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In the weeks immediately following his historic 2008 win, President-elect Obama was careful not to elaborate on the foreign policy positions on which he had campaigned. Commentators noted his likely desire to avoid further boxing himself in on complex issues, while Obama himself cited the need to avoid muddying presidential signals before President Bush exited the Oval Office.
“We only have one president at a time,” Obama pointed out when pressed. So his team tucked in, calmly drawing the shades on major policy revelations until inauguration and working with the Bush administration to jointly execute one of the smoothest transitions in U.S. history.
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No two presidential transitions are alike, but the reports suggest President-elect Donald Trump’s is as different as it gets from the last. What truly distinguishes this changeover, however, is not the apparent disorganization and discord, but the Trump transition team’s deliberate departures from certain never-before-contested ethical and behavioral baselines.
There has been a lot of talk of these departures. We are now witnessing historic efforts on the part of the press and the public to dissuade the president-elect from an array of disturbing and distracting personal and personnel decisions. But there has not been nearly enough recognition of their concrete national security implications.
I’ll focus this post on one issue in particular: whether Trump actually manages to onboard the services of truly fringe elements like Stephen Bannon and, more recently, Gen. Michael Flynn.
What makes these appointments more than mere matters of political difference? In the best-case scenario, they will inject inescapable concerns about invidious bias and disdain for empiricism into the already very complicated foreign and domestic security challenges we face.
At the outset, let’s acknowledge that it is a mistake to treat the removal of either Bannon or Flynn as low-hanging fruit. The White House staff do not go through Senate confirmation and is an area on which the President has the most latitude in choosing his appointments. Moreover, Bannon is so firmly embedded in the Trump strategic apparatus that his removal will require nothing less than loud and sustained action from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, if it’s doable at all; as to Flynn, his bona fides make him a unique trophy in an otherwise embarrassingly underwhelming field of Trump surrogates and he will not be readily let go. That said, the threat Bannon and Flynn pose is sufficiently significant that opposing their installation in the White House is justified and necessary, both for moral and security reasons.
I’ll start with Bannon, since the national security implications of appointing Flynn to the position of national security adviser are, I think, comparatively obvious and have gotten some (though not enough) airplay.
The moral half of the Bannon problem is apparent enough. Despite the untoward silence from Republican members of Congress (169 House Democrats signed an open letter calling for his removal and no Republicans joined them), few would seriously deny that Bannon has devoted himself to pushing forward the alt-right, white nationalist agenda as executive chairman of the Breitbart News Network. There are those like Rand Paul and Newt Gingrich who insist that Bannon himself is not clearly racist, anti-Semitic or misogynistic, but these folks miss the point. Whatever Bannon personally believes, he professionally specializes in stoking fear between groups and riding the fumes to political ends. What matters even more is that this specific skillset is precisely why Trump hired him in August, when his campaign was flagging, and it is presumably why Trump is now set on retaining him for White House service. Squeezing juice out of the bitter fruit of anti-pluralism is, nakedly, the source of Bannon’s value to the new administration. For this reason alone, opposition to his appointment offers a valuable ethical litmus test for voters scrutinizing the willingness of sitting lawmakers to speak out as needed in a Trump administration.
But there is also a clear national security vector that is being ignored in all of this, and I am not simply referring to the security concerns rightly but generically associated with hate-mongering. Bannon’s website, Breitbart, is not a vacuous hate site, as is so often suggested. Breitbart is a carefully honed platform, and its clear and consistent approach to communicating the alt-right messaging on national security issues should give policy experts and principled politicians pause. Among other things, the site systematically dismisses any attempt to recognize right-wing terrorism and extremism as a real problem in this country. It has long derided “this so-called terror threat” as a nonsense invention of the Department of Homeland Security. And it has equated President Obama’s efforts to address right-wing extremism to a “refusal to acknowledge radical Islam as a threat” and a political ploy that puts American lives in danger.
The idea that the mastermind behind this project will now serve as our commander-in-chief’s right-hand strategist creates a genuine security predicament. Going forward, such an appointment should be expected to fundamentally undermine the public’s trust in the new administration’s will and ability to even-handedly deal with homegrown terrorist threats on a factual, and not religious or ideological, basis.
This particular problem is now amplified by Trump’s selection of Flynn, a known despiser of the Muslim world. Flynn has exhibited a variation on Bannon’s troubling obsession with marginalizing vulnerable groups and casting them as blanket security threats, as well as Bannon’s demonstrated inability to separate ideology and prejudice from fact. Largely for this reason, Flynn is considered an establishment outsider despite once being firmly ensconced within it.
Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, parted ways with the Obama administration under bad terms in 2014 and has since established a name for himself as a renegade general. This is not itself disqualifying, of course—what is disqualifying is his insistence that hatred and fear are a viable national security policy. Most notoriously, he has repeatedly and specifically insisted on tarring 1.6 billion people with the same brush, claiming that Islam itself “definitely hides behind this notion of it being a religion” and is “a malignant cancer,” and that “[f]ear of Muslims is RATIONAL.” It is one thing to disagree with the Obama administration on how to fight ISIL; it is entirely another to inhabit this plane of unreality. “What the heck has happened to Michael Flynn,” Dan Drezner asked last year in the Washington Post, articulating a thought no doubt on the brains of many in the intelligence community.
That a man infamous for these views will now have a major hand in dictating the terms of what he has described as our “global war” against everyone from the Islamic State to Iran to North Korea to Venezuela would be troubling even if he were to ultimately exhibit the restraint and judgment he is thought to lack. Based on his Islamophobia and hardline statements, the world has reason to question his judgment every step of the way, making him a non-credible contributor to sensitive U.S. security policies.
I won’t spend a lot of time rehashing what others have already said, but on the subject of international challenges, I’d be remiss if I failed to note that Flynn’s conduct and statements on Russia have served as a special pressure point in the flap over his lack of discernment. Consider the disturbing and widely read story Politico ran last April about Flynn's appearance with Trump and Putin at a gala hosted by RT America, the U.S. branch of an international cable network funded by the Russian government. Flynn spoke at the dinner and has since made regular appearances on RT as an analyst, likely a paid one, pushing the line that U.S. and Russia should work more closely together. Those scratching their heads at Trump’s glowing and growing admiration of Putin over the last year have been examining the plant by its stem and not its seed: as Reuters and others noted as far back as February, numerous sources have indicated Flynn’s role during the campaign as Trump’s informal national security aide. Anyone hopeful that, on Russia in particular and security policy in general, Trump the president would prove an animal different from Trump the candidate should be exceedingly worried about Flynn’s seat at the table.
On Russia as with anything else, it’s important to extricate fact-based policy considerations on which reasonable minds could disagree from astonishing, fact-unbound impropriety. It is, for example, reasonable to desire a better working relationship between Russia and the United States, particularly for concrete ends such as improving the crisis in Syria; Obama endeavored at something along these lines toward the beginning of his presidency with his Russian reset. But Flynn and Trump’s posture toward Russia is strange because of their total disinterest in conveying such reasonableness. During the campaign, the relationship that Flynn helped foster between Trump and Putin on the basis of apparently nothing more than the mutual admiration of two egoistic billionaires was concerning; now, on the heels of a U.S. election influenced by Russia, the blind warmth between the two is stunning.
On the dystopic note of unholy alliances, let’s return to Bannon. Because again, in contrast with Flynn, Bannon has received little attention when it comes to his international security aspirations. But make no mistake: Bannon’s significance as a security ideologue has already developed global dimensions. There is the obvious role Breitbart played on the world stage before the U.S. election (Bannon was personally thanked by Nigel Farage for Breitbart’s help in Brexit), and the one that Bannon himself stands to play in adding tinder to Trump’s already precarious relationship with critical Middle East partners. But Bannon has also made clear his interest in reconfiguring the foundations of our relationships with key European allies. For example, he has embraced National Front extremist Marion Maréchal-Le Pen as a key friend across the pond. Meanwhile, he has voiced strong opposition to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the United States’ closest ally under the Obama administration and the de facto anchor in a Europe otherwise adrift, taking special aim at her humanitarian stance on refugees. In other words, he is already using his place in the Trump firmament to propel not only his fringe movement but also those of our allies into the global mainstream, in the process threatening to upend, in the eyes of the world, our longstanding commitment to values of tolerance, openness and globalism.
All of the above background makes the Bannon and Flynn appointments unviable. Their roles as Trump’s chief strategist and national security adviser create what I will describe as a “deep risk” problem for U.S. national security.
Bannon may trade in rhetoric, but his expertise lies in architecture—specifically, the construction of an alt-right reality that denies and derides facts and insists on setting U.S. national security priorities without regard for what the threat data actually tells us. Those calling on skeptics to “give the guy a chance” are fooling themselves: there is absolutely no reason to think that as a public servant, Bannon will suddenly exhibit the judgment and balance he failed to exhibit as a private citizen. Might he do so? Possibly. But you don’t put someone steps from the Oval Office because of the ways he might surprise you.
The fear that Bannon’s appointment would mark only the beginning of a flood of extreme and fact-unbound appointees is now officially a reality, with Trump’s announcement of his pick of Flynn. In his extremeness, Flynn is Bannon’s military complement.
Deep-risk assessments aside, it’s worth ending on this note of certainty: If Trump fails to open his ears to the misgivings expressed about his key adviser picks, he will end up exacting a security toll on this country notwithstanding his best efforts to conduct himself fairly as “president for all Americans” ever after. For the result will be not only suspicion and dysfunction but also diversion of our leadership from a serious and sustained discussion of the actual laws and policies needed to strengthen our country against internal and external threats. This last week was just a small taste of that.