Why Michael Flynn’s Foreign Policy Ideas Will Live On in Trump’s White House

Why Michael Flynn’s Foreign Policy Ideas Will Live On in Trump’s White House

Michael Flynn at a campaign rally for Donald Trump (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

The Field of Flight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam
and Its Allies

by Lt. General Michael T. Flynn and Michael Ledeen
St. Martin’s Press, 2016, 208 pp.


Lieutenant General (Ret.) Michael Thomas Flynn, Donald Trump’s former National Security Adviser (NSA), is an angry man—angry at political correctness, angry at being repeatedly forced out by presidents, and, above all, angry at “Radical Islamists” for daring to threaten the west. Indeed, anger is the emotion that drives Flynn’s The Field of Fight, a cri de coeur that embodies the worst in U.S. foreign policy thinking.

Though Flynn is no longer Trump’s NSA, his book, which he coauthored with the neoconservative defense intellectual Michael Ledeen, is still worth paying attention to for two reasons. First, Flynn was dismissed not because he held repellent views, but because he lied to and embarrassed Vice President Michael Pence. His work still expresses in stark terms the raging Islamophobia that characterizes the current thinking in the White House. Second, and more importantly, The Field of Fight remains one of the most honest books on U.S. foreign policy to be written in recent years. In its open contempt for Islam and its explicit championing of Judeo-Christianity, Flynn’s book asserts what many members of the bipartisan foreign policy establishment—that loose conglomeration of think tanks, NGOs, and government agencies located along the so-called Acela corridor—only whisper behind closed doors, or, most often, simply assume. Flynn allows the reader to see into the dark heart of contemporary U.S. foreign relations.

A registered Democrat, Flynn made his bones helping to direct U.S. intelligence efforts in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He served admirably during these conflicts, emerging as an effective administrator who streamlined the intelligence bureaucracy and improved the military’s ability to respond quickly to gathered information. Moreover, his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan led Flynn to become an astute theorist of guerilla warfare. Like counterinsurgency theorists before him, Flynn understood the ironies of fighting a war where, “counterintuively, the better you do—the more enemies you kill and capture—the worse things can get.” And he recognized that the key to an effective counterinsurgency campaign lay in convincing the local population to support one’s cause through both coercion and material incentives.

Flynn’s martial and administrative abilities, however, do not translate into geopolitical acumen. For example, Flynn attributes the recent American losses in Iraq and Afghanistan primarily to political correctness, instead of, say, the sheer difficulty of governing populations that are at once riven by deep-seated divisions and united by an understandable hatred of a foreign occupier. In Flynn’s telling, the United States lost (or is losing) these wars because politicians “shied away from any criticism of Islam, repeating, despite all manner of evidence to the contrary, that ‘Islam is a religion of peace.’”

In Flynn’s political theory, “Radical Islam,” similar to twentieth-century Nazism and Soviet communism, is by its very nature intent on the destruction of western civilization generally and the United States specifically. Flynn sees monsters everywhere. Internationally, he is convinced the nation confronts a transnational coalition led by Iran. Domestically, he believes extremist American Muslims “want to apply Sharia law by using our own legal system” to impose regulations “that den[y] freedoms of conscience, choices, and liberties.” Both at home and abroad, Flynn views the struggle against “Radical Islam” as a Manichean battle to the death in which “[w]e will either win or lose.” All of these beliefs are endorsed by Steve Bannon.

To win this war, Flynn suggests we return to earlier moments when the United States mobilized “against the messianic mass movements . . . [of] Nazism, Fascism, and Communism.” As in the Second World War and the Cold War, Flynn wants the nation to “energize every element of national power in a cohesive synchronized manner . . . to effectively resource what will likely be a multigenerational struggle.” In other words, Flynn implores the United States to mobilize its military and society for the foreseeable future.

