggested that his management style was his downfall.
What comes out of these various accounts is a complex picture. On the one hand, Flynn evidently served the nation with honor. He could have left the War on Terror early and joined the private sector as a well-compensated consultant. He did not. Yet since leaving the military, Flynn seems to have been eager to attract attention. He has made frequent controversial remarks on political Islam and has recently released a successful book on national security.
#related#The relationship with Russia raises the loudest alarm bells. Last December, Flynn was paid to speak at a celebration in Moscow for RT, a Kremlin media outlet that spouts Putin propaganda. And in light of President-elect Trump’s positive words about President Putin, critics are especially worried about Flynn’s Russian ties. Regardless, the RT relationship raises concerns about Flynn’s judgment. Any U.S. government official who took such a trip would surely face questions on their return home.
Ultimately of course, we can only hope for the best. Perhaps Flynn will manage the interagency process effectively. Perhaps he will push Trump to consider uncomfortable points of views and proposals.
But I’m not optimistic. Trump should have gone with Mattis (who, fortunately, now seems likely to end up at the Pentagon).