As President-elect Donald Trump continues the process of filling out his Cabinet and staff, one recently announced pick in particular is attracting a lot of attention: Michael Flynn, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general and former Defense Intelligence Agency chief, as national security adviser. While there are clearly legitimate questions to be asked about Flynn — including his ties to Russia, comments about Muslims, and especially what looks like a hot temper — he also seems like an obviously qualified nominee, thanks to his history in the Army and at the DIA. This makes the media's criticism of him puzzling.
Don't get me wrong. Flynn has said some worrying things. In one particularly notable speech, he declared Islam a "political ideology" that "hides behind this notion of it being a religion." He then likened Islam to a "malignant cancer" that "has metastasized."
That, of course, paints with far too broad of a brush. Islam is not Islamism. But to say that Islamic extremism is a cancer "within" Islam — as Flynn has also suggested — is something that most moderate Muslims would actually agree with. And indeed, when it comes to key strategic questions about fighting Islamic terrorism, Flynn has been right, while the Obama administration has been wrong.
Before he was forced out by the Obama administration, Flynn was central to the United States' intelligence effort during the war on terror. Four-star Gen. Barry McCaffrey, "a Vietnam veteran and one of the most decorated officers of his generation," told Politico that "Flynn is the best intelligence officer of his generation, and he and Stan McChrystal are the principle reason we have not suffered a half-dozen 9/11-type attacks since 2001."
The best intelligence officer of his generation! Why isn't this the sound bite that recurs whenever Flynn's nomination is mentioned?
Over the course of the war in Iraq, Flynn found himself in a race against time trying to understand and defeat al Qaeda in Iraq, Politico explains. Flynn grew to discover that al Qaeda cadres were sophisticated men with advanced degrees, unlike their thuggish footsoldiers, and spent hours upon hours interviewing captured senior al Qaeda leaders. "During the course of those interrogations and hundreds of others in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Flynn concluded that what united the terrorist warlords was a common ideology, specifically the extremely conservative and fundamentalist Salafi strain of Islam," Politico says. Senior al Qaeda leaders, sophisticated men who could get a job elsewhere if they wanted, were "true believers, every bit as committed to their ideology and skewed moral universe as Flynn was to his own."
From this discovery, came a key insight: Radical Islamic terrorism was there to stay in Iraq and in the Middle East. Flynn tried to communicate that — and was angered that his alarmist intelligence dispatches were watered down as they made their way up the chain of command to the National Security Council and the president's desk. Infamously and disastrously, President Obama confidently described ISIS as a "JV" version of al Qaeda. By all accounts, the Obama administration simply did not accept that Sunni terrorism in Iraq and Syria was not "on the run," because it was politically and ideologically inconvenient. As a result, a lot of people died who might have otherwise lived, and Michael Flynn was canned.
Flynn's experience hits upon a key philosophical difference between progressives and conservatives when it comes to combating terrorism: The left seems to subscribe to something I've called "Vulgar Marxism," which seeks to explain terrorism only through the lens of socioeconomics and, perhaps, psychiatry. Conservatives, meanwhile, believe that while of course psychology and material self-interest play a role in our decisions, so do our beliefs. The Obama administration's lack of concern for ISIS's actual beliefs — the apocalyptic components of its worldview, for example — caused it to misjudge and misinterpret ISIS's moves all through the extremist group's rise. This is not a mere philosophical difference. This is a difference whose consequences come in body bags. And Flynn was right. Obama was wrong.
Flynn also smartly recommended switching the Afghanistan war from a counter-terrorism effort to a more expensive counter-insurgency effort. He has been right about the key strategic military challenges facing the United States, over and over. That doesn't mean he's a flawless pick for national security adviser. But it does mean these are the things we should be talking about when we mention his new role.
Trump does some really bad things. Tapping Flynn isn't one of them.