By Jonathan Stevenson, Senior Fellow for US Defence; Editor of Strategic Comments, IISS; and Steven Simon, professor, Amherst College; former Executive Director, IISS–Americas
The revelation on Wednesday that President Trump appointed Michael T. Flynn as his national security adviser even though he knew that Mr. Flynn was on the payroll of a Turkish-owned firm with close connections to the Turkish government was accompanied by alarming reports: Decisions that Mr. Flynn made about the war in Syria during his brief tenure appear to have been influenced by his Turkish paymaster.
The administration’s defenders may point out — correctly — that whether or not Mr. Flynn’s policy recommendations while he was national security adviser were made to please Turkey, they did not, in fact, materially affect policy. But the point is that they could have done so.
The main allegation raised in the news media against Mr. Flynn is that he delayed planning for the seizure of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s self-declared capital in Syria. Under plans handed over by the Obama administration, the attack on Raqqa would have involved arming the most effective of the militias fighting the Islamic State in Syria, a Kurdish force affiliated with the Democratic Union Party.
The Turkish government strongly objected to this, fearing it would strengthen Turkish Kurdish insurgents, who have links to the party, and Mr. Flynn’s lack of action is seen by critics as a favor to Turkey. However, a delay was practically inevitable. Deep disagreement between the United States and Turkey over which militia was going to be the main partner in liberating Raqqa — the Kurdish militia or the mainly Arab Free Syrian Army — was bound to hold up the operation regardless of whether Mr. Flynn was pushing for delay.
Furthermore, operational details, including plans to deploy a large American force, were always going to make preparing for the Raqqa operation a slow process. The drawn-out battle for Mosul, which started in October, has induced caution among planners who have not only had to devise methods to counter the Islamic State’s battle tactics but also needed to provide for civil support and humanitarian relief.
American units could constitute a substantial part of the liberation force in Raqqa, so the stakes are high. Central Command, which oversees American operations in the Middle East, is understandably reluctant to commence the battle until American forces are thoroughly prepared. And the Islamic State is not going anywhere. Its fighters have no escape route. As in Mosul, they will fight to the last man. Given these factors, only fools would have rushed in.
Finally, wholly independently of any self-dealing by Mr. Flynn, Secretary of Defense James Mattis appears to favor caution when it comes to Raqqa. Mr. Mattis understands the need to keep Turkey on board both for that battle, for future operations in Syria, and the cohesion of the Atlantic alliance.
So the Trump administration can credibly claim that Mr. Flynn’s foot-dragging on Raqqa was consistent with a larger concern for the complexities of the project at hand.
But even if Mr. Flynn was not responsible for delaying the assault on Raqqa, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t done serious damage to American foreign policy.
Big decisions about strategy become much harder when the issues are permeated by domestic politics. Of course, it’s never been entirely true that politics stop at the water’s edge, but when the stakes for the United States are muddied by domestic scandal, as they are in Mr. Flynn’s case, then an objective discussion of the stakes for America, of the very nature of our adversaries, and of the basis on which our leadership is making crucial decisions becomes difficult if not impossible.
Strategic decisions regarding Russia have already been made difficult because of the allegations that Mr. Flynn and other members of the Trump campaign team colluded with Russian intelligence. For example, it wasn’t clear whether Mr. Trump ordered airstrikes against the Syrian military because he thought it was good policy or because he wanted to thwart perceptions that his connections to Russia made him reluctant to confront Moscow.
Now American policy deliberations on Turkey could be similarly poisoned. Among several serious strategic challenges the United States is facing is the role of Turkey in NATO, which involves the stability of the alliance’s southern flank, Turkish ties to Europe and counterterrorism cooperation. The two issues that will make or break Turkey’s relationship with the United States and NATO are whether President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will succeed in crushing democracy and whether the United States will endorse Kurds’ demands for autonomy in return for their help in Syria.
Rational policy discourse on these profound challenges will now be far more difficult because they have become entwined in American politics and Turkey’s ties to a former American general and intelligence official. And that is ultimately because the president was too irresponsible to exercise due diligence and sound discretion in making a crucial appointment.
This article was first published in New York Times