Mike Flynn Takes the National Security Council Staff In the Right Direction

National Security Adviser-designate Michael Flynn arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, for the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump. (Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP)

If you want to explain the abject failure of Barack Obama’s foreign policy you need look no further than the people filling key positions on his Nation Security Council staff. It is a collection of yes-men and second rate intellects with third rate experience. He drew heavily on failed policy specialists, like the his National Security Adviser, Susan Rice, to give him advice that reinforced his preconceived ideas. In short, our nation’s foreign policy was run like a college dorm room bull session. Anyone with any relevant experience or expertise, beyond being a true-believing Obamanaut, was very hard to find.


Whatever one might think of Mike Flynn, he recognizes just how crappy a team Obama assembled and is trying to fix as badly broken National Security Council.

President Trump is filling the government’s national security leadership with former military officials and businessmen, rejecting the policy and academic types both parties have traditionally relied on. But the militarization of the Trump foreign policy team is even more concentrated on the White House staff led by national security adviser Michael T. Flynn — and it has observers both inside and outside the administration concerned.

Flynn, a retired lieutenant general, is steadily assembling the most military-heavy National Security Council staff of the modern era. His effort stems from two motivations, according to several transition officials I spoke with. First, he wants people he knows and trusts. More broadly, Flynn believes that the Obama administration’s NSC staff had a dearth of real war-fighting experience, resulting in bad policy decisions and poor follow-through, especially when combating terrorist groups abroad.

“We’re going to have people who have looked down a rifle scope,” Flynn often said at meetings during the transition, according to one senior transition official.


But bigots abound:

Military officers bring knowledge, discipline and a keen organizational and planning mentality to problems, said Kori Schake, who wrote a book on civil-military relations with Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, also a retired general. But their strategic weakness is that they often shun the political dynamics of national security problems, which are crucial at the highest levels of policy.

“The president needs a White House staff that is ambidextrous, able to work both realms,” Schake said. “Obama was poorly served by having staff that didn’t understand the military demands. Trump’s, if it is predominantly military, will struggle to swim effectively in political currents.”

This is the type of numbskullery that pervades academia. Because actually serving in a senior position on the staff of a forward deployed combatant command, like CENTCOM or ISAF, where you are daily dealing with foreign governments doesn’t teach you anything about how diplomacy works whereas being in a university or think tank makes you an expert. It is based on the conceit that anyone who serves at high levels in the military can’t be particularly smart because all the really smart people are in academia. The officer corps of the Armed Services has a rigorous and ongoing program of professional education interspersed with utilization tours. One of the officers this Schake person criticizes is on staff at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. In fact, if you want to find people who really understand civil-military relationships and the nexus of military and civilian power… and who really want to avoid wars that have no point and which are unwinnable… the upper levels of the officer corps is where you go to find them. People who have never served and who look with contempt upon the military, that takes in virtually 90% of think tank and academic experts, simply aren’t sufficiently grounded in reality to be of much use outside the classroom.


The obvious issue that is missing in the discussion is how Flynn sees the NSC staff operating and how it operated under Obama. Under Obama the cabinet secretaries most affected, Defense, State, and Homeland Security, were go-fers. They were second tier players of modest abilities, or in the case of John Kerry, no ability whatsoever, and they did what Susan Rice and her clutch of biddies directed.

Flynn is organizing a staff that will coordinate policy but the development of that policy and its execution seems to be seen as the territory of the relevant cabinet secretaries. It my assessment is correct, it will go a long way towards correcting the drift of power and policy development from the experts in the cabinet agencies to the White House because that has not served the nation well at all.


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