For those looking for good news on the foreign-policy front under President Donald Trump, his selection of Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster as national security adviser should be very welcome.
McMaster couldn’t be more different from his deposed predecessor, Michael Flynn, in personality and in his likely approach to this key position. Where Flynn was hot-tempered, narrowly focused and prone to conspiracy theories, McMaster is a strategic thinker with a broad grasp of global issues who is comfortable with complexity, consults widely and listens intently.
“You cannot be anything but moved by his extraordinary grasp of the security issues facing the United States,” says Alan Luxenberg, president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, where McMaster spoke Friday. “What really impresses you is his sense of humility and willingness to listen to other people.”
Those qualities – strategic thinking, steadiness, a grasp of complexity and integrity – are critical for someone whose job is to create a coherent foreign policy process for this president. They are especially vital given the current state of disarray and uncertainty at the National Security Council, where any deliberations may be undercut by presidential tweets.
So McMaster will have his work cut out for him. No one is certain about the role that will be played by Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart News chairman who is the president’s chief political strategist but was given a permanent seat on the council, a sharp break with tradition. The risk that the process will be politicized is there.
Nor is it yet clear whether McMaster will be able to choose his own deputy and staff without interference from White House operatives – an issue that reportedly discouraged Trump’s first choice to replace Flynn, retired Vice Adm. Robert Harward, from taking the job. One good sign was the fact that when announcing his choice of the general, Trump made no mention of K.T. McFarland, Flynn’s chosen deputy, who still holds the position. She should go, too.
But here’s another quality that may stand the new White House adviser in good stead: His impressive history of challenging superiors on strategies that he felt did a disservice to the military or the country he served.
McMaster first made a name for himself in 1997 when he turned his Ph.D. thesis from the University of North Carolina into the widely praised book “Dereliction of Duty.” The book harshly criticized high-ranking officers of the mid-1960s for failing to challenge Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and President Lyndon B. Johnson on their Vietnam strategy, even though they knew the strategy wasn’t working.
After winning a Silver Star during the 1991 Gulf War, then-Col. McMaster became famous in the mid-2000s for challenging the refusal of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the Bush administration to recognize the growing insurgency in Iraq. The colonel devised a counterinsurgency strategy that led to victory in the battle for the city of Tal Afar, and later worked with Gen. David Petraeus on broader counterinsurgency operations.
Because of his tendency to argue against the status quo, McMaster was passed over for promotion to general in 2006 and 2007 despite his stellar reputation. His case became a litmus test for whether the best-performing officers in combat would be stymied from advancing. He eventually got his promotion in 2008.
Most recently, the now-three-star general served as head of the Army’s training and doctrine command – analyzing the role the U.S. military will likely play in the future. In 2014, he was praised in Time by retired Lt. Gen. Dave Barno, who commanded U.S. and Allied forces in Afghanistan in 2003 to 2005, as “the 21st Army’s preeminent warrior-thinker.”
In a statement that also speaks to the present, Barno added: “H.R. is also the rarest of soldiers – one who has repeatedly bucked the system and survived to join its senior ranks.”
It is this latter quality that makes McMaster such an intriguing choice for national security adviser. Many may question the wisdom of Trump’s appointing so many military men to key positions, including retired Gen. James Mattis at Defense and retired Gen. John Kelly at Homeland Security.
But, having interviewed McMaster several times (all off the record), I believe his broad grasp of security issues may be just what the White House needs.
The job of national security adviser is to consult with all relevant department secretaries and synthesize their recommendations into options for the president. McMaster, who has the support of key Republican senators such as Tom Cotton of Arkansas, is levelheaded and astute on the Mideast and Iran. He recognizes the importance of NATO and European allies. He has no illusions about Russia. He believes the U. S. still has a key role to play in assuring global stability, but grasps that the nature of that role will shift in a changing world.
At the recent Munich Security Conference, one foreign leader after another expressed dismay at not knowing who spoke for America on foreign policy, as Trump oratory and tweets continued to contradict the reassuring Munich speeches of Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence.
McMaster’s background obviously impressed Trump. So perhaps he can win the president’s trust and create some order in a now-chaotic foreign policy process at the White House.
One thing I think we can count on: The former general won’t hesitate to tell his new boss exactly what he thinks.
Trudy Rubin can be contacted at @phillynews.com.