The former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency slammed the Obama administration on Monday as “well intentioned” but paralyzed and playing defense in its the fight against Islamic militancy.
Recently retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn called for the U.S. to lead the charge in a sweeping, decades-long campaign against the Islamic State group, al Qaeda, and its ilk—a fight like the one against the former Soviet Union—against a new enemy he said is “committed to the destruction of freedom and the American way of life.”
“There is no substitute, none, for American power,” the general said, to occasional cheers and ultimately a standing ovation from a crowd of special operators and intelligence officers at a Washington industry conference.
He also slammed the administration for refusing to use the term “Islamic militants” in its description of ISIS and al Qaeda.
“You cannot defeat an enemy you do not admit exists,” Flynn said.
He said the administration is unwilling to admit the scope of the problem, naively clinging to the hope that limited counterterrorist intervention will head off the ideological juggernaut of religious militancy.
“There are many sincere people in our government who frankly are paralyzed by this complexity,” said Flynn, so they “accept a defensive posture, reasoning that passivity is less likely to provoke our enemies.”
Flynn refused to name President Obama as the focus of his ire in comments afterward to The Daily Beast, saying that he was simply “sending a message to the American people.” But the comments show the widening rift between some in the national-security community who want to see more special-operations and intelligence assets sent into the fight against ISIS and other groups in Syria and beyond.
Flynn’s comments echo calls by other former Obama administration officials like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta who all say they urged more intervention earlier in the Syrian conflict.
Flynn left his DIA post in the summer of 2014, with close associates muttering about his frustration with the Obama White House’s inaction against al Qaeda, the self-proclaimed Islamic State, widely known as ISIS or ISIL, and more. Since his departure, he has been speaking to business executives and contemplating several offers from corporate America and academia, but has stayed mum about why he left his DIA post earlier than planned.
Within the shadowy world of special operations-driven intelligence, Flynn developed a reputation for bluntly speaking his mind, working for Gen. Stanley McChrystal at the elite Joint Special Operations Command and later serving as McChrystal’s intelligence chief in Afghanistan before McChrystal had his own run-in with the Obama administration for impolitic remarks in Rolling Stone magazine.
Flynn caused controversy during his Afghan stint when he went outside military channels to a think tank, publishing a monograph called Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan. That broadside was maligned for the delivery method but widely praised for its message—that traditional military-intelligence practitioners were too focused on targeting the enemy rather than understanding the cultural and economic environment driving the enemy to fight.
In this latest critique, Flynn accused the administration of failing to understand what drives ISIS or al Qaeda.
“They want us to think that our challenge is dealing with an undefined set of violent extremists or merely lone-wolf actors with no ideology or network. But that’s just not the straight truth,” said Flynn. “Our adversaries around the world are self-described Islamic militants—they say,” he told the crowd at the annual National Defense Industry Association’s special-operations meeting. There were many nods of approval.The current head of Special Operations Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, was more circumspect in comments to the same audience about whether or not the United States “should be” expanding the fight against Islamic militancy.
“The bigger issue is whether we are allowed to do that,” Votel said, measuring his words carefully. The famously reticent U.S. Army Ranger—who just came from leading the shadowy and elite Joint Special Operations Command—said the issue “falls into the realm of uncomfortable topics” he has to bring up with the administration.
Votel described the foreign-fighter flow into the Middle East in support of ISIS as “staggering,” adding that “over 19,000 foreign fighters from more than 90 different countries have traveled to Syria and Iraq.”
Flynn described the enemies arrayed against the U.S. as varied, but “fueled by a vision for worldwide domination, achieved through violence and bloodshed. They want to silence all opposition. They hate our ideals and they hate our way of life.”
In the fight against militant extremism, Flynn said the problem is so sweeping, the world should create a “single unified and international chain of command, probably civilian-led,” like the coalition championed by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower during World War II. He made further references to former President Ronald Reagan’s all-out war against the Soviet Union, not only outfighting them in proxy wars, but outspending them and outthinking them in terms of fighting their ideology.
Flynn said that since 1960 there had been more than 30 insurgencies, conflicts, and wars, “and in two-thirds of these cases, the bad guys won.”
“A strong defense is the best deterrent,” against such fights, he said, adding that, “the dangers to the U.S. do not arise from the arrogance of American power, but from unpreparedness or an excessive unwillingness to fight when fighting is necessary.”
“Retreat, retrenchment, and disarmament are historically a recipe for disaster,” he added, making reference to budget cuts and troop drawdowns faced by the current military as the Obama administration attempts to reduce troop levels in Afghanistan, as it did in Iraq before sending small numbers of trainers and advisers to assist the government there in the current crisis brought on by the territorial gains of ISIS.
The White House did not respond immediately to requests for comment on Flynn’s remarks.