Beware the White Knight McMaster

February 23, 2017–Do you hear the swooning? The country is almost heaving sighs of relief over President Trump’s appointment of Army Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster to preside over the National Security Council (NSC) staff in place of the departed Michael T. Flynn. The oohs! and aaahs! are audible. Suddenly the perception is that Mr. Trump is enlisting an adult to run his inside-the-White House national security staff, so rationality will prevail. The gossip is also that the NSC structure Trump laid down in one of this early presidential directives will be revised (again) to bring back the director of national intelligence, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and CIA chieftain. Before we go too far, though, I want to register a “Not so fast!”

Part of the continuing problem is structural. What President Trump did, long before appointing McMasters as national security adviser, is create competing centers of power at the White House. None of them is the NSC staff. The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, obviously has The Donald’s ear any time he needs it. Strategist Stephen Bannon reflects the political base of Trump’s power, and he has an agenda. He will not be crossed, or dismissed, unless the president decides on radical surgery and holds on to the tiller come what may. Reince Priebus mirrors the Republican party hierarchy that Mr. Trump needs to govern. He has an agenda too. For all of them the national security adviser is a target, someone to enlist to further their goals. Some objectives of the assorted White House power centers may overlap but others do not–and no amount of overlapping is going to do away with the equally thorny competition among the potentates for who gets the credit for each thing they do.

From this point of view Mike Flynn actually had an advantage. As an ideologue on his own account, one whose opinions were close to Trump’s, Flynn almost had the jets to stand up to the policy predators. General McMaster lacks such preordained positions. He might have strong prescriptions for strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq, but across the Trump administration policy spectrum McMaster has an empty file cabinet waiting to be filled. Expect to see more, rather than less, engagement from the predators.

Much of the relief bandied about with General McMaster’s appointment centers on the historical conclusions he drew in a Vietnam history published in 1997, Dereliction of Duty. Many see McMaster as finding the military leaders at the time of Vietnam as wanting–failing in their duty to tell truth to power and kowtowing to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s (LBJ) agenda by keeping their silence and not telling him his strategy was flawed. That construction is mistaken. General McMaster actually delivered a much more conventional interpretation in which LBJ, the military’s civilian leaders, and the White House staff shared responsibility. The secretary of defense at the time, Robert McNamara, in this version of history, moved from distrusting the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) to misleading them, and McNamara plus LBJ created the illusion that decisions to attack North Vietnam were alternatives to war rather than war itself. According to this logic the course led to planning for failure, and then a war without direction.

I critiqued McMaster’s analysis in 2009 in my book Unwinnable War  where I noted a number of things off with that construction. For one, LBJ’s views on Vietnam were opaque, and varied from day to day. McMaster cited only the telephone conversations where Johnson wanted no war, not those where LBJ spoke of “touching up” Hanoi. It is true that Robert McNamara rode herd on the JCS, but the charge the military were derelict is thin. Quite the opposite is true: every time they were asked for an opinion the Chiefs recited a litany that included cross-border operations into Laos, bombing, mining, and ground troops in great numbers. That litany would be recited as early as the Tonkin Gulf incident of August 1964, and over time they added more elements. In 1967, when Congress held hearings on the bombing, the military openly and publicly denounced McNamara’s approach. As for the directionless war, there is no evidence the Joint Chiefs had any more innovative a military strategy in mind than did the president.

Meanwhile, senior military leaders were well aware of the political impact of their public views. Then–as now–the military were guarded and diffident about what they said. H. R. McMaster should have been well attuned to that aspect, which, at the time he was writing, had most recently been demonstrated in the Gulf War of 1990-1991, when Joint Chiefs chairman Colin L. Powell had kept silent his differences with then-defense secretary Dick Cheney. What goes around comes around–in the prelude to the Iraq invasion of 2003, Army chief of staff Eric Shinseki did openly express a different view from his political superiors–and he was promptly let go. The diffident silence which McMaster found so objectionable when looking back at Vietnam is the norm, not the exception.

In the Trump administration today the military has a different planetary configuration. It is not only General McMaster as security adviser, but also General James Mattis as secretary of defense, and General John F. Kelly as secretary for homeland security. Other military men occupy numerous positions on the NSC staff, including McMaster’s current deputy. Some of the public’s relief at the McMaster appointment actually stems from the thought these officers will be the “adults” who rein in the outlandish proposals of the president and his henchmen, but that is unlikely for two reasons: the norm of deferring to the political leadership (reinforced in McMaster’s case, by the way, because he remains on active duty, and therefore subject to regulations about what can be said about [and to] a chief executive); and the limited knowledge and experience of these military men outside their chosen profession. Meanwhile McMaster will be under intense pressure to conform to the views of the various White House power centers.

The McMaster appointment does not get citizens out of the woods. President Trump’s activities will continue to provoke and  distress. A more likely role for the military men in this presidency–as General Mattis has already shown–is to sooth nerves shaken up by the president. We’ll see.

Farewell Marilyn Young– Warrior Against War

February 20, 2017– When the Federal Bureau of Investigation went after the Concerned Committee of Asian Scholars (CCAS), there was nothing of the diffidence they are showing in their supposed look-see into Russian interference in the 2016 United States election. Perhaps the FBI under James Comey plays to a different set of favorites than it did during J. Edgar Hoover’s day. Those were the times of the Bureau’s COINTELPRO and their “inquiries” into the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The motive was very definitely to chill citizens’ relations with others, simply because of their political beliefs. The CCAS was a group that opposed the Vietnam war and favored better relations between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China–both directions in which the-then Nixon administration was moving–but that did nothing to shield these Americans.

Marilyn B. Young was among the founding members of CCAS. I became aware of them while studying Southeast Asia at Columbia. Some Vietnam veteran friends of mine were members, and CCAS published excellent newsletters and occasional journals. They were on the cutting edge of scholarship on Asia. But that’s not what put them on the FBI’s radar scope. Their passion–and passionate opposition to the Vietnam war did that. Indeed Young, who studied at Harvard with Ernest R. May and John King Fairbank as her advisers, was squarely within the cohort. In the 1971 marches on Washington, to protest the invasion of Laos, and then “May Day,” hyped to be a more focused attempt to prevent the government from conducting business as usual, Young participated with a affinity circle that included Howard Zinn, Daniel Ellsberg, and Noam Chomsky, not to mention Fred Branfman (later of Indochina Resource Center fame), who also passed away recently and deserves being marked in his own right.

Marilyn did not just wear her beliefs on her sleeve. Decades later, having inspired generations of students at the University of Michigan and New York University (NYU), and an active member of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR), Young was elected president of that body. In a customary SHAFR presidential address she reflected on how her studies and teaching had led her backwards and forwards, through wars past and future, until it seemed like war was less a progression than a continuation. There is no longer a discrete move from prewar, through conflict, peace, and postwar. Indeed in our last collaboration, which was a panel at a SHAFR conference a few years back, intended to draw parallels and lessons from the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, Marilyn presented something very much like that view.

At Harvard in the 1960s, Young examined the international side of the turn-of-the-century Boxer Rebellion in China, where she found U.S. participation influenced by the quest for an “Open Door,” that is, freedom for American trade. It was not difficult to link those historic events with Washington’s policies pursued after World War II, and, of course, “war for oil” became a slogan attached to both Bushes and their Gulf Wars. The continuity with which Marilyn Young constructed her views was something John King Fairbank would have enjoyed. Ernie May I am less certain, but he would have appreciated Marilyn’s coherence and historicity.

It was my privilege to know Marilyn Young quite well for decades. Many times we attended conferences together, shared podiums, participated in seminars and institutes. I contributed essays to books she edited. We broke bread innumerable times in myriad places. Her raucous laugh was a delight. I did not mind at panels when she came after me from the left. I watched, distressed, as Marilyn’s health declined. Talk about war, she waged a long–and long successful–struggle against cancer. Her passing will be a sadness for diplomatic history, a loss to historians, indeed to the NYU History Department, where she was emeritus. Some time ago I decided to dedicate my next book to Marilyn, and the only thing good in all this is that I told her a couple of months ago, so she got a little pleasure from that. Marilyn, we loved you. Fair winds and following seas.

West Wing Chaos

February 15, 2017–It used to be said of Frank Wisner, operations chief of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during the high Cold War, that he would give the identical assignment to a half dozen different people and then sit back to see who brought him the first results. As a device for pushing the CIA toward producing outcomes, Wisner’s technique might have had something going for it, but as a management tool it was a vehicle that produced a state of constant chaos.

Donald Trump–would you believe it?–is up to something very similar. Political strategist Stephen Bannon, chief of staff Reince Priebus, “adviser” Jared Kushner, all seem to have the same instructions. The difference between the way CIA’s Wisner utilized this method, and the way it is in the West Wing today, is that in the Cold War the object of the action was foreign nations, while in Trump’s White House today the aim is simply to seize control over the reins of government.

The fall of Michael T. Flynn as national security adviser inaugurates the next phase in this inside struggle. A weak national security staff never found its footing, leaving one of the most important functional areas of U.S. government action up for grabs. Since President Trump himself has articulated nothing more than vague, subjective visions, the person who can turn the Trump’s longings into a concrete foreign policy stands to gain control of the process.

Meanwhile the bloodletting across government will continue and deepen. I made the point in this space at least as early as the election itself that Trump would purge the U.S. intelligence agencies because they knew stuff damaging to him that flowed from events during the political campaign. The fall of General Flynn shows that point to have been precisely correct. One place the attrition will take aim quickly will be CIA at Langley, and its other companion agencies. So much for Trump’s day-after-the-inauguration appearance at Langley, where he promised the spooks so much backing they’d get sick of it.

While all this is going on, have you noticed a “United States foreign policy”? Right. Neither have I. The infighting is creating a policy vacuum. That might not be such a bad thing, since so many of Mr. Trump’s inchoate visions are so dark, but the point is that instead of taking grasp of the reins of government, the president is the helpless driver of a runaway stagecoach, its reins slapping along the ground. Senator John McCain is right to say the White House is “dysfunctional” on national security.

Flynn’s Snapped Suspenders

February 14, 2017–Last week in this space a blog warned of the very tenuous hold on national security exhibited by the NSC staff under Michael Flynn. On Friday, February 10, I posted a warning that his dealings with Vladimir Putin’s ambassador to Washington exposed General Flynn to censure or worse. These were not alternate facts. Additional evidence appeared daily over the weekend, and last night, just seven hours after Kellyanne Conway had assured the public that he still had Mr. Trump’s complete confidence, Michael T. Flynn resigned as President Trump’s national security adviser. Perhaps this marks the beginning of the Bowling Green Massacre.

The next question is, how does this play? President Trump clearly decided Flynn had become disposable. What about Conway, who was permitted to go out on a limb for Flynn just before he got the can. One interpretation of that would be some of the big players here, in the wake of Conway’s “Bowling Green Massacre” gaffe, decided she could be taken down a notch and let her walk the plank.

This plays in favor of Stephen Bannon, who is rumored to be organizing a kind of “shadow” NSC staff. Reince Priebus, the organization man, also benefits from Flynn’s departure, since he gets rid of a Trump insider in the outgoing national security adviser. It is significant that the administration has brought in a different outsider, Army Lieutenant General Joseph K. Kellogg, as acting security adviser, rather than letting the present deputy, K. T. McFarland, take up the position. That suggests White House insiders are taking over the NSC staff, not that the institution is standing on its own feet. Jared Kushner remains the power behind the throne in all this. Stay tuned.

Flynn’s Suspenders Showing

February 10, 2017–Yesterday in this space appeared a discussion of the new National Security Council staff headed by retired general Michael T. Flynn. There I referred to a still-concealed disaster in Flynn’s management of the Defense Intelligence Agency as a potential scandal waiting to happen. Today’s news reminds that there is a bigger controversy in Mr. Flynn’s involvement in backchannel contacts with the Russians both before last year’s elections and during the interregnum between Barack Obama’s presidency and Donald Trump’s entry into the White House.

The column yesterday referred obliquely to Flynn’s connections with Putin’s Russia, where he boasted of having been invited into the inner sanctum of the Russian military intelligence service GRU. He had also sat to dinner with Vladimir Putin on a public occasion, and taken money for the visit. During the election campaign Flynn was in touch with the Russian ambassador to the United States, both personally and on the phone, and by tweet. He spoke with the ambassador on the same day in December when then-President Obama imposed additional sanctions on Russia for its intervention in U.S. politics. Senior American intelligence officials largely agree Flynn discussed the sanctions with the Russian diplomat.

Flynn’s activities are disturbing at best, and may have impeded Obama’s conduct of U.S. foreign policy. There’s a legality issue as well, but I won’t go there because the facts are still too murky. Suffice it to say there’s already enough smoke for Trump spindoctors to be working, with their usual veering close to alternate facts, to minimize Flynn’s contacts and obscure his purposes. General Flynn’s suspenders are showing. Stay tuned!

Flynn Settles In: Trump’s NSC Staff

February 9, 2017–President Trump repeatedly told the public that all sorts of things were going to be accomplished on “day one,” whether it was building a wall on the Mexican border, sequestering the profits of the megalith corporations, or deporting all those immigrants. Here we’re approaching the one month mark, twenty days in from the inaugural, and those day one promises are starting to nag. A key area is government organization, because having the structure in place facilitates all other government activities. Today let’s take a look at the National Security Council (NSC) staff.

Retired Army general Michael Flynn is President Trump’s national security adviser. Flynn gained Mr. Trump’s confidence during the political campaign, when he stood by through thick and thin as many of the country’s foreign policy heavyweights shunned the Trump campaign. There is a reason, of course. The general and, now, the president, are kindred spirits who enjoy baiting and playing their adversaries, and they share an affinity for Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Flynn has also expressed disdain for religions and ethnicities, seeming to lump many Muslims in together with those Islamists who are actually fighting–not to mention viewing all of them as attacking the United States rather than each other. It’s a vision Mr. Trump shares too.

Flynn’s professional reputation is mixed. As a field officer and junior general he was regarded with awe as a “young turk,” an intelligence specialist who applied creativity to innovating new ways of slicing and dicing the data to derive new visions of the adversary. He did this for General Stanley McChrystal at the Special Operations Command and again in Afghanistan. Flynn was less successful when promoted to head the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), where he reportedly made a mess of reorganization, and alienated his rank and file with peremptory demands and far-fetched analytical positions. Details of what happened at DIA remain obscure to this day and there may be a Flynn scandal waiting in the closet.

Kellyanne Conway has her “alternate facts,” at DIA the general had “Flynn facts.” This might make for bitter infighting on the NSC staff but it could also lead to a cowed staff that dares not raise problems with proposals.

Flynn is in a position where he must somehow steer around the even bigger White House struggle for supremacy among Stephen Bannon, Reince Priebus, and Jared Kushner. It’s too early so far to do more than note that problem exists. Note this: all three of the big guys, along with Flynn, will share responsibility for overseeing a “Strategic Vision Task Force.”

Under President Obama the NSC staff had grown like a mushroom. There were more than four hundred policy professionals divided into different regional and functional sub units. National security adviser Susan K. Rice had to supervise twenty-three different directorates. (By way of contrast, on President John F. Kennedy’s NSC staff the total number of professionals remained small enough to fit on a single rubber stamp.) Flynn intends to cut the directorates by two-thirds, and the staff as a whole to 230 professionals, roughly two hundred of them delegated from the departments and agencies of the Washington bureaucracy. This is important : that statistic indicates the thinness of the Trump national security staff.

Traditionally in Washington about one third of NSC staffers are seconded from agencies, here the number approaches ninety percent. That datum testifies to Trump and Flynn’s failure to attract the talents of the experienced national security professionals, who are standing aside or have been blackballed by administration officials or talent scouts. Yet size reductions notwithstanding, there are sixty positions on the NSC staff still unfilled, about 30 percent of the anticipated departmental cohort.

From the names we have seen so far an inordinate number of the staff directors are military officers detailed to the White House. That does not promise well for breadth or depth of foreign policy experience.

Meanwhile, even with reductions the Trump national security staff reflects the bloating of bureaucracy, hardly the sleek image the new president affects. Kissinger’s NSC staff had about fifty–and that was viewed as swollen. The Brzezinski staff grew larger yet, and in Ronald Reagan’s day the security staff reached 150. Bottom line: expect the Trump NSC staff to be opinionated yet based on a narrow grasp of issues and implications.

 

Bannon Balloons

February 3, 2017–The remarkable rise of Steve Bannon is the talk of several towns I know. For the moment the conventional wisdom seems to be that Mr. Bannon is taking over the National Security Council (NSC) staff from Mike Flynn and that his influence in the White House is unmatched. It was Bannon and Jared Kushner who attended on the president and helped Trump at the moment of his decision for the SEAL raid into Yemen that killed the Al-Awlaki child. And it’s reported that Bannon is seeking his own spokesperson–a sure sign of visions of self-importance in Washington.

There’s no time for anything substantial today, but if there is a battle for the White House I’d not put my money on Bannon. As noted in this space the other day, Reince Priebus is there to put shots across the bow at the NSC. Another strain of going for broke is that Bannon cannot ultimately compete with the Trump family. It was Ivanka, not the chief strategist, who accompanied the president to receive the body of the SEAL killed on that mission.

The thing about hot air balloons is that you have to pump them up without ceasing. If the air cools they fall to earth. If it escapes–say from a shot that breaches the balloon membrane–they crash.