Michael Flynn’s departure as national security adviser is a symptom of a White House in crisis. In truth, he should never have been hired in the first place, and no president who knew anything about national security would have ever imagined that Flynn would be the right choice for the job.
Flynn made his reputation as the chief intelligence officer for the Joint Special Operations Command, where he and his boss, General Stanley McChrystal, perfected the art of hunting down terrorists. His Army service was honorable and impressive. But he was fired from running the Defense Intelligence Agency by two apolitical career professionals—Undersecretary of Defense Mike Vickers and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper—not, as he claimed, because he was so tough on Islamic terrorism, but because his tenure had generated needless turmoil and demoralization within the agency.
After leaving government, Flynn made jaws drop across the national security establishment by accepting a paid invitation from RT, the Kremlin’s propaganda organ, to attend a gaudy dinner in Moscow where he sat near Vladimir Putin. (The Army is now said to be investigating whether by doing so he violated the law against retired officers receiving “emoluments” from foreign powers.) And then last summer Flynn led chants of “Lock her up” at the Republican National Convention; an extraordinarily political and unseemly act for a retired general that cast further doubt on his judgment.
Trump hired Flynn as his national security adviser for the simple reason that he was just about the only person with any national security credentials to endorse Trump early on. But that’s not a good enough reason for appointing him to one of the most sensitive and important positions in the U.S. government. Flynn was finally toppled because he had lied to Vice President Pence about the contents of his phone calls with the Russian ambassador to Washington, but the chaos gripping the National Security Council since January 20 also would have been grounds for his dismissal.
Unfortunately, even a better qualified candidate—and some impressive contenders are being bandied about in the press, including General David Petraeus—will have trouble succeeding in a White House characterized, even more than previous administrations, by incessant infighting, disorganization, and skullduggery.
When it comes to foreign policy, the national security adviser has to compete with at least two other centers of power. Steve Bannon, the former campaign chief and Breitbart publisher, has been incongruously elevated to the Principals Committee of the National Security Council, alongside the secretaries of State and Defense, and he is assembling his own shadow NSC known as the Strategic Initiatives Group. Meanwhile, the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who like Bannon has no government experience, seems to be taking charge of policy toward Mexico and Israel, among others. Even Stephen Miller, a callow ideologue who became notorious this past Sunday for the vehemence with which he propagated baseless claims about supposedly illegal voting in New Hampshire, was said to have been given a turn chairing an NSC deputies committee.
This is an untenable situation, which has led to the chaos and confusion evident in the rollout of the executive order on immigration. Trump is used to dealing with dueling aides, but what worked in an insular, family-run corporation will not work in the sprawling U.S. government. Not only does he need to hire a first-rate national security adviser, but he needs to empower that person to take charge of foreign policy without having to worry about backbiting from Bannon, Kushner, Miller, or others. Any candidate who is approached for the position would be well-advised, as a condition of acceptance, to insist that Bannon be kicked off the Principals’ Committee and kept away from national security matters in general.
If the first weeks of the administration have shown anything, it is the need to get more seasoned professionals into positions of power and to ease out inexperienced extremists. Too bad, then, that Trump appears intent on applying rigid loyalty tests to keep out veteran foreign-policy hands such as my Council on Foreign Relations colleague, Elliott Abrams, who would have made a superb deputy secretary of state or, for that matter, a national security adviser.
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