Trump’s National Security Team is Looking Like a Dr Strangelove Remake

Anyone seeking reassurance after Donald Trump’s election will not find it in his initial foreign and security policy team selections. Rather than surrounding himself with the wise counsel essential for a President with no international relations experience, Trump is identifying candidates who reflect his own combination of naivety and aggression. The result looks more like the cast for a remake of “Dr Strangelove” than a capable national security team.

Trump’s choice of General Michael “Firehose” Flynn as National Security Advisor is particularly alarming. Flynn’s nickname was earned during the Iraq War and denotes his tendency to spray off dangerously in all directions unless firmly held down.  His last official post saw him sacked as Director of the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) in 2014 after a two-year reign described as “frankly disastrous” by former National Security Agency officer John Schindler in the right-wing “National Review”.

Flynn attributes his sacking to a disagreement with a superior about his advocacy of a stronger policy against ISIS. Schindler and others put it down instead to his bullying style, which alienated the workforce and led to his tenure “drowning in a mixture of naivety and arrogance”.

Since his departure from public service, Flynn has hardly distinguished himself as a potential source of considered judgement in the crises that will inevitably arise over the next four years. His most prominent recent public appearances were leading frenzied crowds at Trump campaign rallies in chanting “lock her up”. And in December 2015, he accepted a well-paid invitation to speak at an event in Moscow promoting the Kremlin’s virulently anti-American propaganda arm, “RT” (formerly “Russia Today”). In normal times, consorting with a hostile power in this way would be sufficient to disqualify someone from any junior, let alone senior, position in the US government.

Flynn’s links with Russia include apparently swallowing the line that the Putin regime is fighting terrorists in Syria, rather than brutally propping up a fellow ruthless and corrupt dictatorship. This indicates an alarming degree of gullibility for a National Security Adviser.

His public statements about the Muslim world as a whole suggest Flynn has succumbed to the security man’s curse of seeing enemies at every turn. He appears to make little distinction between Islam - the peaceful religion adhered to by 1.6 billion people (23% of the world’s population) - and the violent Islamism of a small number of fringe maniacs in groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Ordinary Muslims are overwhelmingly the biggest victims of the extremists’ violence. Their nations’ working in conjunction with the West is crucial to defeating this threat. Instead, having someone with Flynn’s views in such a pivotal US government position will only spray petrol on the flames.

The likely next Defence Secretary, retired US Marine Corps General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, is scarcely more reassuring. His moniker stems from statements such as the instruction he gave his soldiers in Iraq to “be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet” and “I come in peace. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes; if you f--k with me, I’ll kill you all”.

the ill-informed aggressiveness, egotism and naivety that characterise his foreign policy and security appointees so far risks other disastrous decisions

Despite his penchant for ebullient language, Mattis is considered in Washington defence circles to be a good military strategist and opposes a US retreat into isolationism. But his suitability for the more nuanced world of politics is questionable. For starters, Mattis’ bluntly spoken, non-sycophantic style is likely to clash with Trump’s fragile ego. And even if this incompatibility can be smoothed over, Mattis’ action-orientated instincts do not make him the best counterfoil to Trump’s lash-out first, think later approach.

Nor does the CIA Director designate, Congressman Mike Pompeo, seem likely to be a source of calm and common-sense. Pompeo is ostensibly well-qualified for the job having graduated from the West Point Military Academy and Harvard Law School before serving on the House Intelligence Committee. But despite his blue-chip education, he is on the supposedly grassroots “Tea Party” fundamentalist wing of the Republican Party. Pompeo advocates the return of “enhanced interrogation techniques” - or “torture” as it is more commonly known. He also favours other dangerous steps such as ripping up the Iran Nuclear Agreement. This would unshackle Iran from its commitment not to pursue nuclear weapons and could quickly lead to an atomic arms race in the Middle East.

The only exception from the procession of pale and male headbangers already announced is the nomination of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley as Ambassador to the UN. Although firmly right-wing on economic issues, she has shown some semblance of human sensitivity, notably when taking down the Confederate flag from outside the State House after the Charleston church shootings. Haley though, has minimal experience of foreign policy and will not sit on the National Security Council (NSC), where the big decisions are made.

Any input Haley has into the NSC will come via her superior, the Secretary of State. For this role, Trump appears torn between disinterring an old figure from the chamber of horrors, such as the egomaniacal stranger to the truth Newt Gingrich, and adding a sole voice of reason like Mitt Romney to his team.

Four years ago, I would have found it hard to imagine rooting for Romney to attain high office but that is the situation we are in now. Unlike an anti-government know-it-all like Gingrich, Romney is likely to make full use of the vast knowledge and abilities of the State Department to back-up his limited foreign affairs experience. This would help the Americans to avoid being outwitted by their wily Chinese and immoral Russian opposite numbers for the next four years.

The terror of placing the world’s most potent nuclear button in the hands of a man with a notoriously thin skin, short attention span and inability to absorb detail has been well-documented. But even if the world avoids the ultimate catastrophe during Trump’s presidency, the ill-informed aggressiveness, egotism and naivety that characterise his foreign policy and security appointees so far risks other disastrous decisions being taken over the coming years.

More about the author

About the author

Paul Knott began his working life in a hut on Hull's King George Dock before globetrotting for two decades as an unlikely British envoy. His "instructive and funny" (Alan Johnson MP) book about his experiences, "The Accidental Diplomat", is out now.

He is also the Chief Foreign Correspondent for the Sabotage Times and contributes to publications such as The Telegraph, Forty-20 and When Saturday Comes.

All that travel has failed to shift Paul's inherited old Labour instincts.

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