The resignation last night of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, following a controversy over his disputed pre-inauguration contacts with the Russian Ambassador, has sent an already anxious national media into overdrive. As insinuations of Russian blackmail, deliberate misleading of the public, and Logan Act violations fill the airwaves, it is important to take stock of what we do and don’t know about Flynn’s resignation—and what it might tell us about the Trump Administration’s policy toward Russia.
First, it is not at all clear that this is a story of skeevy dealings with Russia laid bare by courageous leakers, nor does it substantiate the self-serving Democratic narrative that Putin, knowing he has incriminating evidence on Trump, cleverly engineered to throw the election to Trump. Nonetheless, that is how this is going to play among a certain group of Democrats, feeding the flames of moonbat moral certainty.
The more likely reality in the Flynn case is simpler: Flynn was, as almost everyone serious understood from the beginning, the wrong man for the NSC job. This is a job that, no matter what the Administration’s policies are, requires a cool-headed person committed to making the interagency process work so that a) as much as possible is decided without direct Presidential input, and b) where a Presidential decision is necessary, the President has the tools he needs to make the best possible decision. To do this, the NSC has to bring strong-willed people from different institutions into a process that, by its nature, is often very contentious. This works if and only if the various participants trust the process and trust the NSA.
That was the wrong job for General Flynn. He is a passionate advocate, not a cold-blooded calculator. He’s a bureaucratic street fighter, not a dispassionate traffic cop. Something was going to blow, as an emotional and hard-charging square peg struggled to fit within the confines of a round hole. Everyone, including General Flynn, should be happy that the struggle ended sooner rather than later. No happiness was going to come from this mismatch—not to the President, not to the country, not to General Flynn or those around him.
Feeling the pressure of his job, a pressure made worse by the chaotic atmosphere of any Presidential transition and especially by the chaos of this one, Flynn made serial misjudgments. He may well have leaned too far forward on his skis in conversations with the Russians. He certainly failed in the basic duty to keep the Trump Administration informed and appraised of what he was doing, especially as the controversy began to grow.
Given all this, the White House had no choice but to demand and accept his resignation. Not surprisingly, given the chaotic state of a new administration, the forced resignation of the National Security Advisor, something that would be a problem for even the smoothest-running operations, challenged the capabilities of the press and management team.
As to the substance of Russia policy, there is nothing wrong with an incoming administration opening the trading window to all comers. The idea of getting a good relationship with Russia based on our common concerns about jihadis and China appeals to every arm-chair Machiavelli who ever lived. Bill Clinton tried this, George W. “Soul Gaze” Bush tried this, and Barack “Reset” Obama also gave it a try. They all thought they were being clever and statesmanlike; they were all fundamentally wrong about what can and can’t be accomplished with Moscow under current conditions. Donald J. Trump stands in a long line of Metternich-manqués when it comes to post-Soviet Russia.
It seems likely that some of the people around Trump have conflated the idea of opening to Russia with their more general sense of how stupid establishment American policy has been since 1990—or, perhaps, for some of them, since 1948. In other words, they thought the inability of past administrations to get a good relationship with Putin was part of a generalized pattern of failure, arising from mistakes on the U.S. side rather than from the intractable nature of U.S.-Russian dynamics. Trump’s advisers seem to believe they have the “secret sauce” to make a good relationship with Putin work, just as they have the secret sauce to make Middle East peace where all others failed. In this regard, Trump actually aligns with his predecessors, all of whom took office believing they alone had the special diplomatic skills necessary to do what no one before them could.
Some on Trump’s team may have thought that an ideological affinity between Putin’s anti-cosmopolitan, nationalist stance and their own would make cooperation possible. This reflects a misunderstanding about the uses of ideology under Putin. Vladimir Putin no doubt has private convictions and beliefs, and it is likely that both social conservatism and Russian nationalism are close to his heart. However, when one speaks of Putin the ruler as opposed to Volodya the chelovek, ideology is an instrument of statecraft. Like his true forebear Napoleon III, Putin is a user of ideologies in the service of maintaining political power, not a zealot willing to stake power on truths in which he believes. If a shift toward a more liberal, accommodative stance would serve his political ends better, he would find a way to switch. For Putin, just as for Soviet leaders like Stalin and Brezhnev, an ideology is a horse to be ridden, not an ideal to be served. Given that, Putin’s goal is less to reach an accommodation with Trump (or with Obama or with Bush) than to use their own assumptions and aspirations to manipulate them.
We still don’t really know what happened with Flynn, but it may be that he was undone by the confluence of two factors: the mismatch between his own talents and character and the role he was asked to assume, and the flawed assumptions behind the Administration’s first-draft Russia policy. Flynn’s resignation tells us that the Trump Administration has already recognized the former; time will tell if it will recalibrate its position on the latter.