Spicer: McMaster can structure the NSC how he sees fit -- possibly up to and including removing Bannon

A bold statement designed to counter reports that staffing, particularly the continued tenure of KT McFarland as deputy national security advisor, was the main sticking point for Robert Harward in turning down the job. New NSA H.R. McMaster will have total control over who stays and who goes, Sean Spicer insists. Does that include … Steve Bannon, recent recipient of a seat on the National Security Council’s Principals Committee? NSAs in previous administrations made the Council a no-go zone for political operatives for fear that its judgments on national security would be influenced by political calculations. That didn’t stop Bannon from landing on the Principals Committee, though, whether Mike Flynn liked it or not. What happens if McMaster doesn’t like it? Spicer wouldn’t commit to McMaster’s absolute authority in that case but he wouldn’t rule it out either.

“The president has made clear to him he’s got full authority to structure the national security team the way he wants,” Mr. Spicer said of Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, whom Mr. Trump appointed Monday as his new national security adviser. Mr. Spicer made the remarks in the daily White House press briefing.

When asked if Gen. McMaster’s control over his team would extend to control of the principals committee and the potential removal of the chief strategist [Bannon], Mr. Spicer said that Gen. McMaster “would come to the president and make that recommendation, but the president would take that under high—you know, serious consideration.”

Hard to believe that wouldn’t have been worked out before McMaster took the job. If he has a strong objection to Bannon remaining on the Council — and there’s every reason to suspect he would, given that his seminal work is about political influence distorting candid military judgments — then the subject must have come up before he accepted Trump’s offer. If not, we may soon be looking at a standoff between Trump’s most powerful advisor and his new, very highly respected NSA, with Bannon forced to lose face by withdrawing from the Council or McMaster forced to lose face by accepting him. Maybe, if Bannon withdraws, they’ll spin the original decision to put him on the Principals Committee as one that was driven by worries about Flynn and his management style. Now that McMaster’s in charge, Bannon could say, the White House knows it’s in good hands and his presence is no longer needed. Stay tuned.

On the subject of McMaster, Eli Lake makes a shrewd point about how he might differ not only with Flynn but with other members of the administration, up to and including Trump himself, in his views of Islam. Remember, the special insight that made McMaster so successful in pacifying Tal Afar in Iraq was that his soldiers needed to get comfortable with the local culture to earn trust. Only when Iraqis saw them as a benign force that respected Islamic customs did they get the cooperation they needed to start rooting out jihadis. If you’re looking for an NSA willing to criticize Islam in withering terms, McMaster’s strategic imperatives mean he’s not your guy:

Let’s start with Flynn. Like the president he served, the retired general believes America should wage a political war against radical Islam. In his more heated moments, Flynn spoke about Islam itself as a political ideology, and one that is at war with Western values. Radical Islam’s threat to the West was a key theme in his 2016 book “Field of Fight,” which he co-wrote with historian Michael Ledeen…

“H.R., like all of us, has shaken hands with Muslims who fought against Americans and killed Americans and switched sides to fight with us against al Qaeda,” John Nagl, a retired lieutenant colonel best known for his books on counterinsurgency, told me. “He understands that the world is not one dimensional, that the Muslim world is not one dimensional. Even people who are our enemies today may decide to fight on our side tomorrow.”…

McMaster’s relationships in Iraq could be an asset if Trump seeks to reassure the Middle East that America is not in a war against Islam. So far, the messages from Trump have been mixed. He backed away from a formal ban on Muslim migration into the U.S. But the rollout of the travel ban targeting seven majority-Muslim nations was so haphazard that many of his critics at home and abroad have described it as a de facto Muslim ban. If Trump seeks to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, then this impression will be further confirmed.

Mattis has already locked down the role of “calmer-in-chief” in cleaning up some of Trump’s rhetorical messes but McMaster may end up as number two, specifically when a White House pronouncement on Islam needs finessing. We’ll see how long he lasts. Needless to say, if what Spicer says about him having full authority over the National Security Council is true, it’s an encouraging sign of Trump delegating to smart, experienced natsec professionals.