National Security Advisor McMaster: The Good and Bad of Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice – General Officer Edition”

“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”.

Reports on Saturday noted four candidates in contention for the position – three of whom were generals.  The lone civilian mentioned, John Bolton, has, for some, a radioactive reputation and too hawkish views.

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.   

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Clouded Reassurances in Asia

Last week, Secretary of Defense James Mattis made his first official foreign visit as a member of the Trump administration. It was also the first overseas visit by any member of the new cabinet. The new Defense Secretary spent time in both South Korea and Japan, two of America’s most important allies in Asia. The choice of these two countries was deliberate: both countries are needed to help contain the nuclear threat of North Korea, and Japan is facing an encroaching Chinese presence in the East China Sea. Mattis’ goal was to reassure Seoul—which is currently facing a full-blown political crisis—and Tokyo of American commitments to their security.

Despite Trump’s rhetoric during the campaign about certain allies not pulling their weight, as president, he must now work with these two countries to keep the region stable. The trip could be described as quite successful. Mattis reaffirmed American commitments to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD), a missile defense system that could protect South Korea from a potential attack by North Korea. His comments about U.S. commitments were clear: “Any attack on the United States or on our allies will be defeated and any use of nuclear weapons will be met with a response that will be effective and overwhelming.” That’s about as stalwart of a commitment or reassurance as any country can get. The secretary’s visit to Japan struck similar tones. In a joint press conference with Tomomi Inada, the Defense Minister of Japan, Mattis specifically mentioned U.S. policy toward  islands that both Japan and China claim sovereignty over: “I made clear that our long-standing policy on the Senkaku Islands stands — the US will continue to recognize Japanese administration of the islands and as such Article 5 of the US-Japan Security Treaty applies.” Article 5 “recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes” If the U.S. recognizes Japanese sovereignty over these islands, then the U.S. would have to use force to defend the Japanese territory if the Chinese attacked in some way.

While Mattis reaffirmed American commitments to both countries, China expressed concern and outrage over his comments in both South Korea and Japan over THAAD and the Senkaku Islands. In regards to THAAD, China believes its implementation would “undermine the strategic security interests of regional countries including China, disrupt regional strategic balance, and help in no way peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.” The Chinese see THAAD as not limited to containing the North Korean threat. THAAD potentially could be used to take out or track Chinese missiles in the region. The United States and South Korea are not likely to heed Chinese complaints. China released a statement challenging Mattis’ remarks about U.S. commitment to Japanese sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands: “Diaoyu [the Chinese name for the Senkaku Islands] and its affiliated islands have been Chinese territory since ancient times. These are historical facts that cannot be changed. The so-called US-Japan security treaty was a product of the Cold War, and it should not harm China’s territorial sovereignty and legitimate rights.” This statement is nothing new, and the issue will not go away any time soon, so it is important to Japan to receive such unwavering reassurance from the United States.

As China continues to contest sovereignty over islands in the East China Sea and the South China Sea and build artificial islands in the South China Sea, it is necessary not just for Asian nations to receive American reassurances of support, but also for the United States to continually and explicitly express its commitment to maintaining a major role in the region, especially with the transition between administrations. China will likely attempt to take advantage of the Trump administration while it is still getting its feet on the ground and begins to formulate Asia policy. Having Secretary Mattis make a trip to South Korea two weeks into the new administration demonstrates continued understanding of America’s role in keeping the Asia-Pacific region stable. While the Defense Secretary offered firm reassurances to both nations, Mattis also expressed hesitation to escalate beyond the status quo. In Japan, he also noted that the administration does not “see any need for dramatic military moves” and that both the U.S. and China should “exhaust all diplomatic efforts to try and resolve this properly and maintain open lines of communication.”

Unfortunately, other cabinet members and advisors have made troubling remarks about the region and U.S.-China relations. Though Mattis made the most recent of statements in regards to U.S. policy towards Asia, in the very recent past, other people in the administration have made remarks that undercut and conflict with what Mattis said. During his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “Building islands and then putting military assets on those islands is akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea. Its taking of territory that others lay claim to. . . .We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands also not going to be allowed.” Such a policy would be a dramatic change from previous administrations. In December 2016, it was revealed that China had installed anti-aircraft and other weapons systems on its artificial islands in the South China Sea. If the United States were to adopt Tillerson’s policy of denial of entry, then confrontation of some sort will likely erupt since China has a significant military presence on its islands. Is the Trump administration willing to risk war to prevent China from doing what it has already done for years? What positive outcome can the new administration expect by adopting such a policy? It is especially unnerving because a Chinese official at the Central Military Commission noted that “A war within the president’s term’ or ‘war breaking out tonight’ are not just slogans, they are becoming a practical reality.”

Moreover, in March 2016, Steve Bannon, President Trump’s chief strategist and now a member of the National Security Council, remarked that war between the United States and China in the South China Sea is inevitable: “We’re going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years, aren’t we? . . . There’s no doubt about that. They’re taking their sandbars and making basically stationary aircraft carriers and putting missiles on those. They come here to the United States in front of our face — and you understand how important face is — and say it’s an ancient territorial sea.” Although Bannon’s remark predated his joining the Trump campaign in August 2016, it is dangerous for a key member of the Trump administration to have such hawkish views on China. With Bannon in the White House and influencing national security policy, such an opinion could become a self-fulfilling prophecy: Bannon thinks war is inevitable, so he purposefully or accidentally makes it so.

Different members of the administration have made conflicting statements about China and the Asia-Pacific region in general. Is diplomacy possible or not? Is war inevitable? Will the United States needlessly antagonize China? What are Japan and South Korea supposed to believe is the prevailing opinion or policy stance of the Trump administration? It appears that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.  As Mattis was visiting Asia, the news broke about Bannon’s previous statements. Can U.S. allies in Asia count on Mattis’ reassurances and commitments? Now that Tillerson has been confirmed as Secretary of State, we must hope that he listens to his diplomats—and Secretary Mattis—and does not advocate for such an aggressive stance in the South China Sea. Branding China as the enemy this early in the administration limits how the United States can cooperate with China on important issues, including the nuclear threat from North Korea. What the United States and its allies can hope for is that Secretary Mattis’ reserved and cautious approach prevails.

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Will “Chaos” Save America And The Peace? The Coming Battle Between Trump’s Zealots and America’s Pragmatists

The Trump administration’s week one roll-out of executive orders should not be seen as a shock. In all cases, whether building a wall across the Mexican border, issuing a travel ban on seven countries, or reigniting debate on torture, President Trump delivered on campaign promises. These promises have provoked American resistance in ways not seen since the 1960s. Protests opposing nearly every Trump action have sprung up across the country and even around the world.

More surprising than Trump’s executive orders has been the lack of coordination across his administration. New appointees, namely Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly appears to be in disagreement with the policies being executed by his agency. Detentions and deportations at airports have been surrounded with confusion and it appears the Department of Homeland Security’s lawyers, which govern the Customs and Border Patrol, were overpowered and ignored by Trump’s inner circle pushing the travel ban. When referring to Stephen Miller, the Trump administration’s aggressor for the travel ban, Joe Scarborough of MSNBC’s Morning Joe said,

You’ve got a very young person in the White House on a power trip thinking that you can just write executive orders and tell all of your Cabinet agencies to go to hell.” Scarborough said Washington is in an “uproar” this morning because Miller decided “he was going to do this without going through the regular agency process.”

The Trump administration’s fumbled coordination and implementation of his first executive orders smells of irony in retrospect to his railing on the Obama administration as a disorganized “disaster”.

The week concluded with even more surprising news – the Director of National Intelligence, the CIA Director and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs were removed from full membership of the National Security Council and replaced with White House strategist Stephen Bannon. Key national security posts essential to decision making were substituted for a political strategist. Trump meanwhile brought back a discussion on torture but then used new Secretary of Defense Mattis’ objection to the tactic as his reason for backing away from such calls.  

All of this points to the power of an inner circle close to Donald Trump pushing an ideological agenda not receptive to feedback. Steve Bannon, Reince Preibus, Stephen Miller, and Jared Kushner are pushing their power and a new vision for America focused on toughness, ideology, and action. These ideological zealots have been accompanied by the scorned and fiery National Security Advisor, retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, and a line of national security advisors pushing for a “War on Radical Islam” – notably Sebastian Gorka, Clare Lopez, and Whalid Phares.

Organized and operating without the need for Congressional approval, this aggressive strain of White House advisors have raced forward with policies while those implementing those policies have been awaiting confirmation or just assuming their cabinet posts. These ideologues have also been essential in selecting Trump administration appointees they can control and influence, many of which appear to be figureheads, supporters, and donors loyal to the new administration but light on qualifications and experience for their new positions –- notably nominees Ben Carson for Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Betsy DeVos for the Department of Education.

Pragmatists with years of governance and leadership experience will soon match the zealots of Trump’s inner circle as they come on board to lead key national security positions. Retired Generals James Mattis at the Department of Defense and John Kelly at the Department of Homeland Security, while known for their battlefield prowess, have much cooler heads and will seemingly run headlong into the ideological Bannon inner circle.

These retired generals have been accompanied by a string of billionaire appointees. The ultra wealthy leading parts of the administration, in one sense, beg the question of how a small group so unlike the masses can adequately represent the best interests of the American citizenry. However, these businessmen and women achieved great success by being excellent decision makers — weighing the consequences of their choices, plodding carefully trough tough decisions, leading large organizations, carefully executing strategies over long periods of duration. Rex Tillerson, the incoming Secretary of State, may very well have the skills to effectively negotiate in ways John Kerry has proven incapable, but shockingly had yet to discuss Russia policy with Trump just a week before inauguration. Vincent Viola, the nominee for Secretary of the Army, I know personally to be a thoughtful, dedicated American recognized for his prudent business sense. These veteran leaders and successful businessmen will require inclusive consultation and it’s unlikely they will blindly follow orders counterproductive to American security.

For example, Mattis and Tillerson need Muslim majority partners to pursue terrorists, especially when America loathes deploying hundreds of thousands of troops again to the Middle East. Trump’s hasty and messy travel ban confirms jihadist narratives of America’s war on the Muslim world, alienates Muslim majority countries providing essential counterterrorism support on our behalf, and will also likely grow terrorist ranks in the process. It’s hard to imagine Mattis and Tillerson will further policies that make their jobs more difficult.

Trump’s pace of executive orders will slow in the coming weeks and his appointees, just assuming duty, will face challenges to their legitimacy trying to defend and explain policies not of their creation. I imagine this will set the stage for a coming battle inside the Trump administration between those believing they have the world figured out – “The Zealots” — and those that know from experience what to do – “The Pragmatists.”

America’s adversaries are unlikely to waste much time before testing this erratic administration and pursue their interests. When America’s enemies advance, who will win out in the administration? The ironically cooler-headed “Chaos” Mattis or the astonishingly angry Bannon?

If it’s the latter, and Trump’s “Zealots” reign supreme, America should prepare for war, which may be exactly what the inner circle seeks as conflict often brings allegiance when it’s against a foreign adversary — i.e., the “rally `round the flag” effect. But let’s hope it’s the former, and the “Pragmatists” can keep things calm, weigh options, and pursue America strength through patience, partnerships, and principles.

My guess: we’ll know which side wins the war inside the Trump administration in the summer of 2018. Past administrations with strong internal rivalries usually see the first causalities of bureaucratic war emerge during year two when they’ve lost favor with the White House. The first appointees and strategists we see exit the Trump administration because “they achieved what they set out to do” or “to spend more time with their family” will be the public sign to America as to who wins the battle between the “Pragmatists” and “Zealots.”

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