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The Promise and Peril of H.R. McMaster

Will Trump's new national security adviser H.R. McMaster counsel caution with respect to Iran or advocate an ill-conceived military intervention? The answer may depend in part on which McMaster is speaking—the one who wrote a devastating critique of the U.S. debacle in Vietnam or the one who fought confidently, and at least in his own view, successfully, in two wars in Iraq.

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President Trump’s choice of H.R. McMaster to replace Michael Flynn as his national security advisor has elicited glowing words and sighs of relief among experienced foreign policy hands and mainstream journalists alike, and rightly so.

The most important thing in McMaster’s favor is precisely that he is not Michael Flynn, his emotionally erratic and conspiracy-obsessed predecessor. Nor is he the neocon extraordinaire John Bolton, who was also under consideration to replace Flynn. Unfortunately, Trump was “impressed” by the uber-hawkish Bolton and has pledged to find him a post in his administration, probably in the White House alongside Bannon and his merry band of unhinged foreign policy extremists. McMaster’s boosters will no doubt argue that the threat of a Bolton presence makes McMaster and his experienced, level head all the more important.

In addition to being far better than the alternatives, McMaster has positive qualities that seem to make him an excellent fit for the job. For starters, unlike the president he has agreed to serve, McMaster actually has real-world experience relevant to the job he has been selected to carry out. But it goes beyond that. McMaster is widely respected in military circles. Some former colleagues consider him to be one of the keenest military minds of his generation, as evidenced by his classic 1997 book Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam.

McMaster’s book is a cautionary tale about what can go wrong when political leaders ignore professional military advice, or when military leaders shy away from telling their superiors how bad things really are. There is a clear and present danger that one or both of these things will happen under the Bannon/Trump regime. So, one might argue, at least McMaster should have no illusions about what he is getting himself into.

McMaster’s book minces no words in describing just how big a disaster the U.S. intervention in Vietnam was:

The war took the lives of 58,000 Americans and well over one million Vietnamese. It left Vietnam in ruins and consumed billions of American dollars, nearly wrecking the American economy. Vietnam divided American society and inflicted on the United States the greatest political trauma since the Civil War. It led Americans to question the integrity of their government as never before.

We are once again living in a time when millions if not tens of millions of Americans are questioning the “integrity of their government.” Enter McMaster, a man many see, along with Defense Secretary James Mattis, as a hard-headed realist who will rein in the worst instincts of Bannon and company. There’s no question that McMaster and Mathis are far superior to the likes of Steve Bannon, whose fantasy worldview will be a recipe for disaster if he continues to be Trump’s advisor of choice. But that’s a very low bar. The better question is whether or not these two heralded military veterans can stand in the way of yet another unnecessary war, this time with Iran as the enemy of choice.

It is precisely on the question of relations with Iran that the appointments of Mattis and McMaster inspire the most concern.

For example when Mattis was asked at a conference to name the top three threats in the U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility he reportedly said Iran, Iran, and Iran. And don’t forget that Mattis left the Obama administration after his proposal to strike targets in Iran in retaliation for the deaths of U.S. troops in Iraq at the hands of Iranian-backed militias. Obama rejected Mattis’s proposal. Trump and Bannon might not, were he to suggest military action again.

As for McMaster, his greatest potential flaw may be that he is a can-do military man at a time when the U.S. military, taken alone, can’t do much to resolve the greatest security challenges we face. His formative military experience was in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, a decisive tactical military victory accomplished in near record time.

What also might lead McMaster to place undue faith in the efficacy of military force is his experience as one of the masterminds behind  the Bush administration’s “surge” in Iraq. But as Andrew Bacevich has pointed out, whatever value the surge may have had as a short-term tactical maneuver, it did nothing to resolve the underlying tensions that are continuing to fuel the conflict there. Claims that all would have been well if only President Obama had overridden the will of the Iraqi parliament—not to mention the Status of Forces agreement signed by George W. Bush—and kept some troops in Iraq beyond the agreed-upon deadline are wholly implausible if not outright delusional.

So, assuming that Donald Trump listens to them at all, will Mattis and McMaster counsel caution with respect to Iran or advocate an ill-conceived military intervention? The answer may depend in part on which McMaster is speaking—the one who wrote a devastating critique of the U.S. debacle in Vietnam or the one who fought confidently, and at least in his own view, successfully, in two wars in Iraq.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and a senior adviser to the Security Assistance Monitor.

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