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Flynn, Russia and the World of Conspiracy Thinking

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Photo by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff | CC BY 2.0

Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn has a well deserved reputation for conspiracy thinking. Presumably he will assume that the U.S. intelligence community, including the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the former director of National Intelligence, conducted a campaign to force his removal from the Trump administration.  Ironically, the Kremlin, which has lived historically in a world of conspiracy thinking, will view the ouster of Flynn as part of a campaign by the U.S. establishment to prevent any improvement in Russian-American relations.

In this conspiratorial realm, it’s important to acknowledge at the outset that Flynn was probably the least qualified and the most questionable individual in the 70-year history of the National Security Council to be selected as the president’s sherpa for national security policy.  His behavior during the presidential campaign was thoroughly unprofessional and a source of embarrassment to the military establishment and the Republican Party.  His retirement from the military several years ago was engineered by the White House and the Joint Chiefs of Staff because of his failed stewardship at the Defense Intelligence Agency.  He had a reputation at DIA as a polemicist, and many of his pronouncements there were derided as “Flynn facts” because they had no basis in actual fact.

Flynn’s lies to Vice President Pence made it inevitable that he would be forced to resign. Donald Trump was already impatient with Flynn because the general, who was poorly grounded in geopolitical and geoeconomic affairs, couldn’t tell the president the international implications of a strong vs. a weak dollar on the global economy.   The fact that Flynn was unaware or unconcerned that his conversations with the Russian ambassador in Washington would be recorded by the FBI and the National Security Agency was not exactly a feather in his cap as a long-term intelligence professional.  And the fact that he claimed not to remember his discussions with the Russian ambassador is not a recommendation for any high-level position in the decision making community, let alone the advisor closest to the president on foreign policy.  The unusual elevation of Steve Bannon to the NSC two weeks ago suggested that the president wanted his own source for Flynn’s maneuvers and machinations within the key decision making body for national security policy.

The Kremlin will have its own way to decipher these bizarre and chaotic developments within a new administration that appears clueless in conceptualizing and conducting foreign policy.  In the past, Soviet leaders have interpreted major events in U.S. history from the standpoint of implications for Moscow’s relations with the United States.  The assassination of John F. Kennedy was interpreted as an effort to silence a president who had spoken in favor of detente with the Soviet Union and had just concluded the Partial Test Ban Treaty.  The impeachment of Richard Nixon was seen as an effort to stop the progress in arms control and disarmament.  The initial tough-mindedness of the George H.W. Bush administration was viewed as an attempt to reverse the gains between Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan in the late 1980s.

Ironically, Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze had their own problems with the Soviet establishment in the 1980s when they worked assiduously to improve relations with the United States, including the acceptance of various arms control measures on Washington’s terms and the unilateral withdrawal of Soviet forces from Central Europe and various areas in the Third World.  The “new thinking” of Gorbachev and Shevardnadze was a challenge to old thinking within the Politburo, and Russian leaders will conclude that the U.S. establishment has challenged Donald Trump and Michael Flynn for their interest in reversing the decline in Russian-American relations.  Flynn deceived the Vice President and the mainstream media, but it is unlikely that his talks with the Russian ambassador had not been discussed with president-elect Trump.

We may never know if Trump and Flynn were actually seeking a grand bargain with Russia and Vladimir Putin, but it certainly appears that the Russian leader wants to reverse the deterioration in bilateral relations. Putin presumably is not willing to go as far as Gorbachev and Shevardnadze regarding mutually beneficial agreements, but he certainly wants to reverse the downward spiral. Irony will reign again if it develops that the removal of Flynn leads to a further decline in Russian-American relations.

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Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. His latest book is A Whistleblower at the CIA. (City Lights Publishers, 2017).  Goodman is the national security columnist for counterpunch.org.

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