“Drain the Swamp” is a clarion call repeatedly issued by U.S. president Donald Trump on his campaign trail all the way to the White House. This ambitious slogan aims to eliminate Washington’s existing political interests and puts Trump on an inevitable collision course with the Beltway’s gargantuan state machinery. Given the revolutionary nature of Trump’s rise to presidency, a counterrevolution is all but an inevitable prospect. In fact, it was already underway even before Trump’s inauguration last month and the establishment gained its first score against Trump’s White House with the former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s abrupt resignation on February 13. As the political struggle overshadows America’s capital, U.S. foreign policy sails adrift while Washington’s fundamental relationship with allies will remain robust.
The circumstances surrounding Flynn’s exit still remain shrouded in mystery, largely due to the enduring opposition between Trump and the establishment. Leaks to media outlets have frequently debunked official narratives by the White House, which has further compounded the issue due to its contradictory statements. Moreover, independent verification of these leaks is virtually impossible due to their classified nature. The whole saga therefore raises more questions than answers—for example, why did Flynn, previously the Pentagon’s top spy, use an unsecure means of communication with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak on December 29?
The thread running through the noise of competing narratives is the ongoing power struggle over Trump’s emerging Russia policy. Washington has adopted a policy of isolating Moscow in recent years due to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 led to the resurrection of Russia-hard liners in Washington, ranging from Cold Warriors like Zbigniew Brzezinski to neoconservatives suddenly reinvigorated by Europe’s latest democratic crisis. For them, resisting Russia’s newfound aggression in Europe virtually became a crusade, often to the exclusion of other geopolitical considerations.
Against this backdrop, Trump emerged as a wildcard for Washington’s foreign policy establishment. During the presidential campaign, his candid, oft-fawning adoration of Russian President Vladimir Putin directly challenged the existing foreign policy orthodoxy. Foreign policy realists saw a windfall opportunity to join Trump’s unconventional foreign policy bandwagon. Flynn was one such realist, albeit his singular focus was to cozy up to Moscow against Islamic terrorism in the Middle East. When the don of realism, Henry Kissinger, joined the Trump camp in 2016, the presidential candidate began forming his own foreign policy faction. The result was the emergence of a policy faultline within the Beltway revolving around Russia in parallel with the national division over Trump.
The prospect for U.S.-Russia rapprochement suddenly became a viable policy option overnight after Trump’s surprise victory in November 2016, further intensifying the ongoing factional strife along the ideological lines. Meanwhile, the intelligence community faced an entirely different issue that was much more significant than mere partisanship: potential Russian interference in the election to help Trump’s campaign. As relevant evidence, such as Flynn’s suspicious relationship with the Kremlin, mounted over time, some within the intelligence community chose to go rogue, leaking compromising information to the media leery of the Trump presidency.
Moreover, the revenge of the establishment also crept into White House power struggles. Ironically, the Trump team is not entirely antiestablishment due to its inclusion of such figures as Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who often channeled establishment orthodoxies into the Oval Office and remained cautious about rapprochement with Russia. What’s worse, Trump’s determined loyalty to his stalwarts and family, such as White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and Senior Adviser Jared Kushner, also emerged crucial to his decisionmaking process. In particular, when Bannon assumed the role akin to a Soviet political commissar at the National Security Council at the end of January, Flynn was cornered.
Flynn’s abrupt exit happened amidst the ongoing structural changes sweeping across Washington. For the intelligence community, given Flynn’s questionable contacts with Moscow, it was impossible to conclude that Moscow’s ears did not exist at his National Security Council. This possibility alone justified leaks to the media. Flynn’s own bullheadedness also led him to clash with Russia-skeptics like Mattis and made him vulnerable to backstabbing. When Bannon found out about Flynn’s prevarications to Vice President Mike Pence regarding his December 29 phone calls, the general had already crossed the Rubicon.
The Flynn drama is only the tip of the iceberg and has considerable foreign policy implications. It was a wake-up call for Trump and exposed the overwhelming forces constraining the new president beyond the constitutional checks-and-balance mechanism. A grand bargain with Moscow therefore is again a remote possibility as Trump finds himself in need to put his own house in order first. As Trump struggles with opposing forces, the president and his team will be forced to frequently go back to the drawing board before implementing their foreign policy agenda and creating unpredictability along the way.
Meanwhile, the contours of traditional U.S. foreign policy revolving around its regional allies, such as Japan and NATO, will remain solid. His accusations that U.S. allies aren’t carrying their share of the burden, has forced his team to go to extra lengths to reassure allies. In fact, the success of Trump presidency at home now depends largely on working closely with U.S. allies. Mattis’ latest overseas tours to allied countries revealed little divergence from the foreign policies of previous administrations.
Trump has tread on the leviathan long inhabiting Washington’s swamp. The struggle claimed its first casualty with Flynn’s nemesis. After his historic victory, Trump now faces the same imperative Vladimir Lenin did in 1917: making things work. This would require the new president to reform the system without destroying it which involves subtlety. This trait is a prerequisite to survival in Washington but not necessarily to business success in New York. Flynn’s downfall occurred during Trump’s struggling adjustment to Washington politics but has enormous foreign policy implications. Fortunately, the sinew of global U.S. alliance stands to remain firmly in place—ironically as a result of Trump’s own domestic upheaval.
Hidetoshi Azuma is a fellow at APCO Worldwide