U.S. President-elect Donald Trump appointed retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as national security adviser earlier this month. Flynn will play a pivotal role in U.S. foreign policy.
His career's center of gravity was fighting in the Middle East. He served in multiple posts as intelligence officer in Iraq and Afghanistan and head of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). President Barack Obama effectively fired Flynn from the DIA for objecting to how the wars in the Middle East were being fought and how intelligence was carried out.
It's difficult to know his views on most of the world. He visited Russia at Moscow's expense and met with President Vladimir Putin. I also visited Russia at their expense. I didn't meet Putin, but rather lesser figures appropriate to my lack of status. You can meet someone, like someone and not be seduced by them. This is less a defense of Flynn than a defense of all of us who travel to faraway places, drink heavily and manage to stay sober.
That said, Flynn is not a complete mystery. His views of wars in the Middle East are clear, peculiar and provide a sense of his views on other things.
The Wrong Approach
While running intelligence in Afghanistan, Flynn objected to the way the war was fought. He believed the enemy was not understood, and that military intelligence focused on the purely tactical failed to provide material from which strategy could be formed.
The essential criticism he made was that the enemy's nature was being neglected. He also believed that rather than steeping themselves in history, the intelligence community was focused on mounting operations against various objectives. They failed to realize that victories didn't add up to winning the war.
From Flynn's perspective, wars in the region were deeply embedded in history, particularly the history of Islam. The forces the United States was fighting didn't spring to life a few years ago. They were part of the deep structure of Islamic doctrine, and such conflicts were a recurring theme in Islamic history.
He blamed two forces for this. One was Obama's reticence to recognize what the Taliban or Islamic State willingly acknowledged: their rootedness in Islam.
He also blamed U.S. intelligence. U.S. intelligence had focused warfighting on destroying al-Qaida, IS and the Taliban. U.S. intelligence method consisted of identifying senior leadership, using intelligence gathering to locate that leadership, and then killing them with air strikes, drones or special operations units. The assumption was that removing the fighting entity would end the war. Eliminating the command structure would eliminate the fighting entity.
Flynn objected to this by pointing out that over a decade, the enemy hadn't collapsed. In the long term, it had maintained its strength.
Flynn argued this was an ingenuous strategy that suffered from any serious grasp of what motivated groups. First, groups like al-Qaida and IS that arose historically drew their strength from moral values and communities sharing those values. If you destroy one group, another will arise.
Flynn's point was that a dual problem existed. The first was that Obama's refusal to recognize that groups the U.S. was fighting did not spring out of nothingness or some marginal source vaguely connected to Islam. This was not a marginal group of malcontents but an integral part of Islam. He felt that denying that cost the U.S. casualties without hope of a victory.
But he also slammed the intelligence community for putting aside analysis from the outside. Flynn has a different view of intelligence: Its purpose is to provide the decision-maker with comprehensive knowledge of reality. The doctrine that "if we didn't steal it, it isn't intelligence" provided a limited and sterile background that didn't challenge the assumptions on which the war was based.
Flynn's argument was not that all Muslims are terrorists. Rather, without grasping the Islamic roots of these groups you cannot understand why our strategies in the Middle East were failing.
The simplistic expectations that eliminating leaders would lead to victory vastly underrated their core strength as individual soldiers. It underestimated the community support that would sustain them. The U.S. was merely cutting fast-growing branches - smaller ones - of a robust tree. If the U.S. didn't get to the roots, the war could not be won.
What is most interesting is Flynn's attack on the intelligence communities for their inability to grasp that the most important things about the war weren't to be gathered by advanced electronics, but rather by reading books. The open source contains truths that must be learned if the secret intercepts are to make any sense. I suspect he must have read deeply in order to come to this conclusion. Since I confess to having built Geopolitical Futures on this principle, I admire him for it.
I imagine that if he recruits Trump for this mission, Flynn can compel U.S. intelligence to see the world more clearly. I strongly suggest he will have a very different war in mind, or argue for ending it. What he will argue for the rest of the world is less clear.
As a soldier he understands about not undertaking missions built to fail. He wants to make certain he can survive both victory and defeat. And he knows war is not an abstract concept. More importantly, he will grasp the necessity of looking at the world through the enemies' eyes to recognize their weaknesses.
Flynn's great weakness is that he battled his commanders in Afghanistan and the DIA president. From this I gather that the subtlety of the Borgias, which is what you need in Washington, wasn't given to him as a gift. But he has Trump backing him for now, so all is possible. In any case, we have our first glimpse at how the world will look for Trump. And Flynn is painting the picture.