In 2005, Colonel Herbert McMaster prioritized victory above promotion. Attempting to secure Tal Afar, a city in northern Iraq, McMaster faced a big problem: He was witnessing an insurgency that was warping from nationalism into Salafi jihadism, and he knew that the U.S. Army’s “kinetic” (i.e., violence-centric) focused strategy was making things worse.
But, unlike many other field commanders, McMaster decided to buck the Army groupthink. Likely believing he would lose any chance of a general’s star by doing so, he adopted the first major counterinsurgency campaign of the Iraq occupation. His efforts were a great success. McMaster helped forge relative unity in a divided city, and isolated al-Qaeda in Iraq (read George Packer’s excellent 2006 report on McMaster’s strategy in the city).
Now General McMaster will become President Trump’s national-security adviser. And from McMaster’s Iraq experience, we can make two positive observations. First, he is willing to speak truth to power. Second, he embraces introspection as a useful tool rather than viewing it as a threat to ego. These qualities are desperately short in President Trump’s White House.
Still, with U.S. adversaries testing President Trump’s commitment to international order, and U.S. allies doubting Trump’s leadership, McMaster should focus on three immediate priorities.
First, McMaster must take charge of and reform the National Security Council (NSC). In light of Steve Bannon’s weird antics and Flynn’s feuding, the NSC needs clear leadership. Name aside, the key responsibility of a national-security adviser is to manage rather than advise. Whether it’s an intelligence assessment from the CIA or the NSA, or a threat report from the FBI or Department of Homeland Security, a sanctions-related concern from the Treasury Department or a foreign-relations crisis report from the State Department, McMaster will have to deal effectively with many different agencies. In recent years, few of McMaster’s predecessors have succeeded at doing so. Susan Rice, for example, effectively rendered the NSC a talking shop for President Obama’s impotence.
Reforming the NSC, McMaster should trim its bureaucratic fat and empower the best talent in the U.S. government. When, for example, a crisis develops in the Persian Gulf, McMaster should ensure that it is the best analysts at the State Department, CIA, or Pentagon — not the desk officer at the NSC — who brief the principals. This will quicken the government’s reaction, while also giving Trump the best possible options. Yes, the NSC bureaucracy (and indeed the bureaucracies at State, CIA, Defense, etc.) will resist these dilutions of their bureaucratic power. McMaster must face them down anyway.
To succeed, McMaster will also have to wear the suit of a civilian as well as he wears the uniform of an officer. As former Delta Force operations officer Lieutenant Colonel (ret.) Jim Reese explained to me: ‘‘McMaster is a top-notch officer — one of the finest in the Army right now. He is aggressive, smart, and will sit down to make assessments. But McMaster has no experience outside the Army. And here’s my question: He might be a great leader but is he the right leader?’’ Reese observed that McMaster lacks private-sector experience, and that some four-star general officers might dislike taking directions from three-star McMaster.
Second, McMaster should take a foreign trip to Europe in order to consolidate U.S. allies. While Trump is absolutely justified in pressing U.S. allies to increase defense spending, and has succeeded in placating Japanese concerns, his Twitter/phone rants concern U.S. interests elsewhere. After all, when Trump insults the Swedish government or shouts at Australia’s conservative prime minister, he only encourages anti-American movements in those nations. At the same time, Trump sends out the message that he is distracted — and that perception fuels those who wish to challenge U.S. power.
Fortunately, McMaster is well placed to ameliorate this situation. That’s especially true with regard to Europe. As Thomas Joscelyn notes, McMaster has closely studied Putin’s destabilization strategy in Europe. By quickly sending Russian-aggression expert McMaster to allay European fears, Trump could buy credibility and influence among the EU allies.
McMaster recognizes the imperative of long-game strategy.
Finally, McMaster should prioritize the evolving battle for Mosul, because — as Iraqi forces make progress there — another city looms large in its strategic implications: Tal Afar. Seeking to cut ISIS supply lines from Tal Afar to western Mosul, Iraqi/Kurdish forces have encircled both cities. The brewing problem in Tal Afar is the fact that Iranian-led Shiite militias are leading the operation there, and those militias desire to dominate rather than liberate Sunni populations. The power of ISIS takes root precisely in a populist Sunni rejection of perceived Iranian Shiite sectarianism. In short: If Shiite militias take Tal Afar and abuse the city’s Sunni-majority population, retaking Mosul will be worth little.
McMaster’s arrival at the White House is good news. Where President Trump’s foreign policy continues to fetishize short-term gimmicks – such as his idiotic threat to take Iraq’s oil — McMaster recognizes the imperative of long-game strategy. As Thomas Ricks recalls in his book The Gamble, McMaster, back in 2005 in Tal Afar, told his teenage soldiers: ‘‘Every time you treat an Iraqi disrespectfully, you are working for the enemy.’’ McMaster’s point was simple: To win, America must adapt against each enemy’s particular center of gravity. As his flirtations with the Russian ambassador proved, Flynn did not understand this critical truth. I suspect McMaster will be different.