Now that the Justice Department has abandoned its prosecution of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, it’s important to remember what made the case of Lieutenant-General Michael Flynn so central to the Intelligence Community’s mutiny against Trump. As a reminder, here is what I wrote in Asia Times last November:
As chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2012, Flynn had warned that American support for Sunni jihadists in Syria had the unintended effect of supporting the new caliphate movement, that is, ISIS. Among all the heads and former heads of the 17 agencies that make up the US intelligence community, Flynn was the only one who had objected to the disastrous covert intervention in Syria and foreseen its baleful consequences. Obama fired him, but Donald Trump hired him as a top campaign aide and then appointed him national security adviser.
The Syrian debacle brought Russia into Syria in 2015; the American-backed jihad had turned into a Petri dish for Russian Muslims from the Caucasus, as well as Chinese Uighurs and a motley assortment of foreign militants. Russia had interests of opportunity, for example, a warm-water refueling station for its Mediterranean fleet, but the risk of blowback from the Syrian civil war was the most urgent motive for President Vladimir Putin’s intervention.
That is the background to the mutiny in the US Intelligence Community against the elected commander-in-chief. America’s noble – or perhaps narcissistic – intentions did more damage than Trump’s indifference. The world is better off with an America that does not choose to play Don Quixote. The problem is not that the emperor has no clothes but that the empire has no tailors. Both the left and right wings of the American foreign policy share the End of History delusion in one form or another, as they made clear with their unanimous support for the 2011 overthrow of an American ally, Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak.
This is hard to explain to people who don’t understand the depth of American narcissism.
“General Petraeus created ISIS in order to destabilize China,” a senior Chinese military official informed me over dinner in 2015. The individual in question appears, incidentally, as one of China’s masterminds of so-called unrestricted warfare in Michael Pillsbury’s now-celebrated book The Hundred Year Marathon.
“That’s ridiculous,” I replied.
“It is not ridiculous in the least,” the Chinese soldier continued in the benevolent tone in which one instructs low-aptitude recruits. “There are ISIS leaders whom we have identified and tracked who were trained by Petraeus during the ‘Surge,’” the counter-insurgency campaign that David Petraeus conducted in 2008-2009 to contain a Sunni rebellion against the majority Shiite government that the United States had helped bring to power in 2007.
I tried to explain: “This was a comedy of errors. The neoconservatives in the Bush administration believed in majority rule as a matter of dogma, so the US held elections in 2007 and the Shiite minority won. Then the Sunnis who used to run Iraq under Saddam Hussein resisted with guerrilla war and terrorist attacks. Petraeus was just a careerist looking for another star, and he told the Bush administration that he could fix the Sunni problem by paying off the Sunni tribal leaders. He handed out hundreds of millions of dollars to the Sunnis and gave them weapons and training through the ‘Sons of Iraq’ and the ‘Sunni Awakening.’ When Obama took US forces out of Iraq, a lot of the same Sunnis who took money from Petraeus faced the same Shiite state, and became non-state actors, that is ISIS. And the CIA’s support for Sunni jihadist opponents of the Assad government in Syria made matters worse, as the Defense Intelligence Agency warned in a notorious 2012 report.”
My Chinese interlocutor was not impressed. “You’re trying to tell me that the people who run the world’s great superpower are complete idiots who don’t think about the consequences of their actions? I don’t believe you.”
I told the Chinese officer to read my 2010 essay, “General Petraeus’ Thirty Years War.” And I referred him to Lieutenant-General Daniel P Bolger’s brilliant Iraq war memoir, Why We Lost, which I had reviewed when it appeared in 2014. Majority rule in Iraq, Bolger explained, meant permanent war: “The stark facts on the ground still sat there, oozing pus and bile. With Saddam gone, any voting would install a Shiite majority. The Sunni wouldn’t run Iraq again. That, at the bottom, caused the insurgency. Absent the genocide of Sunni Arabs, it would keep it going.”
Now retired, General Bolger is teaching history at the University of North Carolina, while General Petraeus remains an Establishment superstar, currently advising the private equity firm KKR. A few months ago I heard him speak to a fawning audience at the Economic Club of New York. Petraeus waxed eloquent about the great ideas of his generation: “Jack Ma … Jeff Bezos … the Surge!” The Wall Street swells cooed at the general’s self-eulogizing. I suppressed the desire to puke.
The Petraeus surge was one of the most destructive things any military leader ever undertook, but it stands as an icon of the Establishment’s collective reputation. The Republican Establishment had hailed Petraeus as the savior of George W. Bush’s failed Iraq policy, and they are sticking to their story. When Bush took office in January 2001, the United States was the world’s sole hyperpower. Russia had defaulted on its foreign debt in July 1998, and China was a small dark cloud in the geopolitical sky. US government debt was a manageable 55% of GDP, compared with more than 120% of GDP by year-end 2020. America had more than 17 million manufacturing workers, vs only 12 million today. It still dominated high-tech manufacturing, including computer chips and telecommunications equipment. Fast-forward to 2019: China is challenging American pre-eminence in a range of civilian and military technologies, while Russia has returned to the world stage as a major power, notably in the Middle East.
Donald Trump was obnoxious enough to declare that the emperor had no clothes. Breaking with the iron discipline of the Republican Establishment, he told voters that the United States had wasted $7 trillion, thousands of dead, and millions of lives disrupted in the disastrous nation-building campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The only other Republican candidate to repudiate the “Bush Freedom Agenda” was Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. That is why the 2016 Republican primary became a two-man race between Trump and Cruz. The whole of the American Establishment had signed on to a utopian crusade to impose the liberal world order on the Muslim world. After nine years of frustration in Iraq, it saw in the so-called “Arab Spring” demonstrations of 2011 a second chance to bring its agenda to fruition. The result of this was the near-collapse of Egypt and an eight-year civil war in Syria that killed half a million people and displaced 10 million refugees.