Jacob L. Shapiro: Hello everyone, my name is Jacob Shapiro, I’m the director of analysis for Geopolitical Futures. This is our first podcast, we are hoping to do one each week with one of our analysts, and to start us off, we are joined by George Friedman, who is our chairman and founder. Thank you for joining us, George.
George Friedman: Always a pleasure.
JLS: So, the thing that is on everyone’s mind, everybody is sick of talking about the Donald Trump administration, but nobody can stop talking about the Donald Trump administration. And it all is revolving, right now, around the Flynn affair. You have written two articles this week about your thoughts on the Flynn affair, so for those who haven’t read your articles, why don’t you just lay out for them your basic take on the situation as it stands now.
GF: Well, first, the idea that Flynn having spoken to the Russian ambassador did something wrong really just isn’t the way it works. Prior to elections, anybody can speak to anyone. Yes, there is a law called the Logan Act, it was passed in 1799, and no one was ever prosecuted under it. In the transition, there is a kind of feeling that you should not speak to foreign powers, but every administration does, and it would be irresponsible not to. The Reagan administration spoke extensively to the Iranians, and that made a bit of a problem. But in general you don’t want to have your first conversation with major powers the day you take office. You want to have things set. So, this entire idea that there was something illegitimate in Flynn speaking to the Russian ambassador is dubious. For one thing, Flynn knew that he made the phone call from the Dominican Republic, he knew that these calls back to the Russian ambassador were being captured by NSA, he knew that because he had been head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. So certainly he wasn’t trying to hide it. I think he just didn’t think it was illegitimate, and given past record, I am not sure that it was. Unless there were things said in those conversations that were wholly inappropriate, and it is very hard to imagine that Flynn would have done that.
JLS: Well, considering all of that, what do you make of the suggestions that the CIA or another American intelligence agency leaked some of these things, because they didn’t like Flynn, because there was some sort of disagreement between the intelligence agencies and Flynn himself.
GF: I don’t find that unbelievable. One of our problems of our intelligence agencies is they are much better fighting each other sometimes than they are with fighting foreign governments. This is Washington insider baseball, and Flynn is not a Washington insider, so he could have been taken by surprise. So, there is reason to believe given what Trump said about the agency and given plans for downsizing the agency, that there are some people inside the agency that wanted to embarrass the president and harm him. The problem of doing this, of course, is that the president is still the president, he can still decide who is going to be working doing what. He has enormous power, so it is a very dangerous game to take on the president, because after you have won your round, he can come back at you. So, while somebody certainly leaked, whether it was somebody who was authorized to do so by someone, whether it was someone who was unauthorized, I don’t know. There is, however, the possibility of a very old and unpleasant aspect of Washington showing its head – the insider leak from the agency.
JLS: Turning aside from the inside baseball, if you are looking at this from Moscow’s perspective, if you are Vladimir Putin and you have been watching all of this unfold, how do you interpret what is going on with the Flynn affair, and what is going on in the Trump administration right now?
GF: Well, we really take two paths on that. If, as some of the people are asserting, there have been long relations between the Russians, Trump, Flynn, and there was some sort of conspiracy underway intended to blackmail Flynn to put him in a position where he had to work with the Russians – in other words, if this was a Russian intelligence operation, it just blew up in the Russians’ face. They lost Flynn, their man in this theory, Trump is not going to be in a position to be forthcoming on Russian affairs, and they have simply screwed up big time. If, as I think, this was not a Russian operation, that this was simply a legitimate set of conversations taking place between an incoming administration and a major international power, then the Russians are very happy. They have just seen the United States go through one of its periodic internal explosions that rendered the entire administration vulnerable not only to ridicule, but to the inability to make decisions. I suspect the second thing is true, there was no Russian operation to compromise the president. This was the Russians being absolutely delighted that the internal affairs of the United States evolved in this direction, paralyzing things and embarrassing everyone.
JLS: Even if we accept that later explanation though, wouldn’t that limit the extent to which a Trump administration might try and cooperate more with Russia in the fight against the Islamic State, or with what’s going on in Syria, perhaps even formalizing some of the conflict in Ukraine.
GF: Well, it’s not just that it might limit them. The motivation of Trump, after seeing this chaos gone, to deal with the Russians wouldn’t necessarily decline. Look, somewhere in this some Russians played some sort of games, whether with the elections or what have you. From the American president, and Donald Trump is the American president, I’d be furious with the Russians, and whatever inclination I might have had at the beginning to be more forthcoming would disappear. And in fact over the past few weeks, the Trump administration has announced that it is not in favor of getting rid of the sanctions on the Russians. Mattis has made very clear statements about the importance of containing the Russians in support of the Eastern Europeans. Nothing has gone in that way. But, one of the interesting things about this administration so far is the noise and fury, and tweets and attacks on Trump and so on have very little to do with the policies he has announced. For whatever else was said about China, he has acknowledged a two-China policy with the claim that Japan…
JLS: The “one China” policy
GF: I am sorry, you got me, the “one China” policy.
GF: But, on the other side, Japan, he said should get nuclear weapons, and now is our very best ally. When we go through the entire list of foreign policy positions, they are pretty orthodox compared to, say, the Obama administration. So there is this division between the sound and fury, and what it signifies, which so far at least, it has much less significance than it appears.
JLS: I agree with all that, but if we put aside the sound and fury, we can still say that Flynn represented a vision of American foreign policy that saw Islam as the biggest threat to the United States, and what is going on in the Middle East is the biggest threat. And, Mattis, obviously has a much more subtle and a much more expansive view of the threats the United States faces. So when you look at this as an analyst putting it all aside, do you see it from Flynn’s point of view, or do you see it more from Mattis’ point of view?
GF: Well, here is the situation, we are operating militarily in the Middle East. The president has asked for a plan within a month for defeating ISIS, and therefore, we are operationally at war in a region, and when you are at war in a region, that ought to take priority. In the long term the stability of Russia, the conditions of the South China Sea, these may be greater issues, but we are not in conflict. So where Flynn was the advocate of the focus on the Islamic world, and Mattis has been the advocate of a broader view, Mattis has won that argument. But the reality is that if the president really wants to take out ISIS, he is going to be spending most of his time worrying about that, and less time worrying about the broader issues.
JLS: Maybe to close, when you said that the provocations in the South China Sea or instability in Russia take a back seat to places that you are militarily engaged, but we are beginning to see some signs of instability in Russia really taking hold, so do you think from the U.S. perspective now, aside from all of the strutting and all of the accusations about what Russia has actually done, how is the United States viewing what is going on in Russia itself, and all of the internal shuffling that Putin is having to do right now?
GF: Well, where you speak of the United States viewing, there are a lot of people and they have a lot of different views. My view is that Russia is now beginning to experience the real pressures from the financial crisis that resulted from the meltdown in oil prices. We are seeing governors replaced, we are hearing reports of people not being paid, we are hearing about demonstrations. It is very early, but they are not very promising signs. When you step back and you look at the world from Putin’s point of view, he carried out his operation in Syria, it achieved very little of strategic value to Russia, except demonstrating that they could carry out a small operation. The situation in Ukraine is pretty much static, and the economic situation in Russia is deteriorating at an alarming rate. So after all, again, the sound and fury is eliminated, the United States remains one-quarter of the world’s economy and the largest military force, and the Russians are a receding power. And like much of the games that intelligence organizations play back and forth and within their own countries, in the end it just doesn’t matter nearly as much as reality does.
JLS: All right, I think we will wrap it up there. Thank you, George, for joining us, and for more on Geopolitical Futures, please visit us at www.geopoliticalfutures.com. And like I said, we will try and put one of these out a week and always welcome people’s feedback. Thanks.