Elephants in the Room
National Security Advisor McMaster’s Three Civil-Military Relations Challenges
The White House’s many men in uniform will need to tread carefully.
President Donald Trump has made a fine pick in tapping Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster to replace Mike Flynn as National Security Advisor (NSA). The pick has generated near unanimous support across party lines and so McMaster will start his new assignment with a very large reservoir of a resource that is all too rare in Washington these days: trust and good will.
He will need to draw on that reservoir to deal with the geostrategic challenges confronting the country. But he may also need to tap something else that he has in particular abundance — a finely tuned sensibility for the norms of proper civil-military relations. From the outset, McMaster will face at least three important civil-military challenges.
First, he will need to build a presidential advisory process that develops and debates options in a candid setting where every professional voice is free to speak and where the perceived taint of partisan politics is not believed to have corrupted the process. Former President George W. Bush strove mightily to achieve this and, in my experience, largely succeeded. Many specialists, myself included, criticized former President Barack Obama’s team for being sloppier about the way that they blurred the lines between the president’s partisan political interests and the national interest. The Trump administration has set up structures that seem to blur those lines even more.
All eyes will be on how McMaster relates to the other political advisors who have overlapping roles on national security, particularly Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon. The Trump White House could take steps to mitigate those concerns. They should ensure that McMaster has direct and independent access to President Trump, and that McMaster is included from the outset on any issue that touches on national security so he can bring inter-agency perspectives to bear before the matter goes to the president for decision.
But it bears emphasizing that McMaster will bring a special sensitivity to this issue because the relationship between politics and national security is precisely what his famous dissertation-book, Dereliction of Duty, examined. McMaster narrated how President Lyndon B. Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara dealt with his Joint Chiefs of staff, and vice-versa, on Vietnam War decisions. According to McMaster, too many of President Johnson’s war decisions were driven by domestic political considerations.
And here it gets particularly interesting, because many people who read McMaster’s book believe it goes on to argue that the Joint Chiefs were “derelict” in their duty by not standing up to Johnson — not blocking the president from pursuing a flawed strategy in Vietnam, and not insisting on their own superior approach to the war. I think McMaster’s true thesis is more subtle. McMaster takes the senior military to task for not providing candid advice to the President and Secretary McNamara — for letting their own political considerations shape their advice to their bosses — and for not correcting the record when Johnson and McNamara misrepresented their advice to sell Johnson’s preferred graduated escalation strategy to Congress and the American public.
But the misreading of McMaster’s argument to mean “the military should stand up more to political civilians” is so ubiquitous that I have called it (with H.R.’s permission, I hasten to add) “McMasterism.” And McMasterism may well be the approach that some are hoping the author brings into the White House: a pugnacious, insist-that-the-boss-see-it-your-way approach.
That is not a recipe for success and it is not how I expect McMaster to function as NSA. But it may be how some Trump critics hope he operates, and navigating the gap between expectations and performance will pose a delicate civil-military challenge.
Second, McMaster will need to restore a civil-military balance in the interagency. Trump has made it clear that he feels most comfortable in picking military officers, retired or active duty, to fill civilian posts in national security. Every administration makes liberal use of military officers in such settings, in part because the military is the best resourced part of the government and so is a ready supply of top talent that can be commandeered by the more cash-strapped portions of the bureaucracy. However, Trump has taken this to a new level, and Mike Flynn further doubled down on that by drawing extensively from his own military networks to fill NSC staff roles.
I strongly supported the nomination of retired General James Mattis to be secretary of Defense, even though that broke with civil-military precedent. And I strongly support replacing retired retired 3-star General Flynn with active duty 3-star General McMaster as NSA.
But an administration can have too many general and flag officers serving in the top echelons of policymaking and policy-advising. Too many senior military will link the uniformed force in undesirable ways to the political fortunes of the administration. Likewise, an administration can have too few people offering non-military perspectives, life experiences, reflexes, blind-spots, and so on.
To restore a balance, McMaster will want to reach beyond his immediate military network to ensure that his staff has civilian political appointees representing a broad swathe of expertise and experience. And, crucially, he will want to make sure that the State Department, the Intelligence Community, the Treasury Department, and other departments and agencies are sending their best up-and-comers as detailees to staff the White House.
Last and probably least, McMaster will have to navigate the difficulty of serving in this post while on active duty as a general officer whose rank is actually one full level below the position he occupies. This is not unprecedented. Colin Powell served as NSA in Reagan’s second term while a 3-star, and before him Brent Scowcroft served as Ford’s Deputy NSA while a 3-star. (Scowcroft was retired from the military when he had his more celebrated tour as Bush 41’s NSA.) Those are offered as positive examples, though you could get historians to debate how effective Powell was as NSA. On the other hand, Vice-Admiral John Poindexter clearly belongs on the negative side of the ledger, with his checkered experience as Powell’s predecessor.
While the NSA is not in the chain of command and so technically does not outrank the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (the highest ranking 4-star officer in the military), the NSA does typically chair the Principal’s Committee on which the Chairman sits as a formal advisor. (And the NSA is in protocol terms a 4-star billet and so he will be accorded 4-star treatment if ever he visits a military installation.) In the healthy interagency systems I have observed up close, there is never any doubt that the NSA de facto outranks the Chairman (and other Cabinet principals) as measured with the coin that most matters in the DC realm: access to and trust of the president. In the less healthy interagency systems I have observed up close, there were such doubts, whether because of personalities, individual caliber, or other similar considerations. The confusion of rank for active duty officers is the kind of “other consideration” that can produce needless distractions.
I rank this last because I think McMaster will be sensitive to it — he has managed his punch-above-his-weight-maverick profile for two decades now — and I think General Joseph Dunford and the other Chiefs will be very keen to make it work. And there are understandable reasons why McMaster might wish to remain on active duty. For starters, he may hope to continue his military career after serving in the White House, as did General Powell. He also may need more time in grade before being able to retire with full 3-star retirement benefits.
However, the example that may prove more telling in the long run may not be the other active duty NSA’s but rather Doug Lute, who served as the “Iraq War Czar” for both Presidents Bush and Obama. He initially took the post while on active duty with the understanding that serving in the White House would not derail his bright career prospects. Despite prior understandings with two Presidents, the Secretary of Defense, and the Chairman of the JCS, Lute eventually had to retire without getting his 4-star assignment. Most people believe that the thankless tasks he had to do as czar directly affected this story. If McMaster is indeed destined to stop at 3-stars, he may decide that it is better to retire at that rank before very long, given the highly political nature of the NSA.
Indeed, other considerations may lead him to retire anyway. To serve in this post at the 3-star rank will require a Senate vote and that could even mean congressional hearings. As a general rule, administrations do not want senior White House staff testifying before congressional committees, and this administration in particular may not want all the questions that are likely to be raised about conflicts between what the President has said vs. what Cabinet officials have said, or why political advisors are sitting on the National Security Council. To avoid all of that, McMaster may be obliged to consider retirement sooner than he might wish.
These are civil-military challenges, but they are manageable ones. And with Mattis and now McMaster, these challenges will be managed in the Trump administration by thoughtful leaders who literally wrote the books on civil-military relations. That is a much-welcome cause for optimism, albeit optimism of the prudent and sober variety.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Brent Scowcroft was not retired from the military while serving as President Ford’s NSA. He retired before being promoted from his position as Deputy NSA.
Photo credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
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