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By: Andrew Swick, Columnist
Photo Credit: Politico
Just weeks into Donald Trump’s presidency, significant signs of tension emerged in the management of the National Security Council (NSC) by former Army general Michael Flynn. Particularly, questions persist as to the role of cabinet officials and the authority of Mr. Flynn himself. Early debates over issues like enhanced interrogation will indicate whether he intends to present counsel for the president as an honest broker of the advice of NSC principals, or instead give deference to the president’s top political advisers. Mr. Flynn’s choice will define the extent of his influence over President Trump’s foreign policy throughout his time in the administration.
Before joining the Trump campaign, Mike Flynn set himself apart during the Obama presidency as one of the most political retired generals in recent memory. Following his controversial retirement as Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Director in 2014, Flynn became one of the most vocal critics of the Obama administration’s Middle East policy.[i] Notably, Flynn attacked Obama and his national security team’s failure to confront Islamic militancy, which he saw as “an existential threat on a global scale.”[ii]
In his first days with the Trump administration, Mike Flynn signaled his desire to make significant changes to the composition and direction of the National Security Council. Mr. Flynn perceived the Obama NSC as over reliant on inexperienced, civilian staffers and instead filled the NSC staff with former military leaders.[iii] While Obama’s NSC often suffered from a lack of understanding of military capabilities and limitations, foreign policy experts quickly pointed out the issues that could arise from Mr. Flynn’s moves. As noted by former Bush administration official Kori Schake, a Trump team heavy on military personnel would “struggle to swim effectively in political currents.” [iv]
Additionally, in the second National Security Presidential Memo (NSPM-2)—designated to define the operation of the National Security Council during his administration—President Trump added political adviser Stephen Bannon as a regular attendee to the Principals Committee of the NSC.[v] The elevation of Bannon signals a desire to apply more political control over Mr. Flynn’s management of the NSC. Former Obama administration official Loren Schulman argued that such a move was “unprecedented,” and that “prior administrations have drawn a bright line between the deliberations of national security professionals…and the president’s domestic political agenda.”[vi] Furthermore, other observers view the expansion of Bannon’s portfolio as a loss for Flynn himself. Specifically, Mr. Flynn’s poor leadership of a chaotic transition period for the NSC, with many positions yet unfilled, diminished his influence with the president. [vii] In the future, foreign policy decision-making may be increasingly dominated by the president’s political advisers and occur outside of the NSC altogether.
Alongside other issues, the debate over enhanced interrogation will provide an early test to whether Mr. Flynn will be able to manage the NSC independent of Trump’s political team. In the first week of the Trump presidency, a draft executive order surfaced indicating interest within the Trump team to re-authorize enhanced interrogation and CIA rendition. In the immediate firestorm resulting from the release, Politico reported that CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis “were blindsided by reports” of the order.[viii] The Pentagon quickly responded to confirm that Secretary Mattis was “committed to upholding international” and US law, and would not support waterboarding or other illegal means of enhanced interrogation.[ix] While President Trump quickly announced that he would defer to his cabinet leaders, he also contended that enhanced interrogation was effective, demonstrating continued political determination to explore the policy.[x] Mr. Flynn, whose stance on torture is unclear given previous opposition,[xi] could increase his stature within the administration by regularly and properly communicating the advice of cabinet officials to the president.
To be successful as a National Security Advisor, and not just a political subordinate to Stephen Bannon, Mike Flynn will need to equitably present the advice of the cabinet secretaries to the president. Though the political agenda will have a permanent voice in the National Security Council, Flynn will have a unique opportunity to determine its extent. As Schulman writes, “the impact of [these changes],” including Bannon’s addition, “comes down to how” Mr. Flynn interprets the president’s memorandum “and whom he includes at the table in practice.” [xii] The direction ultimately taken by the administration on torture in particular will provide insight into the management of Trump’s NSC, and the extent of Flynn’s influence in that group.
[i] Sean D. Naylor, “Out of Uniform and Into the Political Fray,” Foreign Policy, June 19, 2015, http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/06/19/out-of-uniform-and-into-the-political-fray.
[ii] Matthew Rosenberg and Maggie Haberman, “Michael Flynn, Anti-Islamist Ex-General, Offered Security Post, Trump Aide Says,” The New York Times, November 17, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/18/us/politics/michael-flynn-national-security-adviser-donald-trump.html.
[iii] Josh Rogin, “Flynn is creating the most military-heavy National Security Council of the modern era,” The Washington Post, January 21, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/flynn-is-creating-the-most-military-heavy-national-security-council-of-the-modern-era/2017/01/20/8a45ce9c-df20-11e6-918c-99ede3c8cafa_story.html.
[v] Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman, “Bannon Is Given Security Role Usually Held for Generals,” The New York Times, January 29, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/29/us/stephen-bannon-donald-trump-national-security-council.html.
[vi] Loren DeJonge Schulman, “CNAS Press Note: President Trump’s National Security Council,” Center for a New American Security, January 31, 2017, https://www.cnas.org/press/press-note/cnas-press-note-president-trumps-national-security-council.
[vii] Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman, “Bannon Is Given Security Role Usually Held for Generals.”
[viii] Austin Wright, “Mattis, Pompeo stunned by CIA ‘black sites’ report,” Politico, January 25, 2017, http://www.politico.com/story/2017/01/torture-mattis-pompeo-defense-234180.
[ix] Kristina Wong, “Pentagon: Mattis still opposes torture despite Trump comment,” The Hill, January 26, 2017, http://thehill.com/policy/defense/316356-mattis-remains-opposed-to-torture-pentagon-says.
[xi] Andrew Kaczynski, “Trump’s pick for national security adviser once bashed torture, drone strikes, night raids,” CNN, November 21, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/11/21/politics/kfile-flynn-on-torture.
[xii] Loren DeJonge Schulman, “CNAS Press Note: President Trump’s National Security Council.”
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