In his much-anticipated Inaugural address, US President Donald Trump was thin on foreign policy, save his “America First” and the pledge to wipe Radical Islam off the face of planet, raising new questions about the “new” American foreign policy that aims to deliver a “winning strategy,” to paraphrase Trump.
At the core of Trump’s foreign policy belief is that (a) radical Islam is the number one global threat and (b) the US is losing that war partly because of the failed policies of the Obama administration, and (c) the US can and should win this war. This is a view that is shared by Trump’s top foreign policy advisers, including General Michael Flynn, the national security adviser, and his deputies, who have articulated the narrative behind this belief. Trump’s decision to visit the CIA’s headquarter on his second day in office, where he repeated the theme of prioritizing the war on radical Islam, illustrates his determination to put that belief into action without any delay.
In a 2016 book, titled The Field of Fight: How We can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies, Flynn spells out his understanding of “Radical Islam” (with capital letters) and what it takes to defeat it. He defines it as a totalitarian anti-Western ideology out to destroy the West and dominate the world, epitomized by the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Qaeda, and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
There is, indeed, no substantive distinction between ISIS and today’s Iran, given Flynn’s insistence that “there is a direct relationship between the fanaticism of the Islamic radicals and the Iranian regime.” (p. 128). According to Flynn, the US 2003 invasion of Iraq was a “huge mistake” and “our primary target should have been Tehran, not Baghdad.” (p. 175). But, the problem is that Iran is not alone and has “allies” such as Russia, China, North Korea, and Venezuela, benefiting from “Obama’s curious sympathy.” (p. 91). Flynn’s proposed solution is essentially three-fold: first, stand up to Iran and weaken its alliance by propping up the anti-Iran alliance, split the Russia-Iran alliance and cause a US-Russia common cause against Radical Islam, and, third, support the internal opposition in Iran.
A major lacuna of Flynn’s book is that there is a near total absence of any reference to Saudi Arabia and its role in propagating “radical jihadism.” Despite the availability of numerous evidence of active Saudi support for the ISIS terrorists in Iraq and Syria, Flynn completely dispenses with this subject and limits himself to passing references to many “partners” of the US in the region who support and enable the “violent Islamic ideology.”
This does not wash and a candid consideration of the problem is needed that does not shy away from Saudi Arabia’s culpability in exporting radical jihadism in the region and beyond. Flynn recognizes Pakistan’s role in harboring radical jihadists and proposes that the US should send a message that it does not “tolerate” the existence of training camps and a save haven for Taliban, Haggani, and al-Qaeda forces on their territory,” and should cut off aid in case such countries refuse to toe the line against the threat of radical Islam.
Much like Trump, who repeatedly criticized the Obama administration for, “not fighting to win,” Flynn writes about the need for an aggressive leadership that is not worried about consensus at home before waging a new war against this “existential threat.” He calls for the removal of existing restriction on “rules of engagement” that tie the hands of the US military, which will likely mean less sensitivity to “collateral damage” and interrogation techniques.
Convinced that Russia too “has a good deal to fear from radical Islamists, Flynn’s solution is to target Iran, the “linchpin” and “centerpiece” of radical Islamists and their alliance, which contradicts Trump’s own analysis, stated in the presidential debates, that both Iran and Russia are fighting ISIS. In Flynn’s worldview, however, Iran is a “radical Islamist regime” and, therefore, it is impossible to negotiate a modus vivendi with Iran’s rulers who are, supposedly, unable or unwilling to “abandon” their virulent anti-Western “messianic vision.”
Although he writes about the ISIS and al-Qaeda, Flynn nonetheless is adamant that, “the issue is the regime in Tehran and their radical version of Islam…New American leaders will have to craft a winning strategy that will bring freedom to Iran.” (pps. 88, 176). This too collides with Trump’s statement that the US in the past has erred by pushing for “regime change” around the world.
Notwithstanding the Flynn’s above-mentioned Manichean Iranophobia, a big question is of course to what extent this narrative will guide the Trump administration’s foreign policy? Thick on generalities and short on details and in-depth analysis, Flynn’s narrative leaves a lot to be desired and omits significant topics, such as how the US itself has used the “radical Islamist” card against its enemies such as Russia? A limited functional use of this threat for America’s anti-Russian policy is thereby overlooked, just as Flynn is incapable of providing an apt account of the US-Saudi nexus behind the anti-Syrian jihadists in the Syrian theater during the past five years, polished over in the name of supporting “moderate rebels.”
Clearly, the Trump administration’s adoption of the restrictive and narrow-minded proposals by Flynn could be a recipe for disaster and lead to a significant harm in the fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda terrorism. At a time when the US is pondering whether or not to participate in the Syrian peace talks brokered by Russia, Turkey, and Iran, it would be nothing short of dysfunctional to shy away from the window of opportunity for a US effort with these other nations against ISIS simply as a result of an unreconstructed and abstract notion of “Radical Islam” that bundles different species of Islam together and thus presents a distorted and undifferentiated image that does not correspond with reality.
The inherent danger of getting sidetracked from the war on terror by lumping Iran as an enemy in this war, instead of a partner, cannot be overstated.