Out of Uniform and Into the Political Fray
Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn retired and immediately began bashing the administration. Has he crossed a line?
The witness at the June 10 House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing was tossing the equivalent of red meat to his Republican questioners, who were practically slavering in gratitude.
President Barack Obama’s plan to impose “snapback sanctions” should Iran violate a nuclear deal? “Wishful thinking.”
The awkwardness of having U.S. trainers and Iranian forces both in Iraq helping to counter a common enemy? “We have allowed this thing to get so out of kilter.”
The president’s June 8 remark that “we don’t yet have a complete strategy” for training Iraqi forces to combat the Islamic State? “I was stunned by his comments,” the witness said. “Stunned.”
But the wiry, sharp-featured man giving the representatives what they wanted and then some was no pundit from a right-leaning think tank, nor was he an alumnus of former President George W. Bush’s administration. No, the man in the gray suit sounding the alarm over the current administration’s approach to the Middle East was none other than Obama’s most recent director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.
Since taking off his uniform last August, Flynn, 56, has been in the vanguard of those criticizing the president’s policies in the Middle East, speaking out at venues ranging from congressional hearings and trade association banquets to appearances on Fox News, CNN, Sky News Arabia, and Japanese television, targeting the Iranian nuclear deal, the weakness of the U.S. response to the Islamic State, and the Obama administration’s refusal to call America’s enemies in the Middle East “Islamic militants.” Flynn is hardly the first retired senior officer to criticize a sitting president’s policies, but in the post-9/11 era, no one else has combined Flynn’s rank and high-profile position at retirement, and the speed — once out of uniform — with which he began lambasting the policies of the administration he had just been serving.
Flynn, however, is unabashed about speaking out.
“I’m not going to be a general that just fades away,” he told Foreign Policy. The career intelligence officer said he was concerned that his children and grandchildren would have to live with the consequences of mistakes being made today: “I feel like I have a responsibility not only to myself, but I feel like I have a responsibility to my family, and that to me is probably the most important thing.”
Flynn is particularly worried that the ties that bind the U.S. government to its people, and the United States to its allies, were fraying. “The people in the United States have lost respect and confidence in their government to be able to solve the problems that we face now and in the future,” he said. “That’s not a good place to be.” Meanwhile, he has repeatedly criticized the administration’s response to the rise of the Islamic State.
“In the military we say, ‘Fight the enemy, and not the plan,’” he said. “It feels like we’re fighting a plan that’s not working, instead of fighting the actual threat that we’re facing. If your plan’s not working, it’s probably because you’re not understanding who the enemy is.”
The role Flynn has taken on may be unusual for a recently retired three-star general, but it is not out of character, according to an intelligence officer who has worked with him in the past. “Flynn has always spoken his mind,” the intelligence officer said. “It’s a form of moral courage that he does speak up — and always has throughout his career — when he thinks mistakes are going to be made.” Nonetheless, the path Flynn has chosen is fraught with risk, said the intelligence officer who has worked with him. “It’s a dangerous road to walk,” the officer said. “You want people who have the experience of prosecuting the nation’s wars to pipe up when they think the country is making a wrong turn or a misstep, but you want [the criticism] to be couched in diplomatic and thoughtful language.”
An even bigger concern is that Flynn could come to be seen as politicizing the military’s officer corps and blurring — or erasing — the line separating senior military generals from partisan politics. Flynn is retired, but that may be lost on those who hear his blistering critiques and believe he is still talking as a member of the Army’s elite. The two most recent chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — retired Adm. Mike Mullen and his successor, Gen. Martin Dempsey — have each spoken of their unease with the concept of retired officers engaging in partisan politics. When a group of former military and intelligence personnel criticized Obama in 2012 for, among other things, taking what they perceived as too much credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden, Dempsey said their actions were “not useful.”
Peter Feaver, an expert on civil-military relations at Duke (and an FP contributor), said anyone in Flynn’s position leaves himself vulnerable to a charge of partisanship, or, at least, behaving inappropriately by appearing to turn on the administration publicly and so quickly after retiring. “Retired military officials enjoy a privileged position in American society in part because they are viewed as professionals who have not been politicized,” he said, noting that Flynn has appeared careful to avoid ad hominem attacks and instead focus on policy critiques. Still, Feaver said, Flynn’s remark about being “stunned” by Obama’s comments meant he was “getting close to the chalk line.”
Flynn received his commission in 1981 after attending the University of Rhode Island, a college in his home state. The first two decades of his Army career followed a fairly standard path for an intelligence officer, with stops at Fort Huachuca, Arizona; Fort Bragg, North Carolina; and Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. But in 2004 he was assigned as the director of intelligence of the Joint Special Operations Command, the secretive headquarters that then-Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal was in the process of revamping to take on al Qaeda in Iraq. With Flynn playing a key role, JSOC and the special mission units at its heart (principally the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy’s SEAL Team 6) learned to rapidly process and share intelligence materials gathered on assaults, enabling the command’s strike forces in Iraq to mount several raids a night, each based on intelligence gathered from the previous one.
In 2007, Flynn left JSOC to spend a year as the U.S. Central Command’s director of intelligence, before moving to the same position on the Joint Staff. McChrystal was director of the Joint Staff at the time, and when he became commander of the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan in the summer of 2009, he arranged for Flynn to join him in Kabul as his intelligence director. It was while stationed in Afghanistan that Flynn first gained a public profile by authoring (with Marine Capt. Matt Pottinger and senior DIA civilian Paul Batchelor) a paper titled “Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan,” which was published by the Center for a New American Security, a Washington, D.C., think tank. The paper raised eyebrows inside and outside of the armed forces because of its lacerating critique of the military’s intelligence gathering methods in Afghanistan, which the authors bluntly derided as “unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which U.S. and allied forces operate and the people they seek to persuade.”
After Obama fired McChrystal for his staff’s indiscreet comments to a Rolling Stone reporter, Flynn spent 18 months in staff positions in Washington before taking the reins at the Defense Intelligence Agency in July 2012, continuing a career that had given him almost unparalleled access to the intelligence regarding the United States’ post-9/11 challenges, particularly in the Middle East.
The assignment at the DIA, whose mission is to produce intelligence for senior military leaders, would eventually mark the end of Flynn’s career. He ruffled feathers in the organization by trying to reshape it for the wars of the 21st century, while also incurring the wrath of the Obama administration for making public statements that had not been fully vetted, according to a Defense Department official who works closely with the DIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The official pointed in particular to Flynn’s presentation of the DIA’s “annual threat assessment” to the Senate Armed Services Committee in February 2014 that predicted the Islamic State would probably “attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014, as demonstrated recently in Ramadi and Fallujah, and [by] the group’s ability to concurrently maintain safe havens in Syria.” This forecast would, of course, prove true, but it clashed noticeably with Obama’s description the previous month of the Islamic State as “a jayvee team.”
Less than a month after his February testimony, Flynn gave an interview to NPR in which he was asked how he responded “to lawmakers and others who are saying that the intelligence community was caught off-guard” by Russia’s invasion of Crimea. “There was good strategic warning provided to our decision-makers in order to make the right kinds of decisions about what sort of policy actions may be taken,” he replied, having already said that DIA was “providing very solid reporting” on Russian troops preparing to invade “for easily seven to ten days leading up to” the invasion. The comments could be seen as effectively laying blame for the muddled American response squarely at the feet of Obama and his top aides.
Most DIA directors serve at least three years, but it wasn’t long before Flynn learned he was not being extended for a third year. “I was asked to step down,” Flynn said in the interview with Foreign Policy. “It wasn’t necessarily the timing that I wanted, but I understand.” Flynn was at pains to emphasize that his ouster as DIA director was not his motivation for speaking out. “That’s not why I’m doing what I’m doing,” he said. “I’m doing it because I care about the country and the direction that the country’s going and the various enemies that we’re facing, and there are many.”
Feaver, the Duke professor, said Flynn’s criticisms ran the risk of leading civilian policymakers to decide to exclude senior officers from key meetings. “If they suspect ‘this guy’s going to retire and then go on MSNBC and bash me,’ [they might decide] ‘let’s not have that person in the room when we’re really discussing the issues,’” Feaver said. That dynamic “could be happening now,” he added. “The current generals may be looked at with a jaundiced eye by the Obama White House.”
Rather than saying that Flynn’s outspoken criticism of U.S. foreign policy “cheers Republicans more than it cheers Democrats,” Feaver said it would be more accurate to say that the three-star general’s approach “cheers critics of the Obama administration more than it cheers defenders, because there’s actually quite a few Democrats who are criticizing the president’s positions.”
In fact, one of those Democrats is Flynn himself. “I’m a registered Democrat,” he said, before adding that he was “about as centrist as possible.” As a boy, he would help arrange bus rides for Democratic voters on election days in his hometown. “I’m not a politician, but if someone were to look it up right now, I’m a registered Democrat, and I’m okay with that,” he said.
“I think that I have been very good about coming across as a guy who’s not one side or the other,” Flynn added, noting that he has also chastised the Republican-headed Congress for not working more closely with the White House. However, he acknowledged that he had been harshly critical of the administration’s Middle East policy. “It’s not working,” he said. “Our fight against global Islamic radicals is not working. It’s not. The [counterterrorism] component that our special operations [forces] do, the pinprick stuff, works great. But in general, we’re not solving this information, this diplomatic and this cultural war that we are fighting.”
