While most attention on night one of the GOP convention was focused on Melania Trump, something much more interesting got far less notice.
At 11 p.m., after most of the TV audience and conventioneers had called it quits, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn addressed the dwindling crowd on national security. A close Trump adviser and a finalist for vice president, Flynn was as notable for what he didn’t say as what he did.
The theme of the night was “Make America safe again.” But, until Flynn, anyone naive enough to hope for concrete policy details was left hanging.
The speakers before the general, including military vets, a mother whose son died at Benghazi and former New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani, put forward a grim portrait of America on the verge of doom due to the mistakes of the Obama team but offered no policy solutions (except to get rid of President Obama and Hillary Clinton).
Then came Flynn – a man favored early on by Donald Trump for veep, before the candidate was persuaded to make a more conventional pick in order to reassure GOP evangelicals.
A registered Democrat, Flynn has clearly been seething at an administration that forced him out of his job as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency a year early and is ready to change horses.
That anger seems to have driven him over the top.
But I get ahead of myself. First some background. Flynn served 33 years as an intelligence officer and is credited with innovations in the field that produced big breakthroughs in Iraq and Afghanistan in the fight against al-Qaida. He is known for thinking outside the box and speaking very bluntly, which I appreciated when sitting in on a briefing he gave to a small group of journalists in Kabul several years ago.
Needless to say, such bluntness can alienate superiors, as happened in Flynn’s case. He made clear on Monday that his wrath is compounded by fury at Obama’s “weak” and “politically correct” policies in Iraq, Afghanistan, and toward radical Islamist terrorists. Indeed his speech, denouncing the White House’s lack of strategy on terrorism and lack of military readiness, was not in itself surprising, except for his urging the crowd remnants at the end to chant “Lock her (Hillary) up” with a fervor that seemed bizarre for a former general.
But that brings me to my main point:
Flynn is a key security adviser to Trump, whose campaign is notoriously bereft of experienced foreign policy or security advisers. And he has indeed laid out a strategy, although he didn’t go into details at the convention. It too has gone over the top.
The retired general’s ideas are presented in a new book, “The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies,” which at one level reads like a prescription for all-out war against almost everyone. He says we face “an international alliance of evil countries and movements that is working to destroy us” and “extends from North Korea and China to Russia, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Bolivia, and Nicaragua” and is linked to the Islamic State, al-Qaida, Hezbollah and “countless other terrorist groups.” Despite their ideological differences, he says, these disparate groups are united by hatred of the West.
Flynn calls for the United States not only to destroy the Islamic State but to “directly confront” the regimes that support our enemies, “weakening them at a minimum, bringing them down wherever possible.” The book is co-authored by Michael Ledeen, a neoconservative who has long called for the United States to promote regime change in Iran (and has repeatedly predicted – incorrectly – that Iranians were about to overthrow the ayatollahs).
Is this a formula that the short-of-focus Trump might glom on to? On the one hand, Trump sometimes appears isolationist (“America first” is his slogan), and we know he doesn’t read books, so presumably Flynn’s isn’t by his bedside.
On the other hand, Trump seems prone to adopt whatever idea grabs his fancy of a moment. And Flynn has his ear.
Yet even within Flynn’s book there is confusion. He makes clear he’d like to work with friendly strongmen like Vladimir Putin, for example, if the Russian president would only fight harder against the Islamic State.
Indeed, Flynn sat near Putin at a 2015 Moscow dinner honoring the RT television network, which broadcasts virulently anti-American conspiracy theories all over the world. And we know Trump has a fondness for Putin.
So the Flynn appearance, and his closeness to the Donald, only muddles the already murky perceptions of how a President Trump would make America safer. Neocon redux seeking regime change in Iran? Troops to Syria? Hardline realist creating an alliance with Putin even as Russian proxies occupy eastern Ukraine and Russian planes bomb Syrian civilians? Or America First?
Mike Flynn’s appearance gave hints of several alternative directions, but we still have no idea what the candidate wants.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at email@example.com.