A Mattis Protege Poised to Take the Helm of Trump’s NSC
Robert Harward is a former Navy SEAL who could bolster the defense secretary’s influence at the expense of Trump’s consigliere Bannon.
The strong bond between former Navy SEAL Robert Harward and Defense Secretary James Mattis was forged on the battlefield in the opening days of the war in Afghanistan in 2001. Just two months after the 9/11 attacks, Harward, then a U.S. Navy captain, led the first U.S. and NATO commandos in combat against the Taliban, paving the way for Mattis — then a Marine brigadier general — to bring his troops into Kandahar.
Harward is now poised to take over as President Donald Trump’s next national security adviser — after the sudden resignation Monday of retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn — and his ascent would likely bolster Mattis’s voice inside an inexperienced White House consumed with power struggles.
His selection could temper and potentially undercut the influence of Stephen Bannon, Trump’s powerful chief strategist. The populist ideologue and self-proclaimed Leninist, who has shaped much of the president’s agenda and harbors deep skepticism of Washington’s foreign policy-conventions, has staked out his own turf on the National Security Council.
Harward, 60, a fitness fanatic who looks every bit the former SEAL, has held several high-pressure senior positions on and off the battlefield and will not roll over without a fight if he meets resistance, said another former senior defense official, Derek Chollet.
“He’s not someone who’s going to take the job to get pushed around by the likes of Steve Bannon,” said Chollet, who worked at the Pentagon with Harward when the naval officer served under Mattis as the deputy commander of U.S. Central Command from 2011 to 2013.
Harward, who rose to the rank of vice admiral and after retirement took a job as an executive at the defense giant Lockheed Martin, could reinforce Mattis as a voice of pragmatism, possibly moderating the Trump administration’s inclination to denigrate allies and dismiss the liberal world order built by Washington since World War II.
“Harward may be more technocratic than a Kissingerian deep thinker, but it’s not as if he’s without a moral core, or doesn’t have a view of how the world works,” Chollet told Foreign Policy. “He understands the military and the importance of alliances and close partnerships.”
But Harward also would likely reinforce some of the administration’s views. Apart from working with Mattis in Afghanistan, Harward served as Mattis’ deputy in the Norfolk-based Joint Forces Command and later worked as his deputy at Central Command, which oversees all U.S. forces in the Middle East and Afghanistan. The Obama White House pushed Mattis out of his job as head of Centcom over his support for aggressive tactics to counter Iran. And Harward appears to share his former boss’s view of the threat posed by Iran and the need for a tough U.S. stance to counter it. At Centcom, he played a role in planning military options for a potential conflict with Iran.
But the biggest potential obstacle Harward faces is that he would be an outsider at the White House. Unlike Flynn, his predecessor, he had no role in last year’s presidential campaign and has no close ties to senior aides who have been at Trump’s side since he announced his candidacy. Former officials from both parties say Harward’s first challenge will be to secure unfettered access to the president, or else find himself isolated and irrelevant.
“He had no involvement in the campaign or the transition. That’s a disadvantage he’ll have to overcome,” said Tom Spoehr, a former Army general who directs the Center for National Defense at the Heritage Foundation. But he said Harward “has a great reputation in the military” and his history with Mattis would help him from the outset.
Former President Barack Obama’s first national security advisor, retired Marine Gen. Jim Jones, was never able to forge a direct line to Obama and break through the inner circle of trusted aides who were veterans of the campaign trail. As a result, his tenure as national security advisor was relatively short-lived.
But the record for an abbreviated stint in the job is now held by Flynn, Trump’s first national security advisor, who was forced to resign Monday — less than a month after took office. Flynn was asked to step down after he lied to the vice president about discussing U.S. sanctions with the Russian ambassador.
The scandal surrounding Flynn, coupled with a U.S. intelligence assessment that Russia sought to tilt the 2016 presidential election to Trump, has raised grave questions about the Trump team’s relations with Moscow before and after the November election — prompting calls from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle for a no-holds-barred inquiry.
Flynn’s successor will be entering a fraught atmosphere at the White House, clouded by scandal and an aura of chaos, with foreign governments often confused and bewildered by the president’s Twitter habit and the administration’s contradictory — and sometimes impromptu — policy statements.
Harward, who once worked on the NSC staff during George W. Bush’s administration, is widely seen by his former colleagues as a skilled, efficient leader who could introduce more order to a National Security Council that critics say had been riddled by mismanagement under Flynn.
But he would not necessarily bring an overarching strategic vision to the job, which could be a plus for Trump’s consigliere Bannon, who would not want to compete with an ideological competitor running the NSC.
“[Harward] isn’t the world’s sharpest strategic thinker … but he probably will run things well,” said a Trump insider who supported the real estate mogul during the campaign.
Another name that was floated for the NSC job, retired Gen. David Petraeus, is more of a strategic heavyweight and could have posed a problem for Bannon, he said. “He’s not going to be some ideological Henry Kissinger-like force. Petraeus probably would have — and that’s why he would’ve been a serious threat to Bannon.”
Chollet said Harward is a problem solver and a “doer,” who probably would seek to follow the model of Brent Scowcroft, former President George H.W. Bush’s national security advisor, ensuring pertinent voices and options were given a fair hearing before the commander in chief took a decision.
Harward would be “making sure the train runs on time and the process is fair and open and rigorous,” Chollet said.
However, it was unclear if President Trump wanted to replicate that kind of model, with different officials and agencies weighing options in a centralized, deliberate process under the guidance of the NSC.
“The big caveat is, is that the process the president of the United States is interested in having? Presidents get the process they want,” Chollet said.
Naming yet another retired military officer as national security advisor would simply maintain the roster of retired officers who hold cabinet and senior posts across Trump’s administration, including Mattis, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, and retired Army general Keith Kellog, the acting national security advisor. That risks imposing a military-centric view on foreign-policy deliberations, some former officials and experts say.
“The best National Security Council is one that’s open to broad perspectives and options — and not all of them military,” said one former administration official. If you are limiting yourself to exclusively military thinking, “then you are closing off options.”
Harward and Mattis share a deep suspicion of Tehran. While serving under Mattis as deputy head of Central Command in 2012, Harward told a conference: “Iran’s well-established past pattern of deceit and reckless behavior have progressively increased the potential for miscalculation that could spark a regional, if not a global conflict.”
And Harward has a history of sorts with Iran. While his father was posted to pre-revolutionary Iran as a U.S. military advisor in the 1970s, he attended an American high school in the capital, Tehran, where he learned Farsi. While intimately familiar with the Middle East, Harward has little experience with Asia and will have to lean on others in the administration — or recruit new staff at the NSC — for expertise in that region, former officials said.
“Harward is very disciplined, and is someone that General Mattis trusted,” said a former official who worked with him at Central Command.
The former naval officer “would fit in well with Trump’s style and personality in wanting to take a very forward-leaning approach with adversaries.”
Harward, a Naval Academy graduate who later served on both the East and West Coast elite SEAL teams, took a forward-leaning approach to his own retirement, arriving at his 2013 farewell ceremony on a San Diego beach by parachute.
Even after he retired, he kept up a demanding fitness regimen that former officers said could be punishing. After a 90 minutes of grueling strength training, Harward would lead a group of former SEALS and officers on a three-mile run, which resembled more of a sprint.
“If you weren’t running fast enough then he would come back and push you to get you running faster,” said one former defense official. “He was motivating everybody to do better.”
Photo Credit: U.S. Navy
Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce
John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson