Toning Down Rhetoric, Flynn Calls for Strengthening Alliances

Retired Lt. Gen Michael Flynn walks through the lobby at Trump Tower, Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Retired Lt. Gen Michael Flynn walks through the lobby at Trump Tower, Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, President-elect Donald Trump's choice as national security adviser, dropped his usually combative stance Tuesday in calling for shoring up alliances that Trump has at times questioned.

"As we examine and potentially re-baseline our relationships around the globe, we will keep in mind the sacrifices and deep commitments that many of our allies have made on behalf of our security and our prosperity," Flynn said. "Alliances are one of the great tools that we have, and the strength of those alliances magnif[ies] our own strengths."

During the campaign, Trump, with Flynn's backing, suggested that NATO allies and Japan and South Korea were not paying enough for the security umbrella provided by the U.S.

Flynn's remarks came during an address in which he ignored criticism from President Barack Obama's outgoing foreign policy team and instead thanked them for help with a smooth transition.

In his speech to the U.S. Institute for Peace, Flynn stayed positive, saying that his role as the White House gatekeeper on foreign, homeland and military affairs would be guided by Trump's "America first" principles.

"We stand on the threshold of a new era" in a rapidly changing world that has "presented us with numerous unpleasant surprises," Flynn said, sticking to general themes.

To meet the challenges, Trump will pursue an "overarching policy of peace through strength," Flynn said, echoing the phrase of former President Ronald Reagan.

The challenges worldwide are "among the toughest we have faced in many decades," Flynn said, but will be overcome by committing to policies in line "with our president-elect's vision to make America great again."

"We have always been the indispensable nation" whose values were buttressed by the "unapologetic defense of liberty," Flynn said. "This is the core element of American exceptionalism."

Passing of the Baton

Flynn was joined on stage at the conference by current National Security Adviser Susan Rice in what was a cordial and symbolic "passing of the baton" for a White House post that will give him unlimited access to Trump.

"I welcome my successor not only to this conference but also to this new position," Rice said. "Mike, instead of a baton, maybe I'd do better passing you a case of Red Bull. Gen. Flynn, I am rooting hard for you," she said before launching into a lengthy defense of Obama's policies on military readiness, the economy and counter-terrorism that Flynn had excoriated during the campaign.

"Our economy is stronger," Rice said, citing a drop in the unemployment rate to under five percent.

Rather than committing U.S. ground troops to every global hot spot, "we have centered our approach on a range of partnerships" with allies and local forces in combating terrorism, she said.

"We will be in this fight for the long haul," but "Osama Bin Laden is dead and al-Qaida is a shadow of its former self," said Rice, who has been pilloried by Flynn and Trump for her statements after the Sept. 11, 2012, terror attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

Despite Flynn's claim that the transition is going well, Secretary of State John Kerry said otherwise in earlier remarks. "It's going pretty smoothly because there's not an enormous amount of it. Quite candidly, there has not been a lot of high-level exchange," Kerry said.

With 10 days left in his tenure, Kerry did not mention Trump by name while lambasting the president-elect's policy comments on Twitter and his propensity to be influenced by what has been called "fake news."

"One of the greatest challenges we all face right now, not just America but every country, is that we are living in a factless political environment," Kerry said. "Every country in the world better stop and start worrying about authoritarian populism and the absence of substance in our dialogue.

"If policy is going to be made in 140 characters on Twitter and every reasonable measure of accountability is being bypassed and people don't care about it, we have a problem," Kerry said.

He added that emphasizing "America first" could result in the U.S. turning away from a range of trans-national issues, such as climate change.

Russian Intentions

Both Kerry and Rice expressed concerns about Trump's intentions, supported by Flynn, to forge close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin despite the recent "high confidence" report by the U.S. intelligence community that the Kremlin hacked into the Democratic National Committee to help scuttle the candidacy of Trump's opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

In October, Flynn told the Russian TV news outlet RT that "Russia and the United States working together and trying to work with the other partners that we all have in this region can come up with some other solutions."

"We have to understand as Americans that Russia also has a foreign policy; Russia also has a national security strategy. And I think that we failed to understand what that is" in the Obama administration, he said.

Flynn has come under criticism for accepting a paid speaking engagement from RT in Moscow in 2015 and for attending a dinner, where he was seated next to Putin.

Flynn, a career intelligence officer, was the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2012 to 2014. He was pushed to resign the post after reportedly clashing with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and CIA Director John Brennan over his management style, his approach to what he labeled as "radical Islamic terrorism," and his view that CIA assessments were influenced by politics.

Flynn supporters argue that he was correct in disputing the Obama administration's assessment that al-Qaida's influence was on the wane after the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden.

In his address to the Republican National Convention that nominated Trump, Flynn led chants of "Lock her up" in reference to Clinton and derided what he called the "total incompetence" of an Obama administration that he said was in thrall to "political correctness."

Flynn had been considered a possible choice by Trump for the defense secretary's post, which would have subjected him to stormy Senate confirmation hearings. Instead, a week after the election, Trump announced that Flynn would become national security adviser, a post that does not require Senate confirmation.

Flynn was introduced by Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser under former President George W. Bush and now chairman of the institute's board of directors. Hadley was mentioned as a possible choice for the defense secretary's post before Trump settled on retired Marine Gen. James Mattis.

The U.S. Institute of Peace is an independent think tank founded by Congress and has held similar all-day "Passing the Baton" forums in previous administrations.

In a statement, the institute said the latest transition conference was being conducted in accordance with its congressional mandate to "advance informed, bipartisan problem-solving on threats to U.S. national interests and international peace."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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