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With CIA, National Security Adviser Choices, Trump Signals Sharp Turn In Foreign Policy

U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo (left to right), retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, and Senator Jeff Sessions have been tabbed to fill the positions of CIA director, national security adviser, and attorney general in the Donald Trump administration.

WASHINGTON -- There was never much doubt that Donald Trump would take U.S. foreign policy in a sharply different direction from the one pursued by his predecessor, President Barack Obama.

His choices for two of the U.S. government's most influential foreign-policy posts only bolster that conclusion.

Trump on November 18 announced that his national security adviser would be former military intelligence chief Michael Flynn and the nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) would be Republican congressman Mike Pompeo.

"I am pleased that Lieutenant General Michael Flynn will be by my side as we work to defeat radical Islamic terrorism, navigate geopolitical challenges, and keep Americans safe at home and abroad," Trump said in a statement released by his transition team.

Flynn, 57, is a retired lieutenant general who headed the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2012 to 2014, when he was forced out by Obama, reportedly because of his management style. A vocal critic of Obama's national security strategy, Flynn joined Trump's campaign early on and is believed to have had substantial influence over his thinking particularly about Islamic terrorism.

"People need to grasp that Radical Islam is not primarily about religion -- it is about politics," Flynn wrote in a book he published this summer.

But it's Flynn's Russia connections that have some foreign-policy experts more worried.

Last year, Flynn traveled to Moscow for an anniversary celebration for RT, a government-funded television channel derided by critics as a propaganda bullhorn. Flynn, who sat next to Russian President Vladimir Putin at a banquet table, later said he had been paid for taking part in the event and rejected suggestions that he was aiding Russian propaganda efforts.

Flynn (left) joins Russian President Vladimir Putin to mark RT's 10th anniversary in December 2015.
Flynn (left) joins Russian President Vladimir Putin to mark RT's 10th anniversary in December 2015.

Flynn, like Trump, has spoken about the need for closer collaboration with Russia in fighting terrorism in Syria and elsewhere, something he emphasized during his Moscow visit in an interview broadcast on RT. "The size, the scale of this threat [from Islamist terrorism]...has grown significantly and we are going to have face it together, and that's partly why I'm sitting here today," Flynn said.

Flynn's stated view that fighting terrorism should be the No. 1 priority, rather than Russia's aggression in Ukraine or Chinese actions in the South China Sea, is also out of step with the thinking of many U.S. military officials. That includes the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, who told a Senate committee during his confirmation hearing in July 2015, "My assessment that Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security."

Unlike other foreign-policy positions, the national security adviser exerts major influence on a president's policy decisions on a day-to-day basis, working in the White House's West Wing executive offices.

CIA Chief Targets Iran Deal

And unlike the position of national security adviser, the director of the CIA does require Senate approval -- though with Republicans in control of the chamber, it's unlikely that Pompeo's confirmation will be blocked.

Pompeo shares Flynn's vehement belief that terrorism by Islamic extremists poses a major, if not existential threat to the United States.

A three-term Republican congressman from Kansas, Pompeo, 52, is a retired U.S. Army officer and a graduate of Harvard Law School. In Congress, he served on the Republican House committee that investigated the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans were killed. The attack prompted a sweeping review of U.S. State Department procedures, and an apology from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom Republicans excoriated for the incident.

"He has served our country with honor and spent his life fighting for the security of our citizens," Trump said in his announcement.
Pompeo has also been an outspoken critic of one of the Obama administration's signature foreign-policy achievements: the multinational deal that curbed Iran's nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions that had crippled Iran's economy.

"President Obama attempted to make the case today that the dangerous Iran nuclear deal will be a historic agreement. This agreement with Ayatollah Khamenei is definitely historic -- it is a historic failure," Pompeo said in August 2015 as Obama made final arguments to the American public. "If this deal moves forward, it will go down in history as one of America's greatest foreign-policy blunders."

Looking To State

Meanwhile, for many foreign-policy experts, the most important question is who will be Trump's choice to be the United States' lead diplomat: secretary of state.

Transition-team officials have leaked several names to the press in recent days including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani; U.S. Representative Dana Rohrabacher (Republican-California); Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker; and John Bolton, the ambassador to the United Nations under Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush.

Also reportedly under discussion is Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and private-equity investor who lost to Obama in the 2012 presidential race.

All have foreign-policy thinking that differs -- in some cases, sharply -- from the current administration's approach.