These two appointments underscore the contradictions at the heart of Trumpism
Life is full of contradictions: that’s what ideologues of all persuasions don’t get. And politics – with its inevitable vagaries, compromises, and unforeseen events – exemplifies this reality. You can multiply that principle by at least ten when analyzing President-elect Donald J. Trump and his nationalist supporters.
Nationalism, particularly the American variety, is not a consistent ideology to begin with: it starts out as an emotional bias, or – more accurately – an historical tradition, and takes on many disparate forms. One cannot extrapolate from its basic premise – that the American “national interest” is primary – the nationalist position on any given issue, because that “interest” is invariably defined in subjective terms.
Add to this the political necessity of building a strong governing coalition, and uniting a seemingly sundered Republican party under Trumpian leadership, and this is bound to multiply the complexities and variations involved. Which is why we can expect the incoming Trump administration to be full of disparate and often conflicting elements: in short, a hodgepodge.
That, at least, is what we have gotten so far, and yet there are some unifying themes in Trump’s national security choices. Let’s take them one by one.
Michael Pompeo, CIA – A two-term Republican congressman representing the 4th congressional district of Kansas, Pompeo is the archetypal “Tea Party” GOPer: he has extensive ties to the Koch family’s political apparatus, and even claims to be a “libertarian.” However, he is very far from that: he is on record as supporting universal surveillance, including of American citizens, voted for the Patriot Act, and has called for the death penalty for NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. He supports torture and the maintenance of CIA “black sites.” In 2013, he supported a US military strike on Syria.
But of course some of these views merely mirror Trump’s, and most nationalists, who are fierce“Jacksonians” when they perceive a threat – real or imagined – to the US. On the other hand, the “isolationist” “America first” factor also comes into play with these types, and Pompeo is no exception. While initially supporting the Fox News/neoconservative position in favor of overthrowing Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad and arming the “moderate” Islamist rebels, he seemed to back away from supporting the rebels. In another flip-flop, albeit this time in the wrong direction, Pompeo voted for a resolution calling for an end to the Libyan intervention, and yet voted against a resolution – supported by then House Speaker John Boehner – that would have defunded the effort. (Sen. Mike Pence, Trump’s Vice President, and Rep. Justin Amash, R-Michigan, a sometime libertarian lodestar often compared to Ron Paul, did the same.)
Along with neocon great white hope Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), Pompeo played a key role in the effort to sabotage the Iran deal, asserting that “secret” side-agreements gave the Iranians a free pass to develop nuclear weapons. This was and is false, but, again, it’s no different from what President-elect Trump said during the course of the campaign – although Trump, to be sure, said he wouldn’t “tear up” the agreement, while Pompeo would likely do so.
All in all from a noninterventionist “America First” perspective, Pompeo is a somewhat mixed bag, but in the context of the CIA, he would be a disaster. To begin with, count on him to be constantly looking for “intel” that “proves” Iran has violated its agreement not to pursue a nuclear weapons program. Secondly, as his flip-flop on the Syrian rebel issue shows, his first instinct is to pursue regime-change. Thirdly, his views on the collection of meta-data – the scooping up of everyone’s online trail, indiscriminately – and his opposition to even the namby-pamby reforms that have supposedly modified the US government’s activities in this regard, is bad news for those of us who believe in the Constitution.
Overall rating – Fail!
Michael T. Flynn, National Security advisor to the President – A hard-driving military man, Lt. Gen. Flynn rose through the ranks and quickly gained a reputation as a contrarian – in ways that offended the Establishment, and eventually got him fired as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
As head of the Joint Functional Component Command for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, chief of the Military Intelligence Board, Assistant DNI, and officer in charge of Intel for the Joint Special Operations Command, Flynn was an innovator much admired by his colleagues. Where he got into trouble was when he a) questioned the rosy scenario painted by the Obama administration about the alleged “success” of our endless “war on terrorism,” and b) when his DIA issued a controversial Intel report that not only predicted the rise of ISIS, but also pinned responsibility for this squarely on the “Sunni turn” taken by the Obama team, and in particular Hillary’s State Department.
In an extraordinary interview with Al Jazeera, he explicitly accuses US policymakers of aiding and abetting the growth and development of ISIS. Here is the exchange:
“Mehdi Hasan: Let me – let me just to, before we move on, just to clarify once more, you are basically saying that even in government at the time, you knew those groups were around. You saw this analysis –
Michael Flynn: [TALKING OVER] Sure.
