In the wake of national security adviser Michael Flynn’s resignation Monday night, lawmakers from both parties are calling for an investigation into his and other Trump aides’ possible ties to Russia. Flynn famously, and foolishly, accepted a paid trip to Moscow in 2015 to speak at a banquet for the Russian propaganda outlet, RT network. But it’s unlikely a former intelligence officer who is actually working with a foreign government would sit at the same table as his handler to pose for pictures in a tuxedo. It’s evidence of obtuseness, but not influence-peddling.
No, it seems that something else is going on. In the weeks leading up to Flynn’s resignation, more than one Washington insider was commenting on how the story came to light. The fact that the pre-inauguration leak went to White House reporters instead of journalists on the national security beat has raised lots of eyebrows. Yes, Flynn had the conversation with the Russian ambassador, he told Vice President Pence that sanctions were not part of the conversation when they were, and President Trump asked for his resignation. However, the question of who leaked the story of Flynn’s conversation with the Russian ambassador and for what purpose is hardly insignificant.
There might be something going on between Flynn and the Russians, but having read his book, I doubt it is ideological. In The Field of Flight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and its Allies, co-authored with Michael Ledeen, Flynn makes very clear his concerns and distaste for Russia’s role in an anti-Western alliance with Iran as the linchpin. “The Russians and Iranians have more in common than a shared enemy [the West],” they write. “There is also a shared contempt for democracy and an agreement…that dictatorship is a superior way to run a country, an empire, a caliphate.”
Nonetheless, Flynn was curious to see if Russia could be split from Iran. Many have commented in the wake of Flynn’s resignation that he probably wasn’t the right fit for a job like national security adviser. But at least in this respect he was entirely in line with what’s become conventional Washington wisdom, advocated by the masters like Henry Kissinger and policymakers from both parties—the big diplomatic play in Syria is to provide incentives for Vladimir Putin to move away from the clerical regime in Tehran.
As I argued in the Weekly Standard this week, the Moscow-Tehran relationship is a strategic alliance: “Asking Putin to abandon the Iranians is like asking him to leave the Middle East.” If you go after Iran, as Flynn was keen to do, you are undermining Russia’s position in the region, whether you intend to do so or not.
The Obama administration understood the nature of the strategic relationship clearly: Syria ties Iran and Russia at the hip. Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani visited Moscow in July 2015 to explain to Putin that without Russian help, Assad would be finished and Russia’s position in the Middle East as well as Iran’s was therefore in jeopardy. Contrary to what Obama officials later claimed about being surprised by Russia’s escalation, the Obama administration saw it happen in real time as Moscow moved men and materiel through the Bosporus, under control of NATO member Turkey.
I’ve argued elsewhere that Russia’s escalation in Syria was, in the eyes of the Obama administration, a net positive. Sure, there was lots of ugly violence, the Russians bombed schools and hospitals, but if Iran’s position in Syria collapsed, there wasn’t going to be an Iran Deal. Even before Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei warned Obama that interfering in Syria would crash negotiations, the Obama administration was already propping up the position of Iran and its allies around the region. The U.S. flew in support of Soleimani’s Quds Force in Tikrit, shared intelligence with Hezbollah on the Lebanon/Syria border, and as a condition of American support made Syrian rebels promise they wouldn’t target Assad. When the Russians escalated in Syria, they were effectively giving Obama a breather. It was then, as Russia was piling up civilian casualties, that the Obama White House sought to share intelligence and operations with the Russians, which the Pentagon shot down.
During the Obama years, Russia staked its flag on the borders of three American allies, Israel, Jordan, and Turkey, a NATO member. The result was that Putin’s position was not only enhanced, but—barring an armed conflict pushing Russia out of Syria—locked in. Indeed, as one former Obama official told the Washington Post in October, the administration was “giving the Russians time to finish the job in Aleppo, in part to tie the hands of the next president.”
It is very strange then to see Obama’s former deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes tweeting this week: “Putin regime seeks disintegration of the EU, NATO and 70 years of intl order. GOP cannot look away from hard truth.”
Rhodes is correct—through the Syrian crisis, and other means, Putin is targeting NATO, the EU, and the American-backed post-WWII order. This was precisely the argument that critics of Obama’s policy, especially Republicans, made over the last several years. And what did the White House—when Rhodes was working there—have to say in response?
Here’s what Obama told the U.N. General Assembly in 2013 about the Syrian conflict. “And, as we pursue a settlement, let’s remember this is not a zero sum endeavor. We’re no longer in a cold war. There’s no great game to be won.”
And here’s what Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg in 2014. “I think there was a comfort with a United States that was comfortable with an existing order and the existing alignments … What I’ve been saying to our partners in the region is, ‘We’ve got to respond and adapt to change.’”
The seventy years of international order that Rhodes says is now endangered by Russia is the “existing order and the existing alignments” that Obama changed. Rhodes now speaks of the Cold War order being endangered by Trump, but Obama’s dismantling of that order is what emboldened and strengthened Moscow. Then there were the practical realities on the ground, like the Obama White House giving Putin time to finish the job in Aleppo.
The Russia-friendly tendencies that Rhodes discerns, and about which he feigns shock and outrage, were put in place or set in motion by the president he served.
So what explains the turn-about? Russia may simply be the most convenient stick with which to hit the Trump administration. Former Obama officials have boasted of their public exertions, in social media and podcasts, in leading resistance to the new administration. In effect, it’s a continuation of the “echo chamber” Rhodes built at the White House, which included a number of “validators” in the press and think-tank community. The echo chamber’s most famous campaign, to date, was the Iran deal.
At the Free Beacon, Adam Kredo reports that the chief purpose of the Flynn campaign was to handicap “Trump’s national security apparatus and preserve the nuclear deal with Iran.” Rhodes responded in an email to the Atlantic: “I don’t know who the sources are for these stories and I don’t even understand the false conspiracy theory—how would getting rid of Flynn be the thing that saves the Iran Deal? It’s an effort to make the conversation about anything other than the actual story of what happened with Russia.”
The reconstituted echo chamber makes no effort to hide the fact that their purpose is to protect Obama’s legacy. The Russia aspect may simply be the best tool at hand with which to delegitimize a presidency that many Democrats maintain was won only because Russia “hacked” the election. The Russia theme also has the advantage of whitewashing Obama’s own Russia policy and turning it into a liability for Republicans, most of whom are rightly appalled at the prospect of any arrangements with a kleptocratic regime that, among other depredations, slaughtered civilians in Syria as part of a campaign of sectarian cleansing.
In short, what we’re watching is political warfare. It’s not the most sophisticated campaign, but it doesn’t need to be when the country’s top newspapers and broadcast networks are already on your side.
One of the most alarming aspects of the Flynn case is the carelessness and amateurishness of the new administration. It’s not just about Flynn—why for instance, given the very sensitive political nature of the Russia issue, didn’t he have the sense to avoid it until after the inauguration? And why, after the story of his phone conversation with the Russian ambassador was leaked to the press, didn’t he grasp the threat?
There are also questions about the vice president’s savvy. Why did Pence, who knew Flynn was being watched, put himself in position to vouch for a man the press, parts of the intelligence community, and Obama operatives clearly saw as a target of opportunity? Most important, why didn’t Trump build any sort of defense against the aggressive campaign of political warfare that he must have known was coming, a campaign that his own actions fueled?
It’s not the “deep state” that did in Flynn—it’s the usual suspects going about their usual business, and the stakes are clear. Either the Trump White House learns to defend itself, or it loses.
But there is another issue, of perhaps far greater concern than the political warfare in the domestic arena. If Trump’s opponents are right now seeing Russia merely as an instrument to beat up the president, the fact is that Russia is a real power in the real world. An American political fight over Russia might well escalate, and evolve into something else that dangerously affects our foreign policy and our national security.