Gen. McMaster will have to familiarize himself with all these challenges quickly, with a much broader perspective than the one he perhaps had in the past
President Donald Trump chose Lt.Gen. Herbert Raymond “H.R.”McMaster as his new national security adviser. The appointment saga has become a complex issue, especially after it became clear that the candidate the president wanted, retired Vice Adm. Robert Harward, a former Navy SEAL with a distinguished career in the special operations community, turned Trump down.
Harward turned the offer down supposedly due to personal reasons, but according to CNN a friend of Harward’s said that since his condition of choosing his own team was not met, he considered the job a “shit sandwich.” Although the choice to go with McMaster is a very reasonable one in light of his impressive career, it is worth noting that since he is still on active duty he couldn’t say no to the job.
General Herbert Raymond McMaster has spent most of his career in the US Army Armored Branch. During the Gulf War he led the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment Eagle Troop at the Battle of 73 Easting. Though surprised by the enemy and significantly outnumbered, McMaster’s nine tanks destroyed over 80 Iraqi Republican Guard tanks and other vehicles without loss. McMaster was awarded the Silver Star. Before becoming national security adviser his most recent position was deputy commanding general of the US Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC). Throughout his service he has excelled in developing theoretical knowledge, formulating strategy and understanding political processes. McMaster, who holds a PhD in American history, wrote a book that explored the military’s role in the policies of the Vietnam War, and it’s widely read in Pentagon circles.
The decision to leave Gen. Keith Kellogg in his position as chief of staff of the National Security Council is a sound one. Kellogg fought in the Vietnam War as reconnaissance platoon leader in the 101st Airborne Division (and like McMaster was awarded the Silver Star). Later on he commanded the 82nd Airborne Division and held a leading position in the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq in 2004.
Unlike McMaster he is by now familiar with the civilian world, and other aspects of foreign policy, and will be there to help McMaster learn the ropes.
McMaster is a soldier’s soldier. However the position of national security adviser is much more comprehensive.
Stephen J. Hadley, national security adviser under president George W. Bush, wrote an article that defines the job description of the office. According to him the adviser must staff and support the president in his constitutional role in national security and foreign policy, and advocate and advance presidential initiatives within the executive branch. The adviser must also coordinate “those important or consequential initiatives and policies that require the concerted effort of multiple departments and agencies to achieve a presidential objective,” and inject a sense of strategy into the interagency process.
Finally he must explain the president’s policies to the public.
Hadley summarized the way it should be carried out. According to him the adviser should be an “Honest Broker,” which means he must run a “fair and transparent process for bringing issues to the President for decision,” and to maintain a “level playing field” in which ideas and views can compete with one another on an equal basis. The adviser must bring all the national security principals to table as full participants in the policy process. The adviser must “Make sure the national security organizational structure and the interagency process are meeting the President’s needs and evolve over time.”
Hadley also pointed out a few minefields the adviser should stay away from such as inserting himself between the president and the principal cabinet secretaries and agency heads, or undermining national security colleagues with the president. The adviser must always put the president at the center of the decision making process, for he is the “decider.” Therefore the adviser should keep a low public profile and operate generally off stage, and always accept responsibility for his actions.
Two main challenges await the next national security adviser: the political arena and global affairs. The current political atmosphere in Washington, DC, is poisons. The Flynn debacle showed that those who oppose the Trump administration will stop at nothing to achieve their agenda including leaking highly classified documents. McMaster will have found himself in the eye of this political storm the minute his name was announced. Things in Washington appear to be so bad that during a recent military conference Gen. Raymond Thomas, the commander of the Special Operations Command and a former Army Ranger who has two combat jumps (Grenada and Panama), stated that “our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil. I hope they sort it out soon because we’re a nation at war.”
In the international arena, McMaster inherited a mess. Russia annexing Crimea undermined the world order.
Iran, Russia and China continue to harass US military forces with impunity and immunity. The lack of Western response to the Russian provocation emboldened Russia and encouraged Russian President Vladimir Putin to spread throughout the Middle East.
Putin allied himself with Assad’s regime in Syria and took an active role in fighting the regime’s opposition.
The Syrian and Russian armies carry out the most serious war crimes in a generation, indiscriminately bombing civilians and hospitals.
China continues its march throughout the South China Sea claiming territory it does not own in international waters, while increasing its military spending and developing weapons that undermine the US advantage in the Pacific theater. Iran is on a slow but steady course to obtain nuclear weapons. By signing the nuclear deal Iran improved its financial situation, hence it was able to enhance its efforts at exporting revolution and sign new weapons purchasing agreement with both Russia and China.
Iran has increased its ballistic missile development program and performs (in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions) more ballistic missile tests than ever.
North Korea also continues its nuclear weapons development and tests its intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities.
In addition there’s the war on terrorism. Islamic State (ISIS) has killed thousands and operates in 18 countries around the Middle East and central Asia. In Afghanistan the Taliban is regaining old positions, causing mayhem and threatening the population and the central government.
Gen. McMaster will have to familiarize himself with all these challenges quickly, with a much broader perspective than the one he perhaps had in the past. Then he must form a national security policy that’s appropriate and relevant. Otherwise, someone will write a book about his term in office with a similar title to that he chose for his own book: Dereliction of Duty.
The author is the coordinator of the Military & Strategic Affairs program at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).
(The article was published in "The Jerusalem Post", February 22, 2017)