Hasan: – and you were arguing against it. But who wasn’t listening?
Flynn: I think the administration.
Hasan: So the administration turned a blind eye to your analysis –
Flynn: I don’t know if they turned a blind eye. I think it was a decision. I think it was a willful decision.
Hasan: A willful decision to go – support an insurgency that had Salafist, al-Qaeda and Muslim Brotherhood?
Flynn: [INTERRUPTING] Well, a willful decision to do what they’re doing, which, which you have to really – you have to really ask the President, what is it that he actually is doing with the, with the policy that is in place, because it is very, very confusing? I’m sitting here today, Mehdi, and I don’t, I can’t tell you exactly what that is, and I’ve been at this for a long time.”
I written about this issue at length, and I’d refer my readers to that column for a deeper dive. Also quite encouraging is Flynn’s recognition of the key part played by “blowback” in exacerbating the problem of how to deal with radical Islamism, as evidenced by this statement from the same Al Jazeera interview:
“When you drop a bomb from a drone you are going to cause more damage than you are going to cause good."
Amen to that.
However, in other respects, Flynn’s views are problematic: as Al Jazeera’s Mehdi Hasan put it in the above-cited interview, “There’s a dove General Flynn and there’s a hawk General Flynn.” And this really encapsulates the paradox we face when we’re dealing not only with Flynn but with the entire Trump phenomenon.
Flynn apparently believes there is a worldwide “anti-American” alliance stretching from Venezuela to China, and including Iran and even Russia. This latter seems to fly in the face of the fact that he, like Trump, advocates cooperation with Russia in the campaign against ISIS — and despite accusations from the neoconservatives that Flynn is a Russian pawn, based on some appearances on Russia Today and his attendance at a dinner also attended by Vladimir Putin.
In Flynn’s view, Islam is as much a political ideology as it is a religion, which gets him in trouble with the liberal crowd. And his views on Iran are simply irrational and contradictory to boot: he insists Iran is a bad actor, but has nothing but vague generalities to offer as to how to deal with them, short of war. Like Trump, Pompeo, and the right-wing of the Republican party, he opposed the Iran deal.
And yet that deal is unlikely to be reversed, for the simple reason that it is a multilateral agreement and the floodgates have already been opened. If we go back on our word and impose more sanctions, it will just underscore our impotence, because the other signatories aren’t going to go along with us. More importantly, this anti-Iranian line contradicts the two elements that set Flynn and Trump apart from the foreign policy mandarins who hate them both: their willingness to work with Russia and their exclusive focus on ridding the world of ISIS. Iran is right in there fighting ISIS, as is Hezbollah: in the interview Flynn says they’re doing this “for their own reasons,” but isn’t it odd that a nationalist wouldn’t recognize the validity of this?
Overall rating: Pass.
I am reluctant to deal with the rumored nominees for other top national security positions, because none have been confirmed as of this writing. Among the list of potential nominees for Secretary of State, such disparate characters as Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-California) and Mitt Romney have emerged as possibilities, as has former Democratic Senator Jim Webb (who is also being touted for Secretary of Defense). Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis is said to be the leading candidate for Defense Secretary, but, as I said, it’s all up in the air.
Romney is clearly the most problematic: his nomination would constitute a major betrayal of Trump’s voters. After all, simply on political grounds – it was Romney who called Trump a “fraud,” a “phony,” and a “con man” – this would be putting a fox in the henhouse, not to mention that Romney’s strident internationalism would actively undermine Trump’s “America first” foreign policy.
However, analysis of probabilities rather than actual nominees is not something that’s worthwhile, and so I will desist at this point.
What I do want to add is that the point made by that Al Jazeera journalist about Flynn, cited above, really does underscore the whole question of how to judge these New Nationalists: “There’s a dove General Flynn and there’s a hawk General Flynn.” That’s true of Trump and his supporters.
Different situations bring out either one or the other side of this paradoxical equation, and that’s why I’ve gone into so much detail dealing with just two of the appointments. In an election year in which nuance is not exactly favored, this approach is more necessary than ever. It may try the patience of one or another side in the political wars that are now dividing the country, but objective analysis is what’s required most of all at this juncture – and partisanship isn’t going to prevent me from doing my job and carrying out my duty to my readers.
Life is complicated. And that’s truer now, when we’re talking about the realm of international relations in the era of Trump, than ever before. Learn to live with it.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.