Since retiring, Flynn has divided his time between Rhode Island and Alexandria, Virginia, where he has set up shop as a consultant on intelligence, cyber-related issues, and security, three areas in which he considers himself an expert. “I didn’t walk out like a lot of guys and go to big jobs in Northrop Grumman or Booz Allen [Hamilton] or some of these other big companies [like] Raytheon,” he said. “I’m very independent, and it’s very liberating actually.”
Nonetheless, despite a reluctance to reenter full-time government employment, and his criticisms of the current administration notwithstanding, Flynn declared himself available to pitch in if the call came. “If the White House asked me to come back over and said, ‘Hey, we’d really like your help on trying to figure out this [Islamic State] problem, or we’d like your help with the Iranian negotiations, or we’d like your help with what’s going on in China, now that you’re in a different role,’ I’d love to do that,” he said. Flynn also said he has not ruled out running for elected office at some point in the future.
The White House declined to comment for this story, and Flynn said he had heard from nobody in the administration regarding any of his public comments since he left the Army. However, Feaver said, “I would be stunned if the White House was not grinding their teeth about it.”
Flynn’s military peers, both active and retired, appear to be largely at ease with the stance he has taken over the past year. “There hasn’t been any great gnashing of teeth,” said retired Lt. Gen. Guy Swan, a vice president of the Association of the United States Army. “I haven’t heard people say he’s wrong to be doing what he’s doing, or even he’s right to be doing what he’s doing.”
Gen. Jack Keane, a retired Army vice chief of staff who makes frequent television appearances criticizing Obama — and is widely seen as a conservative Republican — said the reaction of the retired senior military personnel he knew to Flynn’s outspokenness has been “overwhelmingly supportive.” This mirrored Flynn’s own experience. “Universally, it’s been very, very positive feedback … thanking me for being honest, being very forthright, and being clear,” Flynn said, adding that he had received only two “back-channel nastygrams,” and those were from non-military people in the national security community. “They don’t appreciate it, because the truth hurts sometimes,” he said.
Nevertheless, it’s notable that none of Flynn’s contemporaries have carved out a similar path as an administration critic. Both McChrystal and former Army Gen. David Petraeus, for instance, have been scrupulously careful to avoid public criticism of the White House. Another senior officer and rough contemporary of Flynn — retired Marine Gen. John Allen, formerly the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan — has even gone to work for the White House as its point person in the fight against the Islamic State.
One possible reason why the military community has not pushed back against Flynn is that he is expressing what Swan called “a collective frustration” that many current and former service members feel about events in Iraq since the departure of U.S. forces at the end of 2011. In the eyes of many veterans of the Iraq War, the failure of the Iraqi government to transcend sectarian differences and build on the platform established at enormous cost in U.S. blood and treasure paved the way for the Islamic State’s dramatic territorial gains since early 2014. “All of us share a lot of angst over what has occurred in Iraq, given what we sacrificed there,” Swan said. “Anybody that’s been in the U.S. Army for the last 15 years has had some role in that thing.”
But not every soldier is ready to sign up for the Mike Flynn fan club just yet. “I appreciate Gen. Flynn’s comments, but why weren’t those comments made when he was the director of [the] DIA?” said retired Army Lt. Col. Jim Reese, a former Delta Force officer and an Iraq War veteran. “And if he felt that strongly about it then, why not resign in protest?”
Flynn responded by saying that while at the DIA, he had raised the same issues about which he is now speaking out. “I’ve always been adamant about the kind of challenges we’re facing,” he said. “I’ve been pretty outspoken probably since I was a lieutenant.” As for the option of resigning in protest, “I’m not going to do it that way,” he said. “Basically I stepped down. People don’t know what I was saying, or what events occurred inside. Obviously something occurred.”
However, Flynn added, even as DIA director, there was only so much influence he could exert. “I’m not going to tell you that I’ve ever had the opportunity to brief President Obama,” he said. “I never have.” That role fell to political appointees in the Pentagon, the CIA, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. “That’s part of the challenge,” he said. “Who is it that is actually advising [the president]? And if it’s the DNI and the CIA director, okay, those are two political appointees.”
But even some of Flynn’s defenders acknowledge a level of discomfort with the role he has taken on. “I’m always a little bit uncomfortable with recently retired general officers being highly critical” of any U.S. administration, said the intelligence officer who has worked with Flynn. There is “sort of an unwritten code” among generals not to step out of uniform and publicly bash whichever administration is in office, he added. Even after generals retire, “they’re still considered generals, and all of us in uniform are taught from the beginning that we swear an oath to subordinate ourselves and not to get involved in policy and politics except in discreet settings when the president or whomever asks,” the intelligence officer said.
This sums up the dilemma for those who might want to follow in Flynn’s path. “His views are valuable — the guy [has] got incredible experience,” said the intelligence officer. “He [has] just got to be careful not to create the perception for people in uniform that it’s okay to criticize the president. It’s a tricky path to take.”
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