Michael Flynn’s resignation as US National Security Adviser raises troubling questions about the fate of the rule of law in America. Whoever leaked the transcripts of Flynn’s phone conversations with the Russian ambassador almost certainly committed a felony, because if the FBI or other government agency was investigating Flynn, its agents had a duty to withhold all evidence from the public until the probe was over. Instead, they turned to crime by sharing it with the increasingly rag-like Washington Post.
Also troubling, if Flynn really did make five such phone calls, are we to believe he did so without any authorization from higher up? What if Flynn had actually been instructed to reach out to Moscow, and to continue do so even as a new round of sanctions was imposed by the lame-duck Obama administration? If so, then we may have witnessed the ghastly spectacle of a career military officer falling on his sword to protect… whom?
The political implications of Flynn’s demise may be no less serious. We don’t know the content of the transcripts, but let’s imagine for a moment that Flynn was acting as point man for the formation of a “grand coalition” between the US and Russia to effect regime change in Iran. Specifically, Flynn may have been offering assurances of sanctions relief in exchange for Russia’s agreement to assist (or at least not hinder) a US-led military operation to topple the Iranian theocracy. The idea is not as far-fetched as it may sound.
A Washington Free Beacon report the day after Flynn’s ouster explains that former Obama administration officials had been conducting a months-long, covert operation to thwart any attempts by Trump to axe US commitments to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the deal signed between Iran, China, France, Germany, Russia, UK, US and EU to keep Teheran’s nuclear program peaceful. If true, Flynn’s demise signals a victory for one side in an ideological war – the side that refuses to treat Iran as an imminent threat to the safety and security of the Western world.
It’s probably an understatement to brand Flynn’s ideas non-conducive to maintaining the JCPOA. The short book he released last year, The Field of Fight, is essentially a call to arms against Iran. In a section entitled “Assembling Our Forces”, Flynn recommends an alliance with Israel, Jordan and Egypt for the immediate military task, and reviving “our working relations” with Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, India, Argentina, Australia, Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy to defeat “above all, the Iranians”. Diplomacy is not enough, Flynn says. “[W]e will have to take action on the battlefield.” In early February, as the Trump administration levied new sanctions against Teheran for testing ballistic missiles, Flynn – still bathed in the aura of the most hard-line cabinet-level official on Iran – stated publicly that Iran was “on notice”.
The lamentably criminal implications of Flynn’s demise aside, any attempt to form an alliance with Putin’s Russia against Iran is misguided. In the Shi’a-Sunni divide in the Middle East, Moscow has consistently sided with the regimes of the Shi’a-ruled states, i.e., Iran and Syria. The bias goes beyond mere economics: Iran is key to Russia’s domination of the Caucasus, and Moscow still regards that region as no less strategically important to Russian (once Soviet) interests than the Caribbean was to the United States in 1962. Attempting to purchase Moscow’s allegiance to a US-led international front against Iran by lifting sanctions over aggression in Ukraine – if that’s what was going on – is not sound foreign policy.
Quite apart from being on the other side of the Sunni-Shi’a conflict within Islam, Russia is not a worthy ally for eliminating the Iranian brand of Islamism. Speaking on a personal level, repeated first-hand experiences long ago convinced me that the Russians place no hope in Western-style human rights values for the Islamic world. It never feels terribly inspiring to quote Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, but he made the point simply and straightforwardly not long ago: “The Russians are not our friends.”
A few years ago, a Russian I’d known since the beginning of the Putin era visited me in Istanbul, having become a functionary of his country’s foreign ministry and been posted to a Russia-friendly country in Africa. We watched a film called The Stoning of Soraya M., which tells the true story of a young woman in Iran who is condemned to death for adultery. Soraya’s mother and family are helpless to save her from execution at the hands of male villagers, all of whom appear eager to start throwing rocks at a female buried in the earth up to her waist and unable to move. It is not a movie for the faint of heart.
After expressing disgust over Iranian “justice”, I was shocked at my Russian friend’s blasé reaction. He said the woman “should have known better”. In places like Iran, he explained, violation of certain social norms and customs naturally invited prescribed punishment. If this woman broke the rules, she “deserved” what she got. That was the way “these places” kept order, he said. His was the “wise” approach to foreign relations, and there was simply no point in getting excited about “human rights”.
Such an attitude is not anomalous among Russian officials, and is another reason co-opting Russia for a righteous human rights crusade in the Middle East is a bad idea. Moscow is a weak advocate of human rights and only ever points to “double standards” in that sphere, since stoning and other barbarisms aren’t unheard of among US allies in the region. Russians will respond to US sanctimony about human rights in places like Syria by pointing to Shari’a-governed Saudi Arabia as the main offender. They act as though they believe hypocrisy is the greatest sin in international affairs, and they don’t care a whit for promoting “liberal” ideals in the Middle East or anywhere else.
While hypocrisy is a sad reality of government everywhere, it is still (hopefully) true that Western governments place a higher value on their fellow citizens’ lives than does their Russian counterpart. This remains true despite the mystifying obliviousness of EU governments to the threat that massive migration from the Middle East and North Africa poses to their own societies, and to the fears and concerns of much of their law-abiding citizenry. EU leaders such as Angela Merkel still believe in a “Good Samaritan” policy of providing sanctuary to hundreds of thousands of refugees, and refugees are more than happy to accept the offer. There is a reason refugees don’t flee to Russia.
We forget the difference between our societies and Russia’s at our peril. In Putin’s very first year in power, when a Russian submarine sank in the Barents Sea, the Russian leader refused to leave his Crimean vacation spot to go to the scene, even though the crew was still alive, trapped deep in the abyss for several days. Putin eventually arrived ten days after the accident to talk to wives and mothers, by which time all on board the sub were dead. Asked on CNN’s Larry King Live what had happened, Putin quipped with a smirk: “It sank”. Seventeen years later, this man is still the undisputed leader of his country.
The two highest-profile Russian hostage crises during Putin’s tenure (2002 and 2004) strongly suggested that the Kremlin was more interested in killing hostage-takers than saving hostages, since the number of innocent deaths in each case was grotesquely high. Attempts by the Kremlin’s domestic PR machine to show Putin candidly pressing flesh with the hoi polloi after natural disasters – as in 2010, when forest fires destroyed entire villages – have gone badly, as the Supreme Leader’s indifference is patently obvious. All such contacts are now carefully stage-managed.
Trump’s flirtation with reintroducing torture has probably encouraged the Kremlin, since such a policy would bring American values closer to those of the Russian regime. Likewise, Putin and his minions undoubtedly shrugged off Trump’s expressions of outrage about ISIS during the presidential campaign (“They’re choppin’ people’s heads off over there!”). Much as with the Kursk submarine tragedy in 2000, the official Russian reaction to such outbursts is: “So what?”
On February 14th, Trump finally clarified US policy toward Russia, saying he “expects” Moscow to “return Crimea” to Ukraine and fulfill the provisions of the Minsk accords This suggests that, if Gen. Flynn really was working on a “grand coalition” with Russia, his wings had been clipped even before he stepped down. While it’s possible to feel slightly sorry for Gen. Flynn, it is a relief to know that – for the time being – the Trump administration is putting to bed any talk of excusing Russian annexationism.
Ukraine is probably a nuisance to many US policy-makers, who would like to get on with promoting opportunities for American business in Russia. But Putin has set a dangerous precedent in Ukraine, and the West cannot afford to ignore or forget it. Putin would like nothing more than for Trump to extend a hand to him over the bodies of dead Ukrainians and – with a nod and a wink – make him into some sort of military ally, as in the “glory days” of Stalin, Churchill and FDR that Putin’s regime lionizes for propaganda purposes at home and abroad. But if Putin wants to insist that Crimea is part of the Russian Federation, then he and his country should pay a steep price. Anything short of economic and political ostracism would constitute a reward for rogue behavior.
As for the Islamic Republic of Iran, it is a regional menace and – as a formal theocracy – a conspicuous exemplar of violent Islamic supremacism. But it is also very large in both area and population, un-crippled by no-fly zones, and possessed of a huge military. Unlike Iraq in 2003, it exercises full sovereign control over its vast resources. No one is even pretending that invading and destroying Iran would be a “cakewalk”, as some did with Ba’athist Iraq (and decrepit Iraq proved to be rather more than that anyway).
Signs have emerged recently that Trump – with Israeli government consent – may not try to scrap the JCPOA, but will instead enforce it more strictly. This is out of step with Gen. Flynn’s aggressive stance and rhetoric, hinting at a fundamental shift in Trump administration policy toward Iran. We can only hope calm heads prevail. Everything should be done to contain, reform and ultimately neuter the Iranian terrorist threat before talk of another “coalition of the willing” gains traction in the corridors of power, and America jumps headlong into another disastrous, drawn-out war.
Chad Nagle is an attorney and freelance writer based in the Washington, DC area.