Thursday, February 16, 2017

Precedented: The Flynn fiasco

Is the (presumably forced) resignation of Gen. Michael Flynn as national security adviser after only 24 days in office way out of line with presidential precedent? Certainly it’s the briefest tenure in that office since it was created in the first months of the Eisenhower administration in 1953. The runner up in that regard is William H. Jackson, Eisenhower’s National Security Advisor for 129 days in 1956 and 1957.
Retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn stands by the elevators as he arrives at Trump Tower where U.S. President-elect Donald Trump lives in New York, U.S., November 30, 2016. Reuters
Jackson’s short tenure was not big news at the time, even though his service covered not one but two major foreign policy crises that occurred just before the 1956 presidential election — the Suez crisis, in which Britain and France joined Israel in attacking Egypt, and Nikita Khrushchev’s crushing of the revolt against Communism in Hungary. The national security adviser job was neither high profile nor particularly powerful in the administration of a president who, as later historians though not contemporary journalists appreciated, kept tight control over foreign policy.

The job became more powerful and pivotal in the ensuing administrations, culminating in Henry Kissinger’s role during the Nixon administration, in which he kept the secretary of state out of the loop on policy toward China and Russia. Many consider Brent Scowcroft, who held the job in the Ford and George H. W. Bush administrations, as the ideal national security adviser, presenting the president with clear choices by relaying in a fair-minded way alternative views of state, defense and intelligence officials. But foreign policy success has not always depended on orderliness in the tenure of national security advisers; President Ronald Reagan employed no fewer than six men in the office, three of whom left in unhappy circumstances.
Flynn’s resignation comes amid clear signs of infighting in the Trump White House and of concerted opposition by intelligence officials who appear to have leaked damaging information. Eli Lake writes of the “political assassination of Michael Flynn.” Walter Russell Mead argues persuasively that Flynn was ill-suited to the job: “a passionate advocate, not a cold-blooded calculator … a bureaucratic street fighter, not a dispassionate traffic cop,” i.e., something like the opposite of Brent Scrowcroft.
The apparent turmoil in the administration’s foreign policy and the apparent existence of multiple power centers in the White House, with no clear lines of authority, reminds me of the early days of President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. FDR hired men and women with widely divergent views and established no clear lines of authority, and some of the most powerful individuals in his first months in office — speechwriter Raymond Moley, budget director Lewis Douglas, plus the then less powerful Dean Acheson at Treasury — were soon out of office and, in the case of the first two, opposing the president’s re-election.
This is not to suggest Trump has anything like the stature Roosevelt achieved, just as Trump arrived to the White House with nothing like the governmental experience that Roosevelt had after seven years as assistant secretary of the Navy (including 18 wartime months) and four years as governor of New York. It is to suggest while orderliness is a virtue in a president, it is not an essential virtue, and that not every presidential appointment turns out to be an appropriate one for the president or the appointee.

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