By appointing Lt. General H.R McMaster as his new national security advisor, President Donald Trump picked a widely respected military intellectual, and a storied military commander known for his bold initiatives on the battlefield, independent thinking, and a willingness to challenge conventions. General McMaster will be joining a national security team that includes another intellectual warrior, secretary of defense retired General James Mattis, and secretary of homeland security retired General John Kelly.
The three generals, unlike the volatile and erratic president who chose them, are deliberate, disciplined and known for their wise judgment. The three generals served and fought in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, with Kelly having the painful distinction of being the highest ranking American officer to lose a son in Afghanistan. Even the critics of appointing retired generals in senior positions, are hoping that the three generals will be a rational and moderating counterweight to a White House brimming with neophytes, amateurs, and radicals bent on “deconstructing” the administrative state through massive de-regulations.
McMaster will soon realize that in the divisive and toxic Trump era, Washington will become for him a battlefield the likes of which he has not seen before, and that some of his ‘colleagues’ on the National Security Council may have already began sharpening their long knives for himHisham Melhem
Of the three generals, H.R. McMaster will be tested early and frequently where he will find himself engaging a group of insurgents led by Mr Trump’s senior advisor and potential Svengali, Stephen Bannon. General McMaster will need all his leadership skills, his tactical prowess, and strong allies like Generals Mattis and Kelly if he is to master the chaotic National Security Council that he inherited, before even attempting to help the president pursue a coherent and rational foreign policy, assuming that goal is possible given President Trump’s political inexperience, ignorance of complex strategic challenges, his intemperance and outsized ego. Those who know General McMaster or served with him would say, if there is a leader capable of achieving this daunting task it would be McMaster.
As a soldier, Captain McMaster distinguished himself on the battlefield as a tank commander in the first Gulf war in 1991, when his small force of nine Abrams tanks ambushed a much larger Iraqi force, destroying eighty Iraqi Republican Guard tanks and other armored vehicles without a single loss, earning him the Silver Star for valor. He sharpened his counterinsurgency leadership in Iraq in 2005 when he led the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment to liberate Tal Afar from the terrorists of al Qaeda. That battle, and the way McMaster handled the administration of the city became part of the manual on counterinsurgency doctrine that McMaster, and Marine General James Mattis, and General David Petraeus developed and used later during the military surge in 2007 that stabilized much of Iraq.
General McMaster gained prominence in 1997 when he published his Ph.D. dissertation from the University of North Carolina titled ‘Dereliction of Duty’, a harsh critique of the dangerous passivity of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the early phase of the Vietnam war, when they failed to challenge the political agenda of then president Lyndon B. Johnson and his secretary of defense Robert McNamara, sowing the seeds for the eventual debacle. He derisively referred to those chiefs of the armed forces as the “five silent men”. The meticulously researched book won accolades from officers, military scholars and historians. Many generals assign the book to their officers. The book cemented McMaster’s reputation as an independent soldier who does not shy away from speaking his mind. General McMaster has criticized the way President George W. Bush blundered his way to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The long knives
But for all his sharp intellect and military experience as a leader who led men in battles, General McMaster’s first challenge is to master the bureaucratic maneuvering and inter-agency infighting that Washington is infamous for. His personal qualities as a tough, outspoken and honest interlocutor unwilling to remain silent, that gained him respect and admiration in the military, may work against him in a chaotic administration that has more than its share of young, and brash ideologues and a president he shares very little if anything with. McMaster will soon realize that in the divisive and toxic Trump era, Washington will become for him a battlefield the likes of which he has not seen before, and that some of his ‘colleagues’ on the National Security Council may have already began sharpening their long knives for him.
The White House said President Trump has given General McMaster ‘full authority’ to hire his own team, but it is not clear whether this authority includes restructuring the National Security Council and restore full membership of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the director of national intelligence to the Principals Committee of the council or to remove Trump’s ambitious political strategist Stephen Bannon whose appointment to the Principals Committee was unprecedented and unwarranted. Stephen Bannon, has already established what might be called a “shadow” National Security Council the so-called Strategic Initiatives Group, a policymaking body that he co-chairs with Jared Kushner - President Trump’s son-in-law.
Bannon, his counterterrorism advisor Sebastian Gorka, and speechwriter Stephen Miller are known for their anti-Muslim views. Bannon believes that Islam and the West are destined to have an all-out war. President Trump shares this animus towards Islam. In this environment General McMaster will need trusted allies like Generals Mattis and Kelly, and potentially Vice President Mike Pence. Last week Pence and Mattis were dispatched to Europe and the Gulf region to assure long standing allies in Europe that the US is still committed to a viable NATO alliance, and the preservation of the European Union. But unbeknownst to Pence, Stephen Bannon had delivered earlier a different message to Peter Wittig the German ambassador in Washington. According to Reuters ambassador Wittig met Mr. Bannon, who told him the White House considers the European Union a “flawed construct”, and that Washington would like to negotiate bilateral trade deals with Germany and other European countries, instead of entering into collective agreements. General McMaster will not survive long unless he nips this problem in the bud.
Already the pro-Trump Islamophobes, are protesting McMaster’s appointment. McMaster’s nuanced understanding of Arab and Islamic cultures, his famous injunction to his troops “every time you disrespect an Iraqi, you are working for the enemy” will not sit well with Bannon and his team. The New York Times has reported that during McMaster’s first meeting with the staff of the National Security Council, he told them to avoid using labels such as “radical Islamic terrorism” contending that such labels are unhelpful, since Muslims waging terror are distorting their religion. Needless to say, that this view of violence in the name of Islam is anathema to President Trump and his inner circle. Given the competing constellation of forces in the White House and the National Security Council and other departments such as defense, it is safe to say that General McMaster and his allies are on a collision course with Stephen Bannon and his allies. The fate of the Trump presidency may hinge on the outcome. The problem is that the president is not above the fray, and his impulsiveness and xenophobia could drag the country into deeper polarizations.
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem