McMaster’s Un-Appropriate Dereliction

August 11, 2017–As the world staggers toward an entirely unnecessary nuclear abyss I have to question–again–the alleged competence of General H. R. McMaster, currently serving as national security adviser to President Donald J. Trump. Pictures of General McMaster sitting alongside President Trump as the latter hurled threats at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, further exacerbating tensions brought on by nothing more than words plus weapons testing, are supremely distressing. The function of a national security adviser is to keep a president’s foreign policy system operating efficiently and to furnish the president insightful advice on the policies themselves.

General McMaster has accomplished neither. When he attempted to jettison some of the overblown ideologues who had been brought on to the National Security Council (NSC) staff by his predecessor, McMaster was blocked by White House political potentates. His efforts to tone down presidential rhetoric were similarly derailed. When Mr. Trump attended a NATO summit and neglected to affirm a fundamental United States security alliance, McMaster tried to represent his boss as having said what he did not, in fact, say. At an international conference in Hamburg, Germany, where Trump continued to mouth patent falsities, McMaster proclaimed the president’s remarks “appropriate.”

H. R. McMaster achieved an undeserved intellectual reputation I argued, based on his book Dereliction of Duty.  There he described the strategic level of United States leadership during the Vietnam war. McMaster criticized the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) for giving President Lyndon B. Johnson false impressions of the practicality of U.S. strategies, and accused them of dereliction of duty for not providing the nation’s top leader with their real views. Years ago–as long ago as 2009–I showed in my book  Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War  that the McMaster charges were unfounded, that the JCS had in fact repeatedly offered the president a standard, set view, of what the strategy should be. That the JCS had wrong ideas of what might work does not make them guilty of dereliction. In any case, in principle, one should hope that senior advisers do guide–or nudge, if they have to– presidents toward good policies.

From that standpoint it appears that General McMaster very quickly gave up on nudging his president, and soon after that became an enabler for presidential crankiness. At that point I wrote a reflection observing that McMaster, following his remark quoted above, had learned “Appropriate Dereliction.”

Generals are trained in deterrence and in the tenets of credibility. H. R. McMaster certainly knows enough to see that Trump, with his “fire and fury” rhetoric, is painting himself into so tight a corner that he may have to use force simply to preserve his credibility. It was incumbent on McMaster to steer his president away from that fateful, stupid, place. Instead McMaster sat at Trump’s side as an authenticator, while Mr. Trump thundered away. Today General McMaster is no longer just guilty of Appropriate Dereliction, he has moved up to Un-Appropriate Dereliction as well.

Mr. Clapper Goes to Pyongyang

November 10, 2014–If there is a senior U.S. official in need of some good PR–other than President Barack Obama, of course– that person would be General James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). So, unlike when Clapper denied under Senate questioning that hundreds of millions of citizens are being spied upon by the NSA, last week when the opportunity arose for a good photo op Clapper was right on the case. Even better, the occasion was a quintessential feel-good moment–when American citizens are being released from hard labor in a hostile land and Clapper can be seen to be rescuing them.

Kenneth Bae, held by the North Koreans for two years, has been in declining health, in and out of hospitals. The Koreans alleged he’d planned a “religious coup d’état”–a novel way to characterize Christian evangelical proselytizing. Matthew Todd Miller reportedly sought to defect. He entered North Korea this past spring, destroyed his visa, and reportedly sought asylum. The North Koreans prosecuted him instead–and sentenced Miller to hard labor for “unruly behavior.”  Pyongyang’s release of the two Americans comes on top of another liberation last month. It’s an odd sort of charm offensive the Koreans are up to, but they have done it before. Lately the state of that nation–and even the status of its dictator, Kim Jong-un–have been uncertain, and Kim may need all the help he can get.

North Korea is an enigmatic nation. Its leaders have received basketball stars as potentates, politicians as government emissaries, and senior diplomats as the equivalent of heads of state. The seizure of foreign nationals as bargaining chips, and the presentation of visits from foreign officials as tokens of international esteem, seem to have become standard devices in Pyongyang’s tool box–as have missile tests and preparations for nuclear explosions.

But don’t ask the CIA! North Korea has been a “denied area” in the agency’s jargon, a place into which it is impossible to insert spies, recruit enemy agents, or obtain much information at all. At the moment the spooks have not even decided whether Mr. Kim is still alive, much less the status of his power in Pyongyang, or whether North Korea has a weaponized nuclear warhead for its latest-generation missiles.

The Obama White House portrayed General Clapper as having gone to listen to what the North Koreans would like to say to us. He is a senior enough official to satisfy Pyongyang that Washington is serious about dealing with them, and he can be depended upon to relay North Korea’s messages to Washington. If Clapper’s quick visit last weekend encouraged Kim Jong-un out of hiding, the CIA may even get an intelligence windfall out of this operation.

On the other hand, Fearful Leader Clapper can be expected to retail North Korean developments in the most alarming light possible. Back in mid-October, at a conference held at the University of Texas, Clapper was virtually taking a victory lap on the war on terror–underlining observations in this space previously about the extent to which the real terrorism threat has receded. But that means the DNI and CIA need a new threat to help fill their rice bowls. which can help shield U.S. intelligence budgets from the chopping block during the months ahead. And the photo-0p rescuing Americans from a despotic regime shows General Clapper in an active, positive role. I, for one, would be more comfortable with a DNI who was less political.