H R McMaster: The philosopher general who could tame Trump
The goddess Fortuna works in mysterious ways. After much fretting in European capitals, the three most senior national security positions in the Trump administration are now filled by people who are committed to Nato (with caveats) and have expressed their support for different iterations of the “liberal international order” – the death of which has been repeatedly declared since November last year.
They are more convinced of the need to take a firm line against Russian expansionism, for instance, than two of the three leading French presidential candidates. In Rex Tillerson at the US state department and James Mattis at the Pentagon, Trump had already picked two relatively uncontroversial figures who hold largely conventional views of America’s role in the world. The arrival of Lieutenant General H R McMaster in the White House as the new national security adviser has completed this triumvirate.
Concern about the course of Donald Trump’s foreign policy has focused on the influence of his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, and McMaster’s predecessor Michael T Flynn. While Bannon’s influence is undiminished, Flynn – known for his unflinching line on tackling Isis and confronting Iran – was forced to resign in February over his alleged connections with Moscow. The independent-minded, urbane and scholarly McMaster is a different proposition altogether. He may be less determinedly abrasive, but he will be no less forceful.
It is rumoured that McMaster does not have the same “walk-in” privileges as Bannon, and so he cannot meet with the president without first securing a slot in his diary. Yet the measure of McMaster’s success will not be his ability to keep the president’s attention. Instead, his appointment represents an opportunity to establish a much-needed bridgehead between the core Trump team and the national security establishment. The latter has been maligned variously as the “blob”, the “priesthood” or the “deep state” by the more unreconstructed partisans of Trump’s victory. For the presidency to function at all, some common ground will have to be found.
The affable McMaster arrives in office with deep reserves of goodwill. Crucially, he is anything but a yes-man. His 1997 book, Dereliction of Duty, which began as part of his PhD thesis, was an excoriating critique of the failures of military and civilian advisers in speaking truth to Lyndon B Johnson during the Vietnam War. It is widely believed that McMaster was never made a four-star general because he practised what he preached with his superiors.
As a commander in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, McMaster reinterpreted his brief to adopt a new approach that helped his men wrest control of the city of Tal Afar from insurgents. This created the blueprint for the counter-insurgency methods later adopted by the US army as the basis of “the surge”. This may have cost him promotion, but it won him kudos among his peers.
Unlike Flynn, McMaster is more of a renegade than a revolutionary. Tales of his first few days in his new office have been lapped up eagerly by those looking for signs of normalisation after one of the most chaotic transition periods in presidential history. In his first meeting with the permanent national security staff, he reportedly reassured them that their jobs were safe, set an extensive reading list, reiterated his belief in the value of America’s commitment to the post-1945 world order and repudiated the Flynn term “radical Islamic terrorism”, saying that it plays into the hands of jihadists.
McMaster has little interest in sophisticated language for its own sake. Instead, he offers an approach to national security that is more than enemy-centric. This entails both a better appreciation of the context in which America’s enemies operate and a recognition of the importance of the country’s allies. In January, at Policy Exchange in London, he spoke candidly about the “fallacies” that had crept into Western strategic thinking. It was time to “integrate all elements of power: military, political, diplomatic [and] economic”; and to go beyond the crisis management approach that had left the US and its allies caught behind the curve.
McMaster’s reading choices – from Thucydides to Marc Bloch and Elting E Morison – demonstrate his catholic tastes. Among his recent recommendations is The Unquiet Frontier by Jakub J Grygiel and A Wess Mitchell, which calls for the strengthening of America’s alliance system, particularly on the frontiers of Western power.
Yet it would be a mistake for Europeans to think that the US security umbrella will shelter them indefinitely. Trump’s foreign policy may not be mutating at the pace that many in Europe feared, but America’s world-view is evolving rapidly. If a new consensus is thrashed out between the Bannonites and future planners such as McMaster, it will be based on the full-hearted agreement that America must “start winning again”.