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Was H.R. McMaster a Good Pick for National Security Advisor?

The selection of H.R. McMaster has been widely celebrated, but will his military skills translate to Washington politics?
H.R. McMaster

H.R. McMaster.

On Monday, President Donald Trump announced that Army Lieutenant General Herbert Raymond “H.R.” McMaster will be the next national security advisor. It’s one of the first moves by the administration to draw praise from both sides of the aisle.

Andrew Exum, a former Department of Defense official under Barack Obama called McMaster a “huge upgrade” on Twitter. Senator John McCain, who has been aggressively critical of the Trump administration, told the New York Times that McMaster was “an outstanding choice.”

The active-duty general has a storied military career. He earned a silver star during the Gulf War in 1991, when he commanded a unit that destroyed a much larger Iraqi force in just 23 minutes. In 2005, McMaster pacified the city of Tal Afar, Iraq, deploying counterinsurgency techniques that would later be adopted as an official United States military strategy.

For more on whether or not McMaster’s military skills will help him to conquer Washington politics, Pacific Standard spoke with Andrew Bacevich, a military historian and former Army colonel, and Mark Clodfelter, a professor at the National War College who knows McMaster from his days as a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina.


How will McMaster’s military background influence his role as national security advisor?

Clodfelter: [McMaster is] a brilliant individual, courageous, not afraid to speak out. It’s always good to have somebody at the highest levels of strategic decision-making who knows what the implications are of those decisions for the people that will be on the cutting edge of the spear, so to speak.

Bacevich: There is no question that McMaster is a very distinguished soldier. Great field commander, impressive experience as a staff officer working for people like General David Patraeus. That said, I think there are real questions as to whether or not he possesses the right skill set and background to be the national security advisor. In the New York Times and elsewhere he’s referred to as a military strategist. I’m not quite sure what they mean when they refer to military strategist, but I do know that the office of the national security advisor encompasses responsibilities that look well beyond military strategy. The national security advisor’s brief really lies in the realm of grand strategy. Grand strategy is the orchestration of all elements of national power to achieve the most important objectives of the state. I think it’s an open question as to whether or not McMaster has what it takes to be a grand strategist, not just a military strategist.

McMaster has not yet provided an insights into his plans as national security advisor, but can we draw any conclusions about what he will do based on his background?

Clodfelter: I can’t say specifically what his thoughts would be on various possible crisis situations, but I can say without a doubt he will thoroughly consider all of the alternatives, assess and reassess the fundamental assumptions of those who are in key decision-making roles and will provide absolutely sound advice. He will not be quick to make a decision. He’s very reflective and deliberate, and I think that’s a very great thing for the position of national security advisor.

Bacevich: I read something that he said that indicates he’s a hawk on Russia. I’m not surprised that apparently he is a strong supporter of sending more U.S. forces into Eastern Europe. The reason I’m not surprised is that’s what the U.S. Army did during the Cold War and in a way the Army is replaying its war in the Cold War. What we haven’t heard, as far as I know, from McMaster is what he thinks about East Asian security, about climate change, about nuclear weapons, about Iran, about Israel/Palestine—all of these are crucially important matters that he’ll have to advise upon.

Are there reasons to be optimistic about his selection?

Bacevich: The one other aspect of his profile that merits some attention is this book that he wrote 20 years ago called Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam. A history book that derives from his Ph.D. dissertation, it’s a story of the relationship between the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the one hand and President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamera on the other hand during the Vietnam War. And the story he tells is one of profound dishonesty on both sides of that civil-military relationship. Johnson and McNamera tried to marginalize the Joint Chiefs of Staff so they could run the war the way they wanted to. The Joint Chiefs of Staff basically played along, anticipating that the war was going to go badly and they’d end up being able to run the war the way they wanted to. The result of this mutual manipulation was a catastrophe. That’s the story that McMaster tells in his book and the conclusion that he reaches, which is a good conclusion, is that there is an absolute need for honest candid communications on such matters.

The reason I think that’s relevant is that he’s now in a position where it will be incumbent upon him, as an active Army general, to demonstrate the kind of honesty and candor that his predecessors in the Vietnam era did not demonstrate. Is he going to be able to call a spade a spade? Is he going to be able to look the president in the face and say, “No, that’s really, really stupid, you shouldn’t do that”? Again, I think that remains to be seen, but if we go by what he wrote in his book, he at least understands the obligation to demonstrate that kind of honesty.

Clodfelter: I was one of the members of his dissertation committee, on the book that ultimately became Dereliction of Duty. I thought it was brilliant then, still do, and, in fact, I’m using it as a text at the National War College this coming fall. My favorite chapter in that book is the final chapter, titled “Five Silent Men.” That refers to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and their failure to make their views known to Johnson and McNamera during the key decision-making period of the Vietnam War in early 1965. I do not look for McMaster to be a silent man in the job he’s about to take.

How much influence will he actually have over the president?

Clodfelter: It’s impossible to say, I think he will be very forthright, very reflective, very insightful, very deliberate. I will say this, the Prussian military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz said there are two types of courage. There’s the courage that an individual can display on the battlefield and McMaster has that in spades. But then Clausewitz goes on to say that the greatest type of courage is moral courage, and that I know McMaster has in abundance and he will use that very well.

Bacevich: That very much remains to be seen. The national security advisor, the position, has come to be a very, very powerful position over the past 50 years. But I think the actual influence of a national security advisor ends up being dependent upon the personal relationship between the president and the person who is the national security advisor. How much trust does the president have in that person? As far as I know, Trump met McMaster for the first time yesterday or the day before yesterday, and therefore it’s difficult for us to say at this juncture what that relationship is going to look like once McMaster is in the job. We’ll just have to wait and see.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.