“I’ve got Captain McMaster for MilArt!” West Point cadets enrolled in Military History 302 during the early 1990’s spoke with pride if they were the lucky few drawing McMaster’s section. They studied combat under the tutelage of Desert Storm’s most notable young war hero – the commander of E Troop, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment whose unit decimated Iraqi forces at the battle of 73 Easting. McMaster led by example, inspired young cadets, soldiers and officers – both up and down the chain-of-command with his knowledge and spirit. Today, Lieutenant General McMaster continues this legacy becoming National Security Advisor and hopefully saving America from a calamitous start to a new presidential administration.
National security scholars immediately cheered President Trump’s replacement after the disastrously short tenure of retired Lieutenant General Mike Flynn. Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster too is a popular Army general but more qualified and better suited for the position in every way compared to Flynn. While General David Petraeus often receives credit for the military’s great “surge” in Iraq a decade ago, McMaster, as commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Tal`Afar, largely invented and honed the counterinsurgency approach later adopted by forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. A hero of two wars, McMaster’s inspirational inclusive leadership has won him supporters up and down the ranks in contrast to Flynn’s divisiveness and spite for the Obama administration, which won President Trump’s ear but immediately created a wedge between the intelligence community and the new administration. Flynn’s relationship and perceived influence by Russia led to a scandal bringing his demise. McMaster on the other hand, as typified by every chapter in his career, recently helped move the U.S. Army out of the counterterrorism era preparing U.S. forces for the sophisticated rise of Russian hybrid warfare used in Ukraine. McMaster’s selection will likely bring unity and focus in countering Russia aggression as compared to Flynn’s bizarre romance with a nation that compromised him.
For Americans fearful of an ideological Stephen Bannon-Mike Flynn cabal propelling the U.S. into an apocalyptic showdown with Islam, McMaster may be the perfect pick for National Security Advisor. He’ll take in information and opinions, study the details, design the strategy, implement it, and drive it through the administration. McMaster’s competence and battlefield creativity arrives from years of scholarship where he earned both a doctorate and penned an essential tome, Dereliction Of Duty, describing U.S. mistakes in the Vietnam war – notably the failure of U.S. generals to stand up to civilian leadership. McMaster adapted this lesson into his own career — known for speaking his mind even when it may have cost him promotions. McMaster will be an essential voice to counter President Trump’s affinity for crazy conspiracies of those inside or outside the administration – whether it is chief strategist Bannon or InfoWar’s Alex Jones.
Trump’s pick of McMaster seems more palatable in light of his previous choice Flynn, but Americans should be vexed by President Trump’s apparent insecurity with regards to national security. In Trump’s game of national security ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ – only famous military flag officers can participate. Having initially appointed three former generals as National Security Advisor and the heads of the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, Trump next offered the National Security Advisor position to former Navy SEAL Vice Admiral Bob Harward who turned down the job. Again, retired General David Petraeus’ name rose into discussions as a replacement, but Petraeus signaled fear of the position noting in Munich:
“Whoever it is that would agree to take that position certainly should do so with some very, very significant assurances that he or she would have authorities over the personnel of the organization — that there would be a commitment to a disciplined process and procedures”.
President Trump’s confused worldview, love for celebrity, and desire to appear tough has him reaching for those who embody what he is not: a strong commander-in-chief. Trump appears unable to envision any viable civilians for top defense positions. This fame fueled policy pattern is not limited to national security either. Trump’s preference for celebrity over credentials appears in domestic politics where he appointed well known presidential candidate and later backer Ben Carson, a doctor, to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development despite having no experience in the discipline or bureaucratic management expertise. Trump paired this odd choice alongside meetings with musician Kanye West and comedian Steve Harvey to discuss cultural issues and inner city problems. In all cases, Trump prefers names he sees on Twitter to those he could review in resumes.
Aside from the singular focus on military generals, Trump’s national security team represents a “Team of Friends” rather than a “Team of Rivals”—the inverse approach pursued by President Obama in 2008. Generals Mattis, Kelly, and McMaster—and Flynn before him—all fought the last decade’s counterinsurgencies on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. If America needs to fight and win a land war in Asia, no better assemblage of leaders could be collected. Their cohesion will aid communication and bring needed unity of command to a Trump administration off to a disastrous start.
But the “Team of Friends” approach has a downside as well. Trump’s celebrity generals ground combat depth is unparalleled, and their lack of national security breadth is unprecedented. All are masters in the art of war, but none would be thought of as natural diplomats, economic savants, purveyors of air power, nerds in naval operations, executors of law enforcement and intelligence operations, cyber savvy tacticians, interagency hardball champions, or nation-state chess players. Even more, generals believing they could operate on fewer resources are rarer than snow leopards, calling into question Trump calls for future government cost cutting.
Traditionally, national security teams seek a diverse blend of civil servants, academics, intelligence professionals and military veterans to adequately prepare the country for a host of scenarios and adversaries. Trump’s generals, no doubt, will be the best fit to fight the Islamic State today and al Qaeda last decade. But, this crew seems ill-suited for many top national security challenges. Easing tensions with China and Iran, quelling Russian cyber attacks and influence operations, restoring alliances in Europe and the Middle East, preparing for the security effects of climate change in the Arctic and mitigating nuclear proliferation – none of these issues will be areas where Trump’s generals will naturally excel.
McMaster’s selection as National Security will present a tradeoff for U.S. national security. McMaster is a good choice who will provide stability, experience, discipline and above all a clear head to a White House inner circle littered with ideologues pushing simultaneously for wars with China, Iran, and “Radical Islam.” His first challenge will be to corral the most bizarre and reckless assemblage of White House advisors he inherited. McMaster’s intelligence and deep connections to more reasonable pragmatists like Secretary of Defense Mattis will hopefully prevent the nation from a fall into an ill-conceived conflict.
At another level though, the U.S. must ultimately return its national security to civilian leadership as designed. National security executed by such a narrow set of military ground commanders will leave America framing all engagements as war, prepared for too few adversaries and focused on a limited set of options. McMaster is the general America needs today, but moving forward America needs fewer generals and a more diverse national security team combining the best of both the military and civilian world moving forward.