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Some Quick Thoughts on General HR McMaster

When I was young, I celebrated the entire catalogue of Tom Clancy. This included his non-fiction books celebrating various types of units across the US military. I started with the Marines, continued to Armored Cav, and then blasted through Airborne, Special Forces and Aircraft Carrier. Since the US Army sections were the best, I joined the Army ROTC program in college. I wish I were joking.

In the Armored Cav book, Clancy interviewed a young Captain in the Armor branch who had squared off against Saddam Hussein’s tank forces and won accolades for the accomplishment. This Captain? H.R. McMaster, currently a Lieutenant General and now Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser.

I’ve thought highly of McMaster since I read about him in middle school, so I have some quick thoughts on his recent appointment.

Thought 1: He’s really good at personal PR.

Not only did I know of McMaster from that interview in a Tom Clancy book, but his book, Dereliction of Duty, made the Chief of Staff reading list when I was in college, so I tried but failed to finish reading it while in ROTC. (I have four or five other books sitting on a bookshelf in this same category.) McMaster then went on to do a military-world famous 60 Minutes interview about his experience in Tal Afar waging counter-insurgency well.

So the guy’s good at public relations and getting media. Why does this matter? Because I hope he can stand up to the Trump machine’s PR onslaught. Not a ton of hope, but some hope.

Thought 2: McMaster did COIN right.

Essentially, McMaster was the opposite of the “Rakkasan approach” to COIN, which is to kill them all and let God sort it out. (We wrote about this in a very disturbing, very early On Violence post.) This is the sort of thinking that believes if we just kill enough bad guys, well, then we win the counterinsurgency.

This never works and McMaster’s approach--which later went on to inform Petraeus’ COIN handbook--emphasized respecting the locals, building government capabilities, and influencing the population. I can’t wait to see how McMaster’s approach to COIN meshes with Trump’s approach to terrorism, which seems like the exact opposite.

Thought 3: And we agree on a bunch of other things.

McMaster thinks that war is fundamentally political. So do we.

McMaster believes that we need to fight our wars ethically. So do we.   

McMaster believes that we need to focus on the human element of war more than the technological. So do we.

McMaster has warned of the dangers of the military-industrial complex. So have we.

Thought 4: Too Much of “Defense” in the Three Ds.

Why did Trump have to pick another general for his administration, specifically for a national security post?

This is his third candidate for National Security Adviser if you count Admiral Harward, who declined the position and they’ve all been former/current military flag officers. He put a general in charge of Homeland Security and another general in charge of the Pentagon. It’s a miracle he didn’t pick a general as Secretary of State, instead choosing a hundred-millionaire business man, which is his other favorite type of person after billionaires.

Early in the Obama administration, it was trendy to talk about the three Ds of global affairs, Defense, Diplomacy and Development. Ideally, they work in concert and in balance. With Trump, he has no plans to use two of the Ds, it seems.

Thought 5: McMaster may really help stand up to bad decisions.

That was the point of McMaster’s book after all. Wars can be won or lost by the decisions in Washington D.C. first and foremost.

So will McMaster bring that same critical decision-making ability to the war on terror as he chastised the Joint Chiefs, McNamara and Johnson for Vietnam? I think so and we’ve already seen the signs. Take his approach to terrorism, which marries his willingness to disagree with his approach to COIN:

“President Trump’s newly appointed national security adviser has told his staff that Muslims who commit terrorist acts are perverting their religion, rejecting a key ideological view of other senior Trump advisers and signaling a potentially more moderate approach to the Islamic world.

"The adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, told the staff of the National Security Council on Thursday, in his first “all hands” staff meeting, that the label “radical Islamic terrorism” was not helpful because terrorists are “un-Islamic,” according to people who were in the meeting."

Thought 6: But still Bannon.

Yet one thought worries me. With Steve Bannon in the White House, the right wing’s war with Islam will continue, regardless of who holds the National Security Advisor position. Who will have Trump’s ear, McMasters or Bannon? Bannon runs the so-called “Strategic Initiatives Group” with Jared Kushner, and they have focused on stopping Islamic terror. As long as Donald Trump uses this group (and Fox News) instead of daily intelligence briefings to get information, McMaster's influence may be limited.