Top Trump Adviser Went to Moscow and Flirted with Conspiracy Theories
Flynn’s views on Turkey, terrorism have shifted with business interests.
Since he was tapped as the incoming White House national security adviser — a post that has historically carried with it the ear of the president and enormous power to influence military and diplomatic decision-making — retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn has emerged as an exemplar of the sea-change and controversies that may be approaching U.S. foreign policy.
Flynn has feted Russian propaganda efforts alongside President Vladimir Putin; offered initial support for the attempted July coup against Turkey’s president — before changing his position after being hired as a lobbyist for an Ankara-linked outfit — and has described the United States and the West as participants in an apocalyptic clash with Islam, which he has called “a cancer.”
On the same day the Turkish military was launching its failed coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Flynn praised the putsch in a July 15 speech. The Turkish military, Flynn said, wanted to build a “secular nation,” in contrast to Erdogan’s Islamist tendencies. As the crowd began to applaud, Flynn chimed in: “That is worth clapping for.”
Flynn described Erdogan as “actually very close” to U.S. President Barack Obama, whose administration quickly sided with the sitting government against the putschists. By vaguely backing the Turkish generals behind the coup, and neglecting to offer support for Erdogan’s democratically-elected government, Flynn challenged a bulwark of the Obama administration’s Middle East diplomacy, and left a NATO ally hanging.
But by a few months later, Flynn had changed his tune. In an Election Day op-ed, Flynn urged the United States to lend more support to Erdogan’s government and to surrender to its top demand: the extradition of its chief political rival, Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania.
Erdogan has blamed the coup attempt on Gulen and executed a wide-ranging purge against the exiled cleric’s supporters from Turkey’s government and civil society. The Gulen movement is a designated terrorist organization inside Turkey. Yet it appears Ankara has failed so far to provide the U.S. government sufficient evidence documenting his role in orchestrating the coup.
Writing in the Hill, Flynn called Gulen “Turkey’s Osama bin Laden” — words that echoed what Turkish Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdag told reporters in Washington last month after meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch to discuss the extradition.
“Whatever Osama bin Laden means for the United States and the American people, Fethullah Gulen means the same for Turkey and the Turkish people,” Bozdag said.
Two weeks later, Flynn argued the United States should no longer grant Gulen “safe haven.”
Despite “vital” U.S. interests in Turkey, “the Obama administration is keeping Erdogan’s government at arm’s length — an unwise policy that threatens our long-standing alliance,” Flynn wrote in the Nov. 8 op-ed.
The change of heart may be explained by Flynn’s business interests. In September, Dutch firm Inovo BV, which has apparent ties to the Erdogan government, hired Flynn’s consulting company, Flynn Intel Group. Flynn founded the Virginia-based lobbying and consulting firm after retiring from the Army in 2014.
The exact nature of Flynn’s work for on Inovo remains unclear, but the contract spurred Flynn’s firm to file a lobbying disclosure report with the U.S. government. Kamil Ekim Alptekin, Inovo’s Turkish owner, has denied the firm lobbied on its behalf and only provided it with analysis on world events.
“Neither Inovo, any of my other companies, or my person are affiliated to the Turkish government in any form whatsoever,” Alptekin told CNN last week. But the Turkish-American Business Council — of which Alpetkin is the chair — helped organize Erdogan’s trip to Washington in 2015, according to CNN.
The relationship between Inovo and Flynn was first was first reported by the Daily Caller. It comes at an inconvenient time for Flynn and President-elect Donald Trump, who has pledged to “drain the swamp” of Washington by excluding lobbyists from his administration.
Last week, Flynn promised to sever all ties to his own firm. The Trump transition team did not respond to a request from FP to describe how far along Flynn is in that process; however, the firm’s Web site has been taken down and scrubbed of all content. The URL for the site — flynnintelgroup.com — now displays only a generic military-style logo.
If this weekend’s events are any guide, Flynn’s shifting positions on Turkey won’t be the final imbroglio over his foreign contacts. On Sunday, CNN reported that during a 2015 appearance in Moscow, Flynn questioned whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime was responsible for the use of chemical weapons against its own people in 2013.
Asked whether Turkish intelligence might have been responsible for the sarin attack on Ghouta, Flynn said he did not know. “To have that level of knowledge or insight or detail of what an intelligence service is doing to do a false flag — who knows,” Flynn said.
At the time of the attack, Flynn headed the Defense Intelligence Agency — and all but certainly would have had access to U.S. spy information concluding Assad’s forces carried it out. He has not explained why he would consider the possibility that Turkish intelligence agents were instead behind the attack that killed hundreds of Syrians.
Moreover, U.N. investigators, human rights organizations, and journalists have determined that the sarin gas rockets were fired from territory controlled by Syrian-government forces. While a compelling body of evidence points toward the Assad regime’s responsibility, the Kremlin has repeatedly cast doubt on the claim as lacking bulletproof evidence.
So when CNN unearthed comments from Trump’s incoming national security adviser parroting Kremlin propaganda, RT naturally unearthed the full clip and promoted it:
Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary