President Donald Trump deserves high praise for selecting Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster as national security adviser. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — a frequent critics of President Trump — gushed that he “could not imagine better, more capable national security team than we have now. “ In 2011, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey hailed McMaster as our best brigadier general — a glowing assessment typical of what McMaster’s peers and politicians have expressed about his character capabilities. As Thomas E. Ricks reports in Foreign Policy based on an informal poll he conducted, those who served under McMaster also have expressed great confidence in him.
The consensus is correct. McMaster’s training and temperament make him superbly suited for the job of national security adviser, which places a premium on four qualities McMaster has in abundance. First, he has credibility with the military. Second, he has the gumption to tell superiors — including the president — what they do not want to hear but need to know. Third, he has expertise and foresight to advocate credibly for restoring the margin of military preeminence eight years of the Obama administration has perilously eroded. Fourth, he will act as an honest broker at NSC meetings, ensuring the president hears from all of his national security team so he can make informed decisions.
McMaster has not only looked to the past as a guide but also anticipated what the United States must do to keep us secure from evolving threats in the future.
McMaster has distinguished himself as a warrior, academic, and an innovative thinker. A West Point graduate with a doctorate in history from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, McMaster earned a silver star during the first Gulf War, commanding Eagle Troop of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment fighting Saddam Hussein’s elite Republican Guard. McMaster also received high praise commanding the regiment that secured the city of Tal Afar in 2005 during the second Iraq War. As Peter Baker and Michael R. Gordon report in The New York Times, Gen. David Petraeus lauded that operation in particular in his manual on counterinsurgency that Gen. James Mattis also participated in writing.
McMaster also served in Afghanistan as deputy to the commander for planning at International Security Assistance Forces and directing and as director for ISAF’s anti-corruption task force. From January 2012 to June, 2014, McMaster commanded the Army Center of Military Excellence in Fort Benning, Georgia. Since 2014, he has served as the deputy commanding general of Training and Doctrine Command and director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center.
Gen. McMaster has thought deeply and expressed himself profoundly about the lessons of military history and their implications for the future. He considers it vital for “military officers to read, think, discuss, and write about the problems of war and warfare so they can understand not just the changes in the character of warfare but also the continuities.” He has practiced what he preaches. McMaster has compiled an extraordinary reading list of military historians and strategists from Thucydides to the present. He has devoted considerable time and effort to understand and learn from the errors the U.S. made fighting our recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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McMaster has not only looked to the past as a guide but also anticipated what the United States must do to keep us secure from evolving threats in the future. He has spoken eloquently and bluntly on the imperative of increasing defense spending substantially to reverse the precipitous decline of America’s absolute and relative capabilities. McMaster warns that “we are facing a broad range of challenges that emerging enemy capabilities, that will increasingly involve technological countermeasures. We have to be prepared for those types of attacks, and we have to build redundancy in our forces so we can operate if our capabilities are degraded.”
He underscores, however, that military preeminence is a necessary but not sufficient condition for deterring most wars and winning the ones we have to fight. Paraphrasing Clausewitz, McMaster envisages war above all as an extension of policy and politics.
McMaster’s record as a soldier and military intellectual should also reassure those worried about White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s permanent presence in National Security Council meetings and the concern that the NSC will recoil from speaking truth to power on Trump’s watch. All indicators suggest Gen. McMaster would brook no interference in his role as an honest broker providing the president a full range of options; or he would resign otherwise. In 1998, McMaster vaunted to public attention with the publication of his doctoral dissertation, “Dereliction of Duty.” This widely popular and acclaimed book offered a blistering critique of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara for deceiving President Johnson during the Vietnam war and of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for failing to meet their responsibilities to surmount that interference.
Gen. McMaster is thus the last man to be derelict in discharging his constitutional duties to keep the president in the know — come what may. Gen. Mattis has also spoken highly of Gen. McMaster, which bodes well for their smooth and effective collaboration with other members of the Trump security team to provide for the common defense. Credit President Trump, too, for cutting his losses and learning from his initial mistake of appointing Gen. Michael Flynn — a passionate advocate ill-suited to the role of national security adviser even leaving his aside — which we should not — his ill-advised communications with the Russians prior to President Trump’s inauguration. U.S national security requires an A-team. President Trump has now assembled one.
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Robert G. Kaufman is a professor at the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy and author of “Dangerous Doctrine: How Obama’s Grand Strategy Weakened America.”