Best Defense

Last man standing: McMaster for NSA?

I think Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster will be the next national security advisor. Like Vice Adm. Bob Harward, General David Petraeus reportedly has withdrawn over the issue of being able to bring in his own staff.



Best Defense is on summer hiatus. During this restful spell we offer re-runs from the past 12 months. This item originally ran on February 20.

I think Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster will be the next national security advisor. Like Vice Adm. Bob Harward, General David Petraeus reportedly has withdrawn over the issue of being able to bring in his own staff. And Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, the acting NSA, is probably too old for a job this demanding, especially in this administration.

That leaves just two. I don’t know about Bolton. I’d be surprised, though, if he fit the Trump template.

Picking McMaster is not a bad thing. I’ve known him since he was major. He’s smart, energetic, and tough. He even looks like an armored branch version of Harward. (That’s him, working out with a punching bag in Iraq, in the foto. I took it in the citadel in downtown Tell Afar one sunny winter day about 10 years ago.) (Btw, Harward was scheduled to appear on ABC’s “This Week” yesterday morning, but backed out an hour before airtime. )

As I said at the end of my Friday post, once Trump was turned down by Harward, it became more likely that he would turn to the active duty military for his 3rd pick for the job. McMaster is among the best of them out there. For his Ph.D. dissertation, he wrote one of the best books on the Vietnam War, Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam.

He has good combat experience, he was a good trainer, and he led the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment well in his deployment to Iraq, most notably in pacifying Tell Afar, to the west of Mosul.

I wrote about his operations there in my book The Gamble. I am traveling so I don’t have it with me, but I remember him telling his soldiers that understanding counterinsurgency really wasn’t hard: “Every time you disrespect an Iraqi, you’re working for the enemy.” They even had “Customer Satisfaction Forms” that detainees were asked to fill out upon release: Were you treated well? How was the food? What could we do better?

There are two big differences between him and Harward: First, he is on active duty. (Though the Army inexplicably couldn’t find a four star job for him, and had told him to plan to retire later this year.) Second, his wife won’t kill him if he takes the job, as Harward’s wife might have.

That said, the basic problems remain. To do the job right, McMaster needs to bring in his own people. And it remains unclear if he can get that.

As for relations with the Pentagon: McMaster knows Mattis, but not well. (They both spoke at a conference at the University of North Carolina in April 2010.) But they are similar people and will respect each other.

I don’t know how McMaster will work Trump. McMaster once wrote that the American war plans for Afghanistan and Iraq were “at times . . . essentially narcissistic.” (Good line, but I think it is more illuminating to say that they were minimalist plans for maximalist goals, which is of course a bad combination.) At any rate, McMaster may learn a lot more about narcissism in the coming months.

Over the weekend, I did an informal poll of people who have worked for McMaster, asking if they would be willing to follow him to the National Security Council staff. To a surprising degree, they replied, Yes, they would. That’s an indication of loyalty to and confidence in him.

For extra credit, here is a reading list from McMaster.

Meantime, over the weekend, an NSC staffer who had been hired by General Flynn was canned for criticizing the Trumps at a think tank meeting. I actually don’t have a problem with this. Either you work for someone or you don’t. If you can’t be loyal, at least be discreet. I think we may be seeing more such departures throughout the Trump administration, people who are effectively “resigning” in public.

Photo credit: Thomas E. Ricks 

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola