Wow: Trump names Gen. H.R. McMaster new national security advisor

Hats off to him on a strong and surprising pick. Every time you worry that he’s going to throw another Flynn at you, he turns around and gives you a Mattis or Gorsuch. McMaster’s in that class.


President Trump picked Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, a widely respected military strategist, as his new national security adviser on Monday, calling him “a man of tremendous talent and tremendous experience.”…

General McMaster is seen as one of the Army’s leading intellectuals, first making a name for himself with a searing critique of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for their performance during the Vietnam War and later criticizing the way President George W. Bush’s administration went to war in Iraq.

As a commander, he was credited with demonstrating how a different counterterrorism strategy could defeat insurgents in Iraq, providing the basis for the change in approach that Gen. David H. Petraeus adopted to shift momentum in a war that the United States was on the verge of losing.

McMaster’s known to the public primarily for two things. One, as noted by the Times, was the success of his counterinsurgency strategy in Tal Afar in Iraq at a moment when most of the rest of the military was flailing. McMaster’s insight at the time was that shows of might wouldn’t pacify the Iraqi population; respecting the local culture and establishing permanent bases in cities to reassure residents that Americans would be there around the clock to protect them were key. The New Yorker wrote about it in 2006:

McMaster and the 3rd A.C.R. had been stationed in Tal Afar for nine months. When they arrived, in the spring of 2005, the city was largely in the hands of hard-core Iraqi and foreign jihadis, who, together with members of the local Sunni population, had destabilized the city with a campaign of intimidation, including beheadings aimed largely at Tal Afar’s Shiite minority. By October, after months of often fierce fighting and painstaking negotiations with local leaders, McMaster’s regiment, working alongside Iraqi Army battalions, had established bases around the city and greatly reduced the violence…

In Colorado, McMaster and his officers, most of them veterans of the war’s first year, improvised a new way to train for Iraq. Instead of preparing for tank battles, the regiment bought dozens of Arab dishdashas, which the Americans call “man dresses,” and acted out a variety of realistic scenarios, with soldiers and Arab-Americans playing the role of Iraqis. “We need training that puts soldiers in situations where they need to make extremely tough choices,” Captain Sellars, the troop commander, said. “What are they going to see at the traffic control point? They’re possibly going to have a walk-up suicide bomber—O.K., let’s train that. They’re going to have an irate drunk guy that is of no real threat—let’s train that. They’re going to have a pregnant lady that needs to get through the checkpoint faster—O.K., let’s train that.” Pictures of Shiite saints and politicians were hung on the walls of a house, and soldiers were asked to draw conclusions about the occupants. Soldiers searching the house were given the information they wanted only after they had sat down with the occupants three or four times, accepted tea, and asked the right questions. Soldiers filmed the scenarios and, afterward, analyzed body language and conversational tone. McMaster ordered his soldiers never to swear in front of Iraqis or call them “hajjis” in a derogatory way (this war’s version of “gook”)…

Sellars told me, “I don’t know how many times I’ve thought, and then heard others say, ‘Wish I’d known that the first time.’ “ The rehearsals in Colorado, he said, amounted to a recognition that “this war is for the people of Iraq.”


McMaster’s success eventually caught the eye of the new commander in Iraq, David Petraeus. He became one of Petraeus’s most renowned and influential aides, helping him literally write the book on counterinsurgency, the new Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual. When Petraeus took over in Afghanistan a few years later, he brought McMaster with him. The lesson of his success in Tal Afar was that McMaster wasn’t afraid to try a strategy disdained by much of the rest of the military at the time.

Which brings us to the second thing he’s known for, and what makes his appointment by Trump even more of a surprise. Petraeus favored scholars among his top advisors and McMaster was no exception, having earned a Ph.D in history with a dissertation about the management of the Vietnam War. That dissertation became the book “Dereliction of Duty,” noteworthy for the extent to which McMaster, a military officer, laid the blame for failure in Vietnam at the feet of the military leadership at the time, not the Washington bureaucrats who supposedly wouldn’t let the armed forces fight the war they needed to in order to win. From the Times’s 1997 review:

What gives ”Dereliction of Duty” its special value, however, is McMaster’s comprehensive, balanced and relentless exploration of the specific role of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He has doggedly waded through the records of every meeting of the Joint Chiefs concerned with Vietnam, followed every memo and report to its final, usually inconclusive, end and read through dozens of memoirs and histories. As a result, he is able to explode some longstanding myths about the role of the Chiefs.

According to the most popular of these, the Joint Chiefs always knew what was needed to win in Vietnam but were consistently ignored or circumvented by Johnson, Robert S. McNamara and their associates. McMaster shows that the President and his civilian advisers did indeed ignore the Joint Chiefs whenever it suited them, but he also demonstrates that the Chiefs were willing, or at least silent, accomplices in this process. Indeed, the principal villain of the book is Gen. Maxwell Taylor, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1962 to 1964. According to the author, Taylor consistently misled John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson about the views of the Chiefs and misled the Chiefs about each President’s true intentions. Taylor’s successor, Gen. Earle Wheeler, is treated somewhat less harshly but receives low marks for his habit of avoiding confrontation and because he ”lacked the drive and energy to discharge his responsibilities to the fullest.”

As for the Chiefs, far from having a unified strategic vision, they could not even concur among themselves on details.


Put that together with McMaster’s Tal Afar strategy and what you have is an officer who’s the opposite of a “yes man.” He’s a “no man,” someone who seems to enjoy questioning the bureaucracy’s conventional wisdom and who’s done well for himself and his country in doing so. This is … not the sort of character you’d expect Trump to install in a position of major influence, especially with reports floating around about Team Trump insisting on micromanaging the NSA’s staffing decisions and Steve Bannon setting up a “shadow National Security Council” in the West Wing. McMaster’s the sort of officer you install if you want an advisor who’ll challenge the people around him. I thought Trump was interviewing him for the position largely as PR, because his staff recognized that having McMaster’s name on the short list would make Trump look smart and serious, and that the position would go to John Bolton or Keith Kellogg. Instead, here we are. Full credit to the president on a good choice and a major upgrade over Flynn.

Here he is with McMaster and Kellogg, making the announcement. As for Bolton, Trump claimed that he’s “going to be working with us in a somewhat different capacity.” Maybe … in this role? Weeding out leakers from the Obama administration is a job I can imagine Bolton enjoying thoroughly.


Update: Even more encouraging if true:

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John Sexton 3:20 PM on September 26, 2023