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.