Elephants in the Room
Time for McMaster to Choose
The national security advisor wrote the book on dereliction of duty. Is he on the verge of being complicit?
How much longer will National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster take this? Like many other Trump senior administration officials, McMaster’s sky-high credibility was brought to earth on May 16 with one tweet. But unlike other senior White House officials, McMaster has spent an extraordinary amount of time thinking about the proper relationship, obligations, and loyalties of those who must serve both their country and the president of the United States.
McMaster’s 1997 book, Dereliction of Duty, could almost be a cautionary tale from his younger self — a celebrated, battle-tested Army Captain — to his most successful self, a 3-star general now perched at the top of the U.S. national security establishment. Based on thousands of declassified documents from 1963 to 1965, just prior to President Lyndon Johnson’s commitment of large ground units to Vietnam, McMaster eviscerated the then Joint Chiefs of Staff as “accomplices in [President Johnson’s] deception.” The Joint Chiefs had remained silent before Congress and the public, as the president and his civilian advisors pursued a strategy the top military brass knew would not work. “Gradualism” — that is, sending just enough U.S. troops to prop up South Vietnam — was designed not to win, but rather not to endanger the president’s domestic legislation. “The president was lying, and he expected the Chiefs to lie as well,” wrote McMaster 20 years ago. “Although the President should not have placed the Chiefs in that position, the flag officers should not have tolerated it when he had.”
Peter Feaver has argued on these pages that McMaster’s thesis has been corrupted into “McMasterism,” an argument in which “the military should stand up more to civilians.” But that’s not the problem here. McMaster is standing up to civilians, on personnel and policy issues. He has won some and lost some, and appears to have no shortage of enemies in the Trump inner circle. But his book makes clear that it’s a big problem if officials charged with the security of the country are forced repeatedly to stand by — in silence — while the president is deceiving Congress and the American people. In particular, McMaster has spent this whole career openly speaking his mind when he believes the stakes are high. Filling in for Sean Spicer is not what he signed up for and not what he’s good at.
Although McMaster’s book is light on his personal views, there are hints of where his mind may be currently wandering. “Appointed by the president to a position that he never expected to achieve, [Army Chief of Staff Gen. Harold Johnson] was willing to stay on and ‘try to fight and get the best posture that we can.’ He was to preside over the disintegration of the Army … [his] inaction haunted him for the rest of his life.” A later chapter begins with a quote from Adm. David McDonald, chief of naval operations from 1963 to 1967. “Maybe we military men were all weak. Maybe we should have stood up and pounded the table.… I was part of it and I’m sort of ashamed of myself too. At times I wonder, ‘why did I go along with this kind of stuff?”
McMaster, never one to quit, may choose to soldier on silently and go along with all of President Trump’s “stuff.” But at least some version of McMaster is painfully aware of the trade-offs, both for himself and the country.
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