Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster is a great American patriot. I have not had the privilege of meeting him. Friends I trust who know him well, however, bear witness to his unsurpassed valor in the defense of our nation, to which attest silver and bronze stars, among his array of commendations. And that’s besides his warrior-scholar’s penchant to speak (and write) his mind thoughtfully, at the risk of rubbing his superiors the wrong way.
All of that goes a long way in my book. Long enough that I have no appetite to join the chorus demanding his ouster as President Trump’s national-security adviser.
That is not to say that there is no room for policy dispute. Meaning serious policy dispute, not a Manichean cartoon that depicts conservatives locked in a duel à outrance between progressive-lite globalists and populist nationalists (or is it nationalist populists?). This conservative doesn’t fit in either of those categories. Nor, come to think of it, do most of my conservative friends — including many who have been pigeonholed as one or the other by their opposite numbers.
Of course, it seems backward to pick a policy fight with the national-security adviser. I never fretted much over what Susan Rice was whispering in President Obama’s ear, because I never doubted that Obama was calling his own shots. He was the one you fretted about; she was just there to implement his policy. Ms. Rice was in the job because she was simpatico with her boss’s developed worldview; he was not a work-in-progress she was tutoring.
That is not how either admirers or detractors on the right view President Trump. He is a transactional actor. Obama was a hard-left ideologue who, in the manner of the breed, pretended to be above and beyond ideology. Trump is an authentic non-ideologue. He goes by instinct, guile, and a degree of self-absorption unusual even inside a Beltway teeming with solipsists.
The president’s inconsistencies and gaps have been camouflaged by an intuitive knack for channeling grassroots rage at Washington. Thus, his admirers portray him as a “change agent” while projecting on him the swamp-draining changes they’ve longed for — to which he is more indifferent than they hoped, but just attentive enough to keep hope alive.
Tepid Trump backers tend to be more sympathetic to the ways of Washington. They suspect Trump is, too, with his caravan of New York progressives and Goldman Sachs alums, to say nothing of his Democratic past. Reluctant Trump backers don’t project; they make the real-world calculation that, in this administration more than any before it, personnel is policy. You get past your misgivings about Trump because Pence, not Kaine, is one heartbeat away; Gorsuch, not Garland, is on the Supreme Court; Sessions rather than Lynch is at Main Justice; the CIA is run by Pompeo, not Morrell; America’s seat at the U.N. is filled by Nikki Haley, not Anne-Marie Slaughter; the Federalist Society, not the American Constitution Society, is vetting judicial nominees; and so on.
Most of us recognize that there is a straight-line nexus between Islamic scripture and Muslim aggression and — critically — that this aggression is not only, or even mostly, forcible.
General McMaster is the main man at the National Security Council. That is a White House staff position. More than any place else in the executive branch, a president should have the people with whom he is most comfortable on his staff. In this administration, though, we reasonably expect that the national-security adviser is at least as much policy maker as policy implementer. We must consequently care what he thinks more than we ordinarily might.
I confess I cannot work up much angst over two of the strikes counted against McMaster by Trump’s most ardent fans — who, feeling betrayed, direct their wrath at the national-security adivser rather than the guy elected to call the shots.
McMaster advocates upholding Obama’s Iran nuclear deal. I was as energetic a naysayer on the pact as anyone. That, however, was because I understood that Obama’s objective was to change the facts on the ground so dramatically that no successor could undo the deal. Personally, I would renounce it. I don’t get how the administration can bring itself to reaffirm the deal every 90 days (as the law mandates), since doing so requires saying two things that are not true: Tehran is in compliance, and continuation of the self-defeating arrangement is in our national-security interests. But candidate Trump was never consistently clear on how he would handle this; and McMaster does not really support the deal — he thinks it’s a lousy commitment we need to hold our nose and honor until we find an advantageous off-ramp. Obama so front-loaded the deal that Iran has already gotten much of the benefit; my misgivings aside, I can’t find too much fault in people who, for the time being, want to hold the mullahs to their paltry obligations.
I also can’t get whipped up about McMaster’s sign-off on a security clearance for Susan Rice. That wasn’t a one-off, as it’s been portrayed. Rice’s was among a stack of pro forma clearance extensions for former national-security officials so they can be consulted by their successors. It’s not like McMaster is in regular mind-melds with Rice — he’s not. Again, no one has been more vocal than I in seeking disclosure of Rice’s role in the unmasking of Americans in intel reporting, and the possible connection of the unmasking to political spying. But as I’ve also contended, what Rice did was not a crime, and whether it amounted to an abuse of power depends on the circumstances — which the Trump administration is in a position to tell us but has chosen not to. You don’t strip people of security clearances because you disagree with them politically; you do it if you have evidence that they abused their privileged access. So, let’s see it . . . or stop complaining about it.
The policy problem I have with McMaster involves Islam. It’s the same problem I’ve had with Washington for 25 years. I should be less concerned about McMaster’s views on Islam because it is one of the few subjects on which candidate Trump purported to have real convictions. He was going to force us to come to grips with “radical Islamic terrorism.” Alas, as I pointed out during and after the campaign, this might be a sign of real resolve; or, in the alternative, Trump might have no idea what he was talking about — it might be another exhibition of his talent to sense the divide between irate Americans and their smug government, and to tell the former what they want to hear.
It turns out Trump is different from other swamp creatures only in his willingness to mouth the words. When it gets down to brass tacks, what he’s against is terrorism. Well, great, so is everyone else. He gets some plaudits, I suppose, for acknowledging that the terrorists are overwhelmingly Muslim. But he seems insouciant about the reasons for that.
Islam is not going away, we have to deal with it. In figuring out how, desirous of not giving gratuitous offense to Muslims, we’ve overcomplicated something that is actually pretty simple: Islam must be seen either as (1) a big problem that we have to work around, or (2) a part of the solution to our security challenge. I am in the first camp. McMaster seems solidly in the second, and the “principled realism” speech in Saudi Arabia shows the president leaning his way.
The difference is straightforward. In the first camp, most of us do not dispute that there are authentically “moderate” interpretations of Islam (non-aggressive is a better descriptor). We recognize, however, that there is a straight-line nexus between Islamic scripture and Muslim aggression and — critically — that this aggression is not only, or even mostly, forcible. That is why “sharia supremacism” is more accurate than “radical Islam,” and by leaps and bounds more accurate than “radical Islamic terrorism.” “Sharia