February 20, 2017


Field of Fright (Adam Garfinkle, Feb. 17th, 2017, American Interest)

It's from chapter 3, however, "The Enemy Alliance," that the "fright" of this review essay's title derives. Flynn's inability to think conceptually beyond a certain rudimentary level inclines him to become a champion conflationist. He tells the reader that salafi-jihadi groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are part of "a working coalition that extends from North Korea and China to Russia, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua." (Congratulations, Bolivia, for finally being taken seriously by someone up here!)

He knows that there is a difference between Sunni and Shi'i Islam, he knows that most of the members of his enemy alliance are not Muslim countries, and he even knows that some members of the enemy alliance--Russia and China--have radical Muslim problems of their own inside their borders. But he nevertheless finds ways to explain away these differences in order to preserve his conflationary threat. One way he does this is to claim that all totalitarian regimes have an elemental anti-democratic ethos so strongly in common, aimed ineluctably against the United States, that this aspect of ideology overrides all else. So "it was only to be expected that their [ISIS'] Sharia-based Caliphate would resemble the Soviet bloc. Thus, religious fanatics and secular tyrants work quite well together."

Of course we've seen this sort of thing before, when an ideology-dominated mode of thought (a variety of the Enlightenment-abetted rationalist fallacy) drives all nuance, all consideration of social and political complexity, to and sometimes even beyond the margins. And sometimes this mode has affected not just sketchy characters like Flynn but nearly a whole-of-government approach: recall the monolithic Communism delusion of the early post-World War II era that gave us Joseph McCarthy, led James Forrestal to jump from a very high floor of the Bethesda Naval Hospital, and, more important, blinded us for years to Yugoslav autonomy and Sino-Soviet enmity and thereby helped get the United States stuck in the Big Muddy. The basic rule abides: The less one knows about a given situation, and the greater the emotional drive to preserve foundational convictions voids considerations of complexity and discrepant evidence, the greater the impulse to conflation; and the more one knows, and the more rational deliberation trumps emotional indulgence, the greater the impulse to seek out distinctions.2

Flynn's insistence in the monadic nature of the enemy alliance forces him into all sorts of analytical peculiarities. Some of it is interpretive in nature; some of it depends on the aforementioned Flynn Facts. So it's true that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi spent time plotting in Iran, and that senior al-Qaeda figures ended up there after 911, too. U.S. intelligence never dismissed the likelihood that Iran saw some tactical utility in pointing these fanatics against a common enemy: U.S. forces in the region. But U.S. intelligence concluded that the facts pointed to a limited liaison that amounted, in most cases, to house arrest. Flynn instead sees collusion and alliance at the highest level.

And yes, North Korea and Iran (and Syria) have cooperated over the years sub rosa on missile developments and even tunneling technology. The fact that such cooperation ran against U.S. interests may have competed with the raw commercial incentives involved in these transactions. But Flynn sees all this as evidence of what amounts to a tightly knit conspiracy to oppose and ultimately destroy American power.

The selectively of Flynn's "facts" shows in sins of both commission and omission. So, for example, he claims that in 1979, after the Iranian Revolution, "Iranian-supported 'pilgrims' on the Hajj in Mecca occupied the Grand Mosque." He adds that the incident was important because it marked "the first appearance of the name Bin Laden in conjunction with a terrorist attack." The latter statement is true, but of course the attack and temporary occupation of the Grand Mosque had nothing to do with Iranian pilgrims, and the attackers were not Shi'a.

Another example: Flynn writes that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards "were trained and organized in the early 1970s by Yasser Arafat's (Sunni) Fatah." How to even begin to parse this nonsense? There was no IRGC in the early 1970s. Some Iranians did train with PLO fighters in the mid-1970s amid the "terrorist international" training camps in Lebanon, including some people important in revolutionary circles. But that had nothing to do with the IRGC when it formed later, and there is no hint that those Iranians acquired serious military skills or even saw combat. Might Khomeini's personal guard have included some such people. Maybe: Early revolutionary days in Iran were deep into paranoia and anyone with PLO experience would have carried some prestige. But there is no evidence one way or another, and if Flynn has some he chose not to share it.

At one point, too, Flynn claims that not all Kurds are Muslims. This is true as spoken but wrong as intended. Before the advent of Islam, some Kurds were attracted by Christian doctrines as they understood them, and Yazidi syncretism seems to derive in part from that episode. And there has been some very recent Christian evangelism among the Kurds that has created a community of around 500 people. But at least 99 percent of Kurds are Muslims; so what Flynn thinks he is talking about has to remain a mystery.

Later he writes, "Jordan has long been the one Arab country to really make peace with Israel, and Egypt has joined their ranks." But the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty came in 1979, the Israeli-Jordanian treaty in 1984.

A sin of omission? It's about the size of the proverbial 600-pound gorilla in the living room. Sectarian bloodletting and intrigue abound in the region, rotating around an Iranian-Saudi axis of conflict, from Yemen to Bahrain by way of al-Hasa province, not to speak of Syria and Iraq. How does Flynn square these realities with his mega-conflation of enemy alliance at war against the United States? He doesn't; he never mentions it.

How many of Flynn's sins of commission and omission are there in chapter 3? I counted to forty before I gave up on the idea of mentioning them all. But one more deserves note.

Unfortunately, firing the General for sucking up to Putin and lying about it won't dent the Right's profounbd misunderstanding of the WoT.

Posted by at February 20, 2017 8:28 AM