Let me be as clear as I can be: The president’s selection of H.R. McMaster to be his new national security adviser is unambiguously good news. The United States, and the world, are safer for his decision.
McMaster is one of the most talented officers the U.S. Army has ever produced. That sounds like hyperbole but isn’t. In the Gulf War, he led an armored cavalry troop. At the Battle of 73 Easting—a battle much studied since—his 12 tanks destroyed 28 Iraqi tanks, 16 armored personnel carriers, and 30 trucks. In 23 minutes.
In the next Iraq war, he led a brigade in 2005 and was among the first U.S. commanders to think differently about the conflict and employ counterinsurgency tactics to pacify Tal Afar—one of the most wickedly complex cities in Iraq. He excelled at two different echelons of command in two very different wars.
In between, he earned his Ph.D. in history and wrote a best-selling book, Dereliction of Duty. With great foresight, I neglected to read it until three months ago, so the book remains fresh in my memory today. One thing that stands out in the book is the way in which McMaster criticized the poorly disciplined national security decision-making process in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and especially the way in which the Kennedy administration made national-security decisions by a small group of confidants without a robust process to serve the president.
Like Ben Bernanke, a student of the Great Depression brought in to lead the Federal Reserve immediately prior to the Great Recession, McMaster comes to his job having carefully studied and criticized the national-security decision-making process for which he will now be responsible.
I have known McMaster for over a decade and cannot imagine a more decent man in his position today. This job is going to drive him crazy, because he does not suffer fools gladly. Unless he has been given some assurances about both staffing and process, he will struggle in a competition to influence the president—to be the last man in the room when the president makes a key decision.
But as Nick Schmidle observed in his very smart profile of Mike Flynn in The New Yorker this week, Flynn went into his job wanting to reduce the influence of the national-security staff but soon discovered that the staff and its processes gave him enormous leverage within the U.S. government. McMaster already understands that, and he will use it to his advantage.
The biggest challenge for any adviser to this president, however, is not other advisers but the president himself. Swedes weren’t the only ones scratching their heads this weekend about the way in which this president receives information and makes decisions. The vice president, the secretary of state, and the secretary of defense were all in Europe and the Middle East trying to reassure allies over the long weekend—but were met with justifiable unease about the president’s temperament and prior statements.
I fear this president and his known weaknesses will be too much for even as great a public servant as McMaster. But—and again, this is not hyperbole—I will tuck my sons into bed tonight feeling a little better about the country in which I am raising them.
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