In recent days and weeks, nominally respectable media outlets in the United States have repeatedly announced that Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster is on his way out as White House national security adviser. The reports typically cite unnamed sources claiming to have the inside scoop. McMaster rubs Trump the wrong way, they say. He doesn’t respect the president’s limited attention span and preference for seat-of-the-pants decision-making. The three-star career soldier seemingly can’t get it through his thick head that Trump has an aversion to process. The two just don’t mesh. Instead of Nixon and Kissinger or Carter and Brzezinski, it’s more like Mutt and Jeff.
Whether McMaster is actually about to get the boot is difficult to say. The cast of characters comprising Trump’s inner circle continues to evolve, to put it mildly. At the present moment, McMaster retains his job. Yet were he to be fired tomorrow, few in Washington would admit surprise. Of course at this juncture, to really surprise Washington, Trump would have to fire Melania.
How much does it matter if McMaster stays or goes? Members of the general’s large and devoted fan club gushed when Trump announced in February 2017 that he would succeed the Lieutenant General Michael Flynn as national security adviser. ‘It is not an overstatement to say that Americans and the world should feel a little safer today,’ tweeted one acolyte.
Now that McMaster has been on the job for a year, are America and the world safer as a result? Little evidence exists to support that contention.
To be fair, McMaster’s role is to advise rather than to decide, shaping decisions rather than making them and ensuring effective implementation once policies are set. So to a considerable extent, his report card as national security adviser necessarily reflects Trump’s own report card as commander-in-chief.
On that score, we can cite one very important piece of good news. During McMaster’s tenure in office, the planet has managed (at least for now) to avoid the catastrophe of a major armed conflict involving the use of nuclear weapons.
Elsewhere the news is not so good. For a variety of reasons, ranging from mixed signals regarding NATO to threats of trade wars, allied confidence in American leadership has declined to an all-time postwar low. Nobody knows what the United States is going to do from one week to the next. While McMaster presided over the drafting a new National Security Strategy, that document, released in December 2017 with much fanfare, has already disappeared. It’s a safe bet that President Trump never bothered to read it.
No doubt the NSC staff continues to churn out documents featuring the word ‘strategy’ in the subject line. Yet any strategy worthy of the name requires consistent adherence to identifiable principles. The job of the national security adviser is to translate principles into specific policies and then to bring the vast national security apparatus into compliance with the president’s intent. By that standard, McMaster rates as a flop – although his boss’s erratic and impulsive behavior hasn’t exactly helped.
Impressed with his own intuitive gifts, President Trump may well be incapable to adhering to anything remotely approximating a strategy. Such at least is the impression left by his administration’s shifting attitudes toward Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia, not to mention Russia, China, and the lesser nations known collectively as ‘shithole countries’. What the president says on Tuesday in the Rose Garden becomes inoperative by the time he reaches Mar-a-Lago for a weekend of golf. Expectations that the disciplined McMaster might be able to constrain, i.e., muzzle, the president remain unfulfilled. U.S. policy has been a dog’s breakfast.
Add to that judgment this single caveat: Under Trump, America’s strong post-9/11 preference for military action over diplomacy persists. As a candidate, Trump had promised to end America’s unsuccessful misadventures in the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan. As president, he has merely perpetuated them, thereby affirming the normalization of war. The State Department survives on half-rations; the Pentagon gorges itself on additional billions. Some credit for this dubious achievement surely belongs to McMaster and the other generals with access to Trump.
So count me among those who won’t mourn McMaster’s departure, if Trump decides to send him back to the army.
And yet, McMaster’s exit will raise this troubling question: Who would replace him? At this point, the roster of individuals who possess ability, integrity, and a willingness to serve in the Trump White House has thinned considerably.
Speculation centers on John Bolton as a likely candidate to become Trump’s third national security adviser. Known of late as bombastic commentator for Fox News, Bolton is a certified Islamophobe and warmonger. He would play to Trump’s worst instincts.
I’m starting to miss H.R. already.
Andrew Bacevich is the author most recently of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History.