McMaster to Trump: Maybe don't use the phrase "radical Islamic terrorism" tonight

All we have is Politico’s word that this happened, but both that paper and the NYT are reporting that McMaster urged the National Security Council to drop the term “radical Islamic terrorism” from its vocabulary. If he felt strongly enough about it to mention it to them, it stands to reason he’d recommend it to Trump too. And it’s in keeping with his M.O. in Tal Afar in Iraq, where he succeeded at counterinsurgency by preaching respect for local culture among his troops to convince Iraqis to cooperate with the U.S. He’s of the Bush/Obama view, it seems, in encouraging Muslims to see the war on terror ultimately as their fight against their own fundamentalists rather than a fight between Muslims and the west. Bracketing jihadis under the term “Islamic” supposedly makes that harder — although why the term “radical” doesn’t suffice to distinguish them from other Muslims has never been clear to me.

Needless to say, all of that is way off the Trump/Bannon “politically incorrect” path. Even so, I think McMaster will probably last longer in the job than Flynn did. Probably.

President Donald Trump’s new national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, advised him in a closed-door meeting last week to stop using a phrase that was a frequent refrain during the campaign: “radical Islamic terrorism.”…

In his first remarks to the National Security Council last week, McMaster told his new staff he considered the term “radical Islamic terrorism” unhelpful, according to a second White House aide. “Even a small change like referring to radical Islamist terrorism would be an improvement, in his view,” said this aide…

Obama preferred the phrase “violent extremism,” which makes no reference to any specific religion.

McMaster expressed “great disdain” for that approach, according to a senior National Security Council official. “He understands that pretending that it’s not something within Islam that’s causing this—you can’t pretend that, but you can enlist the people within Islam who agree with you,” said the official.

Allegedly McMaster reviewed drafts of tonight’s speech and asked Trump and speechwriter Stephen Miller to drop the phrase, but without success. We’ll see if Trump throws him a bone by tweaking it so that it now reads “radical Islamist terrorism” instead. Remember, Trump has showed some surprising humility in the past by toning down the less P.C. aspects of his views of counterterrorism when an officer whom he respects has advised him to the contrary. He was all for waterboarding until Jim Mattis frowned upon it, at which point Trump said he’d defer to his SecDef. But then, it’s easier to punt on a policy that hasn’t been used in years and is currently banned by law than it is to punt on a charged bit of semantics in a highly anticipated speech. If Trump’s backing off “radical Islamic terrorism” a month in because a guy who wasn’t even part of his campaign is urging him to, his supporters will take it as a sign of other concessions to “political correctness” to come. Maybe he’ll try to appease both sides by keeping the phrase in the speech but adding language about America’s “Muslim partners” in the Middle East, starting with the interpreters who helped U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. That would be … awkward given the chaos after the travel ban this month, but Trump could use the occasion to announce that the new executive order that’s coming this week will explicitly allow waivers for interpreters.

An interesting question, as in all Trump leak stories: Who leaked this and why? Politico attributes it to a “senior White House aide” and cites a second White House aide for what McMaster allegedly told the NSC last week. If the leaks are coming from Team Trump’s side, where the view presumably is that “radical Islamic terrorism” is not just appropriate but important for reasons of clarity, it may be that someone’s already out to undermine McMaster by trumpeting the fact that he’s at odds with the boss on a core conceptual matter about terrorism. “What the president decides to say from the House floor will be an early indication of McMaster’s clout within the administration,” Politico notes, a frame that seems designed to create public embarrassment for McMaster if Trump sticks with “radical Islamic terrorism” tonight. But I don’t know: It could be that the aides are sympathetic to McMaster’s point and simply trying to make known that his fingerprints aren’t on this speech, or at least not on this part of it. If Trump runs into diplomatic problems in the Middle East because of his insistence on using the word “Islamic,” here’s Team McMaster warning everyone up front that that it wasn’t his doing. He tried to get the boss to change his mind and was ignored.

And hey, maybe Trump will take his advice. A man who gives himself a “C+” on messaging thus far obviously has room for improvement. One other interesting possibility noted by the Times: Although McMaster doesn’t need to be confirmed by the Senate to become national security advisor, he does need to be re-confirmed as a three-star general. (An active-duty offer with three or four stars needs his rank reaffirmed by the Senate whenever he moves into a new role.) There’s no doubt McMaster will retain his rank; the question is whether there’ll be any confirmation hearings at which this thorny subject — whether jihadism is “un-Islamic” or not — might be raised. Normally, with the GOP in charge of the Senate, you’d assume the answer would be no. Trump’s own party would naturally want to spare him and McMaster from a needless ordeal on the Hill. The relevant committee here, though, is the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the chairman of that committee is — ta da — Trump nemesis John McCain. Would McCain call McMaster to the Hill to quiz him about the Bush/Obama view of the war on terror versus the Trump view? Probably not, but the chance isn’t zero.

Exit quotation from Frank Gaffney, reacting in Politico to McMaster’s discomfort with the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism”: “It just seems kind of incredible that a guy would come into this job knowing the importance that the president has assigned to this, and start out his tenure by fundamentally departing from that direction.” Did McMaster have a choice, though? He’s active-duty. If the commander-in-chief tells him “I want you to be national security advisor,” how much leeway does he have to refuse the assignment? And once he’s taken the job, feeling as strongly as he does about candor from the military in keeping America’s political leadership properly informed, how could he refrain from telling Trump his true views?