Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster’s battlefield experience and intellect make him ideally suited to run the National Security Council. But he will have to vie for influence with ideologues like Stephen Bannon.
- By Dan De LuceDan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. He joined FP in June 2015 after working as Pentagon correspondent for Agence France-Presse. Prior to that, Dan reported for the Guardian from Iran until he was expelled by the regime in 2004. After the end of communist rule in Eastern Europe, Dan worked as a freelance journalist in Prague. He later covered the war in former Yugoslavia for Reuters from 1993 to 1995 before serving as Sarajevo bureau chief after the conflict. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Dan lives in Washington with his wife, journalist and author Caitriona Palmer, and his four children.
President Donald Trump on Monday named Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster as his national security advisor, a seasoned military officer known for his combat leadership in two wars in Iraq, proven counterinsurgency savvy, and a hefty intellect. But while Trump’s choice won universal praise in Washington, it remains unclear whether the president will grant the Army general the authority and access he needs to bring order and discipline to a chaotic White House run by political operatives.
McMaster, whose Ph.D. dissertation-turned-book in 1997 about the Vietnam War won accolades, has gained a reputation for bucking conventional wisdom as an officer in Iraq, and former colleagues say he has never shied away from speaking his mind or telling his superiors what they don’t want to hear. His award-winning book, Dereliction of Duty, indicted the timidity of senior U.S. military leaders who failed to push back against the White House’s political agenda during the early years of Vietnam, sowing the seeds for defeat.
McMaster is also revered for battlefield exploits during both Iraq wars — the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq invasion — especially his textbook campaign against al Qaeda in the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005. With ideological firebrands in the White House with no battlefield experience in the Middle East, McMaster could serve as a counterpoint and a voice of experience in policy debates, experts and former officials said.
But McMaster enters an administration led by a president with a predilection for improvisation and who relies heavily on Stephen Bannon and other political aides that counseled him during his electoral campaign, making it uncertain that the laureled general’s strategic nous will be heard.
Trump announced the decision from his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida after his previous choice, retired Vice Adm. Robert Harward, turned down the job when he was told he could not pick his own team at the National Security Council.
Unlike Harward and other candidates for the job, McMaster is — and will remain — an active duty member of the military, and by custom and tradition does not have the option of rebuffing the commander in chief or imposing conditions before accepting the job.
“You’re wearing the uniform of the nation, and when the president asks you to do something, the answer is, ‘Yes, Mr. President,’” said Peter Mansoor, a close friend of McMaster’s and retired Army colonel who served with him in Iraq. “My guess is being a serving military officer, he probably entered the job without preconditions.”
The White House insisted the general would have the leeway needed to recruit his own team. The president “gave full authority for McMaster to hire whatever staff he sees fit,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.
Trump’s insistence on maintaining former Fox News analyst K.T. McFarland as deputy national security advisor was a big reason Harward bowed out.
McMaster’s noted book takes the military’s top brass to task for deferring to the White House in the early 1960s and failing to provide their honest opinion of –– or even substantially shape — a doomed war strategy. In the book, which McMaster wrote when he was a major, he refers to the chiefs of the armed services disdainfully as the “five silent men.”
In his new job, McMaster could face his own test of leadership and conscience as the Trump administration weighs its approach to the war against Islamic State. The president has promised to lift restraints on the military and to deliver a swift and decisive victory against the extremists, who are already on the retreat in Iraq. But McMaster is well-versed in the complexities and pitfalls of the region’s sectarian and ethnic politics, and learned first-hand how Islamist extremists took root in Iraq.
When he led the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in the desert of northwestern Iraq in 2005, he arranged basic Arabic-language instruction for many of his soldiers beforehand and assigned them reading on Arab and Iraqi history.
And when McMaster had arrived at what he thought was a winning plan to take back the northern town of Tal Afar from al Qaeda in Iraq, the then-colonel concluded he needed additional troops to succeed. That idea was opposed by his commander, so he went over his superior’s head and won approval for his plan from more senior officers in Baghdad.
His plan worked and became a model for counterinsurgency tactics in Iraq. He went to help the then-commander of American forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, reshape the Iraq campaign to enable U.S. forces to salvage a war effort that at the time was on the brink of failure.
His actions in Iraq and elsewhere put him at odds with some of the more conservative generals who ran the Army, and McMaster was twice passed over for promotion to brigadier general in 2006 and 2007. With one of the most innovative officers in the Army facing a forced retirement, Petraeus returned from Iraq to take over the promotion board, and made sure that the controversial colonel pinned on his first star in 2008.
In 2010, McMaster was sent to Afghanistan to head a task force given the thankless job of helping reform the Afghan military and stamping out corruption in its ranks. The infamously crooked institution has made some progress since then, but it remains racked by graft, allegations of abuse of civilians, and indiscipline.
McMaster, unlike Trump’s first pick, Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, has won broad applause. Sen. John McCain, who has accused the White House of presiding over a dysfunctional national security policy-making machine, promptly issued a statement hailing McMaster as “an outstanding choice.”
McCain and other lawmakers have also praised other picks to Trump’s national security team, including Defense James Mattis, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. But so far, their influence is a matter of debate.
Trump has continued to alarm foreign partners with his rhetoric questioning the value of long standing alliances like NATO, while his cabinet officers have labored to reassure nervous allies about the strength of U.S. commitments. And his executive order on a controversial travel ban affecting seven predominantly Muslim countries was reportedly drafted with little input from his cabinet.
The inexperienced and famously impulsive president has so far resisted embracing a centralized policy-making channel presided over by the National Security Council. And McMaster will face a daunting challenge to break through Trump’s inner circle to forge a rapport with the president.
“The problem is there’s another competing center of power in the White House,” Mansoor, now a professor of military history at Ohio State University, told FP.
But “if anyone can make it work, H.R.’s the man.”
FP reporter Paul McLeary contributed to this article.
Photo credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images