Inspired by fringe theories about Islamic civilization, Michael Flynn is leading Trump down a dangerous path.
The United States is adding new sanctions on Iran over that country's alleged misdeeds, and nearly all of those allegations are either out-and-out lies or half-truths. It has a familiar ring to it, as demonizing Tehran has been rather more the norm than not since 1979, a phenomenon that has included fabricated claims that the Iranians killed American soldiers after the U.S.'s armed interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. This time around, the administration focused on the perfectly legal Iranian test of a non-nuclear-capable, medium-range ballistic missile and the reported attack on what was initially claimed to be a U.S. warship by allegedly Iranian-backed Yemeni Houthi fighters. The ship was later revealed to be a Saudi frigate.
Donald Trump's national-security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, "officially" put Iran "on notice" while declaring that "The Trump Administration will no longer tolerate Iran's provocations that threaten our interests. The days of turning a blind eye to Iran's hostile and belligerent actions toward the United States and the world community are over."
Ignoring the fact that Iran cannot actually threaten the United States or any genuine vital national interests, the warning and follow-up action from the White House also contradict Donald Trump's campaign pledge to avoid yet another war in the Middle East, which appears to have escaped Flynn's notice. The increase in tension and the lack of any diplomatic dialogue mean that an actual shooting war might now be a "false flag," false intelligence report, or accidental naval encounter away.
If it all sounds like a reprise of the baseless allegations and intentionally unproductive negotiations that led to the catastrophic Iraq War, it should. What "belligerent actions against the United States" Flynn was referring to, generally speaking, were not completely clear, but that lack of precision may have been intentional, to permit instant vilification of anything Tehran attempts to do to counter the hostility coming out of Washington.
Hating Iran has a considerable pedigree. I must confess to being of a generation in the federal government, like Flynn and others, where saying something derogatory about Iran was in the DNA, welcomed by all and sundry. I nursed a personal and specific grudge relating to the mullahs, as an Iranian government agent tried to kill me in Turkey in the 1980s. But more often the animosity was generic, sometimes expressed humorously at CIA Station staff meetings. I recall how one fellow officer who was undercover at a consular office would positively gloat as he described how many Iranian visa applicants he had turned down in the past week and everyone would bang their fists on the conference table, signifying their approval. Of course, we all felt fully justified in our Iranophobia due to the 1979-80 embassy hostage crisis, which was still very fresh in our minds.
But my rancor toward Iran has long since faded. I have Iranian friends and have come around to the view that Iran has much more been sinned against than sinned in its relationship with the United States. With the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in July 2015, I even began to believe that the two nations might well be able to resume something like normal diplomatic relations, which would benefit everyone involved. Alas, such hopes appear to be scuppered by a recent wave of Iran hysteria that bids fair to eclipse the Russian panic that has consumed the media and chattering class during the past six months.
I should have seen it coming. In December 2015, I was present at a conference in Moscow where General Flynn explained his concept of 21st-century geo-economic-political strategy. At least I think that was what he was talking about, though one can understand the frustration of the interviewer, Sophie Shevdernadze, as she tried to get him to explain what he meant during a largely incoherent presentation.
At the time I knew little about Flynn and his views, but I was particularly taken aback by a random shot he took at the Iranians, stating very clearly that they were responsible for "fueling four proxy wars in the Middle East." He was presumably referring to Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen. The audience, which included a number of international journalists and genuine foreign-policy experts, became somewhat restless and began to mutter. I was standing in the back of the room and witnessed Flynn's son, Michael G. Flynn, responding to the expressions of disbelief, waving his arms around and shouting "Right! Right! Check the intel!"
Two minutes later, the elder Flynn returned to the theme, mentioning the "terrible nuclear deal with Iran." Now, I am accustomed to hearing nasty things about Iran, but they usually come from Israeli partisans who persist in falsely describing the Iranians as a global threat. It is in their interest to do so, and many pliable American politicians and media talking heads have picked up the refrain, so much so that a U.S. attack on Iran would likely be endorsed overwhelmingly by Congress and applauded in the media.
But I believed that Flynn was not particularly in with that group, consisting largely of neoconservatives, and his disdain for Iran seemed to be at least somewhat sincere in that it appeared to be rooted in his own experience as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). But I was wrong and should have paid more attention to the people Flynn was talking to.
Sources of Flynn's Worldview
A long-time foe of Iran, Michael Ledeen believed that invading the country should have been the first priority in 2003 rather than Iraq. He believes that "everything traces back to Tehran" and that Iran manipulates both sides of the Shi'ite-Sunni conflict, leading reviewer Peter Beinart to note that his "effort to lay virtually every attack by Muslims against Americans at Tehran's feet takes him into rather bizarre territory."
Even as Flynn was speaking in Moscow he was collaborating with Ledeen on a book called The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies, which appeared in July 2016. The book has two basic premises. First, the entire "civilized world" is engaged in a life-and-death struggle with a perverted form of Islam that has produced the phenomenon referred to as "radical Islamic terrorism," a phrase that may have been embraced by the Trump administration largely thanks to Flynn. Flynn insists on the tag including the Islamic part because of his belief that the Muslim religion is itself intrinsic to the very nature of the conflict. In fact, he prefers to call Islam a political ideology rather than a religion and even describes it as a political ideology that has "metastasized" into "malignant cancer." He once tweeted that "Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL," linking to a false claim that Islam wants 80 percent of humanity enslaved or exterminated.