It is no secret that the Trump administration sees itself in deep discontinuity with not only the preceding Obama administration, but in many ways with all preceding administrations, particularly on matters of international relations. Senior administration officials such as Steve Bannon and Michael Anton have openly called for a serious, even radical, course correction, and one suspects that the President is a fellow traveler on the general theme, if not all the specifics. In this environment, the counsel of the traditional foreign policy establishment—the “blob,” in the words of Ben Rhodes—is, at best, deeply suspect.
In some ways, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, who the President appointment as National Security Adviser following Mike Flynn’s controversial departure, has seen this moment before. Full disclosure, McMaster is my personal friend. In his book, Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Lies That Led to Vietnam, (which grew out of his Ph.D. dissertation), McMaster documents an earlier time in which the “New Frontiersman” of the Kennedy (and later Johnson) administration saw the senior Pentagon leadership as hopelessly anachronistic, and therefore denied them any real influence in the decision-making leading up to Vietnam.
Of course, in the current environment, it is only the Pentagon that retains any influence, with the State Department and intelligence agencies viewed with suspicion. But nonetheless, the fundamental structure of the National Security Council system, in which serious matters are debated in the presence of the President by the principals from all the relevant agencies, is still being challenged.
General McMaster faces three internal challenges in this environment. The first, and most obvious, is to build a relationship with the President, with whom he has no previous ties. McMaster knows, from his reading of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, that a White House advisor must “establish a close personal rapport with the President.” Absent that rapport, one isn’t truly the principal advisor on national security matters, regardless of title.
Second, he must work to build a team with his new peers, both inside and outside of the White House. One suspects McMaster will have little trouble bonding with (current) General Dunford of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and (retired) Generals Mattis and Kelly, now the department secretaries at Defense and Homeland Security. But he will have to find a way to develop a relationship with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin as well as his peers inside the Executive Office of the President—not just the aforementioned Bannon, but also White House Chief of Staff Reince Preibus, Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and advisor Jared Kushner.
Finally, McMaster must work to rebuild what is widely reported to be a demoralized NSC staff. Both the majority of the staff, apolitical employees detailed to the White House from their home agencies, and the small minority of political appointees have been shaken by the series of transitions, both to the new administration and the departure of Mike Flynn after only 24 days as head of the NSC. McMaster is reportedly going door-to-door inside the Eisenhower building that houses the NSC, meeting and greeting his new staff. This is a great first step, but creating a functional team, given recent shocks, will take more than a few handshakes.
As to McMaster himself, he will have to get quickly acquainted with regions and problem sets that have not been his forte. McMaster spent many years at Central Command headquarters in Tampa, as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan themselves, and has deep expertise in the Middle East. And of late, his work at ARCIC—essentially the Army’s internal think tank—has focused on Russia as a landpower threat in the wake of their recent aggressions in Crimea and the Ukraine. On these accounts, he steps into the job quite prepared.
However, McMaster will need to get quickly current on a number of files. He has no particular expertise in Asia, nor on cyber warfare nor economic matters. While he dabbled in development and democratization operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in the manner of military commanders there, he has little experience with these accounts outside of the context of a large-scale military occupation.
But all indicators are that McMaster will have little trouble rising to the occasion. He stands in the first row of the warrior-intellectuals brought to the fore by the challenges of Iraq and Afghanistan. And he is in many ways a modern renaissance man. Put concisely, there aren’t very many people walking around who have won Silver Stars in a tank battle, conducted a model counterinsurgency campaign, and turned their doctoral dissertation into a best-seller.
Many have openly wondered about McMaster’s ability to step beyond his military background. But one should take a deep breath and recall that two of history’s most highly regarded national security advisors—Colin Powell and Brent Scowcroft—also labored under the burden of having achieved three-star rank. This is not to say that McMaster is without flaws or walks on water. One cannot help but suspect that his previous inexperience in the interagency world, combined with the tumultuous state of the NSC staff, will make for a bumpy first few months.
But these months were going to be bumpy regardless, and McMaster’s appointment points to a calming effect in the near future. This appointment is a promising and reassuring one, regardless of whether one is a Trump supporter, or a card-carrying member of the foreign policy establishment “blob.”
Douglas A. Ollivant is a Senior Fellow in the Future of War program at New America. A retired Army officer, he served as an NSC director in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.