Fighting talk: understanding Michael Flynn
In an exclusive interview, Michael Leeden – a close friend of Donald Trump's National Security Adviser and the co-author with him of a recent book on how the west can defeat radical Islam – offers Asia Times his insights on how Flynn will steer the president
Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser, Lieutenant-General Michael T. Flynn, is a three-star US Army general who served 33 years in the military — mostly in intelligence operations.
The maverick spook was fired from his post as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014 after telling a congressional committee that Americans were in more danger from Islamic extremists than they were in previous years.
The 58-year-old has publicly said that he was forced out by the Obama administration shortly before retirement, because of his stand against “radical Islamism.”
The lifelong Democrat later surfaced during the 2016 presidential campaign as a key adviser to Republican Trump on military and national security affairs. He also became a harsh critic of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s and Obama’s Middle East policies. At one point, Flynn was in the running to be Trump’s vice-presidential pick.
Flynn stood by Trump during the darkest hours of the 2016 campaign when Republican support seemed to be evaporating for the controversial New York real estate developer. But he also faced criticism for his hawkish views and controversial tweets on both the Muslim threat and Clinton.
Flynn announced in November, shortly after Trump’s victory, that he had accepted the post of National Security Adviser. The position doesn’t require Senate confirmation.
As Trump’s key security honcho, Flynn is poised to give the president daily briefings and last-minute advice in any crisis involving the South China Sea, Ukraine and other hotspots. He was present when the president-elect met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in New York in November.
He takes over the White House post previously occupied by Susan Rice, Tom Donilon and General James Jones under the Obama administration and by Stephen Hadley and Condoleezza Rice during the Bush administration.
Flynn is the US military’s version of an “outsider.” He did not attend the elite US Military Academy at West Point and entered the Army after graduating from the Reserve Officer Training Program at the University of Rhode Island. He is a Rhode Island native, is married and has two sons.
Michael Flynn’s world view
In 2016, Flynn co-authored a book titled The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies with his close friend Michael Ledeen. Ledeen served as Special Adviser to the Secretary of State and consultant to the National Security Council under the Reagan administration.
In an exclusive interview with Asia Times, Ledeen says the book was a close collaboration and that he and Flynn share the same views on how to fight Muslim extremists and deal with potential foes like Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.
The two argue in their book that the US must destroy radical Islam by organizing all of its national power, denying safe havens and attacking “Islamists everywhere and in every way.”
Among the insights offered by Ledeen on Flynn’s world view: the chances for cooperation with China against radical Islam are almost zero, detente with Russia is iffy and the US should ramp up support for Iran’s opposition Green Movement.
Asia Times: Do you think there’s a chance that Putin will agree to detente with the West?
Ledeen: I think it’s unlikely. The book says it’s unlikely. But we have to attempt it. We’ll find out if that fascinating conversation takes place and let’s hope there’s a fly-on-the wall who tells us how it went.
AT: In the book you emphasize that Russia doesn’t like the US and has collaborated with jihadis against us. Is there common ground that the US can agree on with Russia to fight radical Islam?
Ledeen: I don’t know the answer to that question. But it seems clear that the Trump people want to find out.
There is an argument that the Russians are worried about radical Islam, they’re worried about jihad, they’re all over the “stans,” there’s fighting going on.
So if we sat down with the Russians and said: “Look, you’ve been making all these deals with the Iranians, the whole Iranian nuclear program is yours, you give them air defense systems to protect against attacks by us and the Israelis and whoever it might be… So what would it take to get you to change your minds and work with us both against radical Muslims and against this [Iranian] regime that long term is also a threat to you?”
AT: Gen. Flynn got into trouble during the Obama administration by warning that we had underestimated ISIS’ strength. How strong is ISIS now?
Ledeen: ISIS is quite strong. I think it’s bigger than it was at the time Flynn got into trouble. I think we’re in a big war, it will be a long war and it’s going to be hard to win it at the moment because we’re losing.
AT: What is the biggest sign that the US is losing the war against ISIS?
Ledeen: We have not been able to break ISIS in any meaningful way. We have taken some territory back from them. They have responded by expanding to new areas of combat and they are now very strong in places where they hardy existed a year or two ago. So I worry a lot about them and I worry a lot about them [in the US].
AT: Whose viewpoints are reflected in “The Field of Fight”? Yours or Flynn’s?
Ledeen: I caution any reader of “Field of Fight” about trying to figure out who’s talking — is it Flynn or is it me? It really is a partnership and we did talk out all the basic themes and both of us worked on every section — so it’s a true collaboration — it’s not “some stuff here is the Flynn stuff …”
“We defeated al-Qaeda in Iraq. When that happened they ran away and their recruiting dropped off. We should have stood up and said: ‘Well, all these years you’ve been telling us you win because Allah blesses your efforts, because you’ve got the right doctrine, because you have the right practices — so what happened here?'”
AT: Do you see any distinction between Russia and China in terms of how they deal with radical Islam and their attitudes toward the US? If so, how could the US leverage this to its advantage?
Ledeen: If the Russians and Chinese are willing to work with us against radical Islam that would be great. They’ve fought radical Muslims — the Russians most famously in Chechnya. The Chinese are fighting Uyghurs all the time.
On the other hand, the Chinese actually own oil land in Iran, which hardly anyone knows, and they’re desperate for oil. So my guess is that although chances are slim for Russian cooperation [against radical Islam], they verge on none with the Chinese.
AT: Some say US-Egypt relations were shaky under the Obama administration and that this undercut joint efforts in fighting terrorism. How important is Egypt’s current role in combating jihad?
Ledeen: I think Egypt’s role in combating terrorism is enormously important. The Obama administration supported the Muslim Brotherhood takeover of Egypt to overthrow [President Hosni] Mubarak. Now we have [Egyptian President Abdel Fattah] el-Sisi who is one of the handful of leaders who’s stood up and called for an “Islamic Reformation.”
He’s said [to Muslims]: “We just can’t go on like this, becoming the symbol of evil all over the world, we’ve got to stop it.” And that’s something the US has got to support because we’re not going to win this war just by killing people. We have to tackle the [Islamic] doctrine and el-Sisi is doing that.
AT: How effective is Iran’s opposition eight years after the “Green Revolution”? Is there a prospect for regime change?
Ledeen: I think there would be a prospect if the western world would get behind it and support it. By support I mean verbal support and if the opposition needs money, communications gear, things like that — get that to them as well.
Look what happened in the last week. [Reformist former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani died. The regime could not do otherwise but stage a funeral. Two million people showed up and they chanted “Mir-Hossein” — which is Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the name of the [imprisoned] leader of Iran’s reformist Green Movement. They weren’t there to mourn Rafsanjani. Most of them were there to call for a regime change.
“My favorite factoid in the book is that in recent years more books have been translated from English into Spanish in one year in Spain than all the foreign books translated into Arabic in the last thousand years”
AT: The Obama administration has maintained that the US should not interfere in Iran’s internal affairs in order to keep relations on a positive track. Are you saying that Obama should have done more to support Iran’s opposition, like supporting CIA operations inside the country?
Ledeen: I’m not a big fan of the CIA, which seems to spending most of its time trying to overthrow the Trump administration. But I do think we should have supported the uprising in 2009 when the regime was ready to come down and Obama instead endorsed [Iran’s] Supreme Leader — that was a terrible moment.
AT: In your book you seem to focus on militarily defeating ISIS. Is it realistic to ignore the non-military side of solution — such as winning hearts and minds in the Muslim world?
Ledeen: I’m fair. We spend a lot of time [in the book] on hearts and minds, and we say explicitly that we cannot win this [struggle] militarily alone, that we have to wage ideological war at the same time we fight these guys.
AT: Can you give an example of such ideological war?
Ledeen: We defeated al-Qaeda in Iraq. When that happened they ran away and their recruiting dropped off. We should have stood up and said: “Well, all these years you’ve been telling us you win because Allah blesses your efforts, because you’ve got the right doctrine, because you have the right practices — so what happened here? Has Allah changed sides? Is he now with us?” That kind of challenge is something we have to do more of.
AT: You say in your book that Americans would end up living as “unfortunate residents of a Caliphate” under Sharia law if it “loses” the war against ISIS? Is this a realistic threat?
Ledeen: It’s what our enemies want. It’s what they’re working for. There are lots of radical Muslims in the US and they are actually making progress in instituting Sharia law.
AT: How? Can you give an example?
Ledeen: One example is that (radical Muslims) get their domestic violence cases in the US taken to their imans instead of our judges. There’s also this whole public policy thing in the US where you cannot criticize anything that’s Muslim without being branded as some kind of bigot.
AT: Anything else you’d like to say about waging ideological war?
Ledeen: There’s a nice section in “Field of Fight” that points out what a colossal failure the Muslim world is. They all know it — so why don’t we say it? My favorite factoid in the book is that in recent years more books have been translated from English into Spanish in one year in Spain than all the foreign books translated into Arabic in the last thousand years (from the late ninth century to the first decade of this century). I call that cultural failure.
Doug Tsuruoka is Editor-at-Large of Asia Times