The experience of the Cold War demonstrated that even under prudent presidents calls for permanent mobilization often lead to the erosion of civil liberties and government transparency. The “national security state,” composed of groups like the National Security Council, Department of Defense, and Central Intelligence Agency, is a case in point. Founded in the late 1940s and 1950s in order to combat the Soviet Union, this state formation has been defined by disdain for democratic accountability. Moreover, after the 9/11 attacks, a quiescent Congress has repeatedly granted the national security state even more power than it previously enjoyed. As Edward Snowden’s leaks revealed, U.S. officials’ contempt for democracy has only increased in recent years, with the government engaging in massive warrantless surveillance, questionably legal drone strikes, and the assassination of U.S. citizens without due process. There is little reason to believe that such abuses will not increase under Trump and Bannon’s leadership.

Indeed, there is a profound authoritarian subtext to The Field of Flight. “Democracy’s greatest weakness,” Flynn declares,

is foreign policy . . . We are slow, and we can’t keep secrets very well, whereas an effective national security policy often requires secrecy and high speed, lest our enemies get even stronger and are justifiably confident that they know what we will and won’t do. Therefore, it is often impossible for democratic leaders—even if they do see what is happening and have enough vision and courage to respond—to take properly prudent and timely action before the full onset of a major crisis.

Flynn, almost certainly unknowingly, is here repeating the arguments of the fascist legal theorist Carl Schmitt, who in interwar Germany affirmed that liberal democracies were too fickle and indecisive to defend themselves during moments of existential crisis. For this reason, Schmitt argued, the most effective form of government was an authoritarian one in which a single Führer had the capacity to make decisions to which all of his followers would adhere. Like Schmitt, Flynn disdains the democratic notion of “consensus building” and instead advocates for “leadership that is tough-minded, thoughtful, patriotic, and, when it matters, decisive.” Trump’s first weeks in office, which have been characterized by internal terror and the bullying of underlings, reveal that he shares Flynn’s authoritarian views on leadership.

Like Bannon, Flynn considers the war against Islam an ideological one. In The Field of Fight he complains that “ever since 9/11 our leaders have done everything in their power to silence criticism of anything ‘Islamic.’” In particular, Flynn is appalled that U.S. elites have failed to make clear that Muslim countries “have isolated half the population—the women—from real participation in the society.”

It is worth taking a moment to reflect on Flynn’s claims concerning women’s position in the Muslim world, as both Democrats and Republicans often refer to this subject in order to paint modern Islam as medieval. To be sure, there is truth to Flynn’s affirmation that many Muslim-majority countries are fraught with gender inequalities. Nevertheless, the situation is not as simple as Flynn, or indeed many liberals and conservatives, assume. One of the eight current vice presidents of Iran, for instance, is a woman, while Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, elected a woman to the presidency sixteen years ago. More importantly, American observers are prone to misunderstanding the nuances of how gender operates in the Muslim world. This occurs most dramatically when Americans confront the hijab, the veil sometimes worn by Muslim women. To many western eyes, the hijab is necessarily a symbol of female oppression. However, the way the hijab actually lives and moves in Muslim countries, especially in metropolises like Dubai, Istanbul, and Karachi, can be quite liberal, for instance signaling a woman’s participation in the public sphere. In such instances, the hijab fosters a liberalism that critics like Flynn claim to support. The story of women in the Muslim world can hardly be reduced to one of subjugation.

Paranoia permeates the The Field of Fight, from Flynn’s assertion that the United States “face[s] a working coalition that extends from North Korea and China to Russia, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua” to his dystopic vision of what life would look like “if we lose this war” against “Radical Islam.” The latter anxiety, which reflects the fears of Bannon and other members of the “alt-right,” is particularly disconnected from reality. In the fevered imaginations of these individuals, if the United States were to succumb,

we’d live the way the unfortunate residents of the ‘caliphate’ or the oppressed citizens of the Islamic Republic of Iran live today, in a totalitarian state under the dictates of the most rigid version of Sharia. A Russian KGB or Nazi SS-like state where the citizens spy on one another, and the regime doles out death or lesser punishment to those judged insufficiently loyal.

This is, frankly, ludicrous. Even if all the “Radical Islamists” in the world united and attempted to conquer the United States—something that will never happen—there is no possible way Al Qaeda, ISIS, Iran, and their potential allies could defeat the U.S. military and subsequently occupy the nation’s vast territory. Flynn, Bannon, and other radical conservatives appear to find meaning in potential suffering, and their inflated claims about U.S. vulnerability—which reflect a long-standing and ignoble American tradition—represent fear mongering of the absolute worst kind.

In his inauguration speech Trump expressed his desire to “eradicate [radical Islamic terrorism] completely from the face of the earth.” In The Field of Fight, Flynn perfectly reveals what this effort might entail: unilateral actions in which “[a]ny nation-state that offers safe haven to our enemies [will] be given one choice—to eliminate them or be prepared” for us to take aggressive action. It is not difficult to imagine that, as with the spurious links drawn between Al Qaeda and Iraq by the George W. Bush Administration, Trump will be willing to act on less than credible intelligence if it gives him cover to invade a country or depose a leader he doesn’t like.

In her recent review of The Field of Fight, Jessica T. Mathews, the former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, correctly predicted “that it’s hard to believe even Trump could take [Flynn] seriously for long.” But what Mathews didn’t recognize is that Flynn himself isn’t important; what is important is that Trump, Bannon, and many ordinary people find Flynn’s anti-Islamic worldview compelling. Furthermore, Flynn’s claim that we are in an existential war provides the only reasonable justification for the United States’ current military posture. Why else would the nation spend as much on its military as China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United Kingdom, India, France, and Japan combined? Why else would the United States maintain so many bases overseas? Why else would we bomb seven Muslim-majority countries in the last year alone? Why else would Hillary Clinton declare that “[t]he threat we face from terrorism is real, urgent, and knows no boundaries”? Given recent U.S. actions and rhetoric, why would ordinary Americans think we aren’t at war with Islam?

This is not to claim that the United States is at no risk of suffering terrorist attacks perpetrated by extremists, some of whom are Muslim (and some of whom are white and Christian). The important question, however, is whether “Radical Islam” truly represents an existential threat analogous to the one previously posed by Nazi Germany and, at least according to some people, the Soviet Union. In this reviewer’s opinion, the answer is clearly no. Unlike in the mid-twentieth century, today the United States is the world’s undisputed hegemon. Even if the nation continues to suffer periodic terrorist attacks, there is no reason to believe that it would fall prey to outside forces. Americans should be more worried about their congressional representatives passing legislation that strips citizens of their civil liberties and grants the national security state more and more authority. We must, in short, stop viewing contemporary geopolitics through outdated and alarmist frameworks and instead engage in more serious discussions about the proper balance between democracy, risk, and security. The overreach of the national security state, and not “Radical Islam,” is the major threat the nation currently confronts.

If the United States is to move beyond the misguided policies that have defined much of our foreign relations since the Second World War, the left must provide Americans with a vision of the world as compelling as Flynn’s. Trump’s electoral victory, which practically the entire foreign policy establishment opposed, highlights the degree to which this establishment has been discredited in the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Moreover, Trump is a profoundly unpopular president likely to engender continued vocal opposition. There is thus a real opening for the left to shape the way Americans understand both national security policy and their nation’s role in the world. Now is the moment for leftist foreign policy thinkers to engage in dialogue with the grassroots to develop a simple yet resonant plan that addresses a variety of issues, from the size of the military to the amount of money given to foreign aid to the relationship between democracy and security. If the left doesn’t seize this opportunity, the Michael Flynns, Steve Bannons, and Donald Trumps of the world will. This is an outcome our nation can hardly afford.


Daniel Bessner is the Anne H.H. and Kenneth B. Pyle Assistant Professor in American Foreign Policy in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. He is author of the forthcoming Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual, which will be published by Cornell University Press.