WASHINGTON - A theme of President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism policy has been a relentless narrowing of focus. Under his watch the United States has not been at war with terror or radical Islam. It has been in discrete conflicts with al-Qaida’s core leadership and its affiliate in Yemen and the Islamic State group. And while Obama’s war has waxed and waned, he has never explained its disparate parts as a whole the way his predecessor did.
Michael Flynn, who served as Obama’s second Defense Intelligence Agency director, takes the opposite view. “Field of Fight,” a new book Flynn co-wrote with historian Michael Ledeen, argues that America is up against a global alliance between radical jihadis and anti-American nation states like Russia, Cuba and North Korea. They say this war will last at least a generation. And they say it will require outside ground forces to go after al-Qaida and the Islamic State as well as a sustained information campaign to discredit the ideology of radical Islam.
One might think a big war is a quaint throwback to the era after 9/11 when President George W. Bush delivered his speech about the “axis of evil.” But Flynn is very much a man of the moment. Over the weekend, The Washington Post reported this former special operations officer and three-star general was Donald Trump’s leading choice for vice president. At the very least he has the real-estate mogul’s ear when it comes to national security.
In some ways this makes for an odd pairing. While Trump has promised to vaguely “knock the hell” out of the Islamic State, the candidate of “America First” has also promised to reach out to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to see if more cooperation is possible.
Flynn, who flew to Moscow last year to attend a conference sponsored by the state’s propaganda outlet, RT, is nonetheless very critical of Putin. “When it is said that Russia would make an ideal partner for fighting Radical Islam, it behooves us to remember that the Russians haven’t been very effective at fighting jihadis on their own territory, and are in cahoots with the Iranians. In Syria, the two allies have loudly proclaimed they are waging war against ISIS, but in reality the great bulk of their efforts are aimed at the opponents of the Assad regime,” Flynn and Ledeen write.
But all of this raises questions about the central theme of “Field of Fight,” that countries like Russia are in an alliance at all with radical Islam. If the Russians have fought ineffectively against jihadis, are we also to believe they are in an alliance with them? When I spoke with Flynn over the weekend, he said why he chose to call it an alliance: “It was a simpler way to explain the relationships.”
So what binds these countries and movements together, then? The authors say the countries and revolutionary movements in this alliance share a fondness for totalitarianism, and perceive America as their chief threat. In this sense it’s similar to how Stalin and Hitler had a brief pact in World War II.
“The countries and movements that are trying to destroy us have worldviews that may seem to be in violent conflict with one another,” they write. “But they are united by their hatred of the democratic West and their conviction that dictatorship is superior.”
To bolster this claim, Ledeen and Flynn focus primarily on the nexus between Iran and Russia and then later Iran and Sunni Muslim jihadis like al-Qaida. Some of this is familiar material. After its safe haven was smashed in Afghanistan in 2001, some of al-Qaida’s leaders and their immediate families fled to Iran. Iran has supported al-Qaida’s franchise in Syria at times and the first leader of al-Qaida’s Iraq franchise traveled to Iraq through Iran.
Flynn and Ledeen promise that more details about al-Qaida’s relationship with Iran can be found in the documents captured in 2011 from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. But those documents remain classified by the Obama administration, Flynn says, for political reasons.
As far as Russia’s relationship with Iran goes, they point to Russian arms sales to Iran and the aid Russian engineers have provided to Iran’s Bushehr reactor. Left out of this though is Russia’s cooperation with the West on sanctions against Iran’s financial system and oil exports. Flynn himself allows that in some areas, it’s possible for the U.S. to cooperate with Russia in the larger war against radical Islam.
In this sense, the authors are not really arguing that America should be in a shooting war with all of the countries that don’t like America, and with radical Islam. Instead, they call for a kind of two-track approach. On the battlefield, they call for more tactical alliances with regional countries against the Islamic State and al-Qaida. But another component is a political war. Specifically, they say the next president should wage an ideological campaign to discredit both radical Islam, but also the dictatorships that oppose the west.
To the skeptical reader this broad campaign may sound like a recipe for endless war. But Obama’s alternatively narrower and discrete war has landed in the same place. Despite Obama’s best efforts to phase out Bush’s war on terror, his successor will inherit it nonetheless. Flynn and Ledeen argue the next president should go big and try to win it.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about politics and foreign affairs. He was previously the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast.