Trump’s New National Security Adviser Hates ‘Simple Truth’
H.R. McMaster has a history of questioning American strategy
by KEVIN KNODELL
Pres. Donald Trump has a new national security adviser. U.S. Army lieutenant general H.R. McMaster replaces Mike Flynn, who quit after lying about his contact with Russian officials.
Flynn’s resignation sent the White House scrambling to fill the position. The administration’s first choice was retired admiral Bob Harward, an accomplished Navy SEAL who speaks fluent Farsi, once worked for Defense Secretary James Mattis and currently lives and works in the United Arab Emirates.
Harward reportedly turned down the job when the Trump’s team told him he wouldn’t be allowed to pick his own staff. Former CIA director and Army general David Petraeus also turned down the job.
Harward reportedly called the national security post a “shit sandwich.” Now it will be McMaster’s to eat. But it’s not the first time the general has found himself doing a thankless but important job.
McMaster’s first true test of leadership was during the 1991 Gulf War, when as a young captain in the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment he fought in the Battle of 73 Easting. His unit, Eagle Troop, got caught in a sandstorm — and then ran headlong into a larger Iraqi force.
Eagle Troop’s nine tanks managed to destroy no fewer than 80 Iraqi tanks and other vehicles without any losses of their own.
Of course, it helped that the Americans’ state-of-the-art M-1 tanks were greatly superior to the Iraqis’ much older, Soviet-made T-62s and T-72s and Chinese Type 69s. McMaster received a silver star for his actions.
It’s not just his battlefield accomplishments that have defined McMaster. He’s equally well-known for his intellectual pedigree. He was a military history professor at West Point and, as a major and Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Carolina, wrote Dereliction of Duty, a critical perspective on the Vietnam War.
McMaster lambasted Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara for their wartime leadership. But he reserved his harshest criticism for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other military officers for being more interested in currying favor and protecting their careers than in giving their civilian superiors candid advice.
He argued that military force should be deployed carefully and only with clear objectives — which he asserted were absent in Vietnam.
In March 2003, the U.S. Army steamrolled into Iraq following a devastating air campaign. The Iraqi army crumbled in the face of America’s technological superiority.
Just a month later in April 2003, the U.S. Army War College’s Center for Strategic Leadership released McMaster’s monograph “Crack in the Foundation: Defense Transformation and the Underlying Assumption of Dominant Knowledge in Future War.”
In it, McMaster argued that the ’91 Gulf War had made U.S. military planners arrogant — and had led them to assume that technological superiority would allow them to achieve swift, easy victories through air power.
“The intellectual foundation for building tomorrow’s military force rests on the unfounded assumption that technologies emerging from the ‘information revolution’ will lift the fog of war and permit U.S. forces to achieve a very high degree of certainty in future military operations,” McMaster wrote.
In a section entitled “Misunderstood Victory and the Allure of Simple Truth,” McMaster argued that the military had forgotten the importance of people. He pointed to failures in Somalia and other operations during the 1990s.
“Although the soldiers of Task Force Ranger won a fight in which they were grossly outnumbered, the Battle of Mogadishu [in Somalia in 1993] highlighted many of the inherent limits of technology and revealed the absurdity of basing military doctrine and organization on the assumption of information superiority,” McMaster wrote. “Growing confidence in technology as the answer to the problem of future war, however, overwhelmed the lessons of Somalia.”
As American forces began preparing for a long stay in Iraq, McMaster’s words began to feel eerily prescient. A lack of post-war planning as well as the disastrous decision to disband the Iraqi army — instantly creating an armed, unemployed and angry constituency for insurgency—turned a swift victory into a grinding, new conflict.
Senior Bush administration officials — particularly Vice Pres. Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld —resisted calling the fighting in Iraq an insurgency or a civil war. They labeled Iraqi insurgents “dead-enders” and overstated the number of foreign jihadists.
Short on Arabic speakers and struggling to understand the country, many American commanders struggled to build intelligence networks and local alliances. During the early days of the Iraq insurgency, the coalition tended to avoid sustained ops in dangerous urban areas. Troops would conduct routine patrols during the day and then return to their bases at night.
That approach alienated many Iraqis, who might have been willing to assist the Americans and their allies but were afraid that insurgents would retaliate after dark. When the news broke that U.S. troops and CIA operatives were torturing detainees at Abu Ghraib prison, Iraqis’ distrust only deepened.
McMaster, then a colonel and commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, arrived in Tal Afar in northern Iraq in 2005. Working closely with Iraqi troops and police, McMaster and his regiment got to work securing towns and settlements on the outskirts of the city.
When McMaster deployed his soldiers into Tal Afar proper, he did so on a permanent basis. As the locals began to understand that the coalition wasn’t going to leave when the sun went down, they began to come forward with information on insurgents.
McMaster’s leadership in the Tal Afar campaign was the subject of a feature in The New Yorker. “When we came to Iraq, we didn’t understand the complexity — what it meant for a society to live under a brutal dictatorship, with ethnic and sectarian divisions,” McMaster told the magazine.
“When we first got here, we made a lot of mistakes. We were like a blind man, trying to do the right thing but breaking a lot of things … You gotta come in with your ears open. You can’t come in and start talking. You have to really listen to people.”
Mattis and Petraeus studied McMaster’s tactics as they wrote the U.S. military’s new counterinsurgency doctrine. After handing over command of his regiment, McMaster did a stint at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, studying ways to improve international cooperation in fighting terrorism and insurgencies.
Twice McMaster was passed up for promotion to brigadier general. Observers wondered if his criticism of American strategy had sabotaged his career. McMaster finally got his first star in 2008 — and kept right on demanding that Americans questions their own tendency toward unilateralism.
“I think we’re always going to have to operate as part of a multinational force,” McMaster said. “To do so, we have to understand the history and the culture of each of these conflicts and of the microconflicts in each subregion.”
McMaster has also cautioned against over-fixation on a single mode of warfare. He suggested that U.S. forces could find themselves overstretched and outgunned in potential confrontations with Russia and China.
“It is clear that while our army was engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, Russia studied U.S. capabilities and vulnerabilities and embarked on an ambitious and largely successful modernization effort,” McMaster told the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2016. “In Ukraine, for example, the combination of unmanned aerial systems and offensive cyber and advanced electronic warfare capabilities depict a high degree of technological sophistication.”
McMaster’s views on America’s role in the world could put him at odds with other members of Trump’s White House. His emphasis on international cooperation — and his embrace of complexity and nuance — could clash with the absolutist philosophy of Trump’s chief adviser Steve Bannon, for example.
Bannon is obsessed with the concept of “The Fourth Turning,” which advocates widespread conflict and massive destruction as a way of reinventing the world. Trump recently put Bannon on his national security council, where Bannon will have to deal with McMaster.
Bannon and Flynn hate Muslims. McMaster likely won’t share that zeal. Likewise, McMaster isn’t likely to be as forgiving of Russian meddling in the world as his predecessor Flynn was. McMaster will likely align closely with Mattis, who during the 2016 campaign criticized Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric as well as his dismissive attitude toward NATO.
For those reasons McMaster is an inspired choice for national security adviser. Where Trump is weakest, McMaster is strongest. America will benefit from his experience and intellectual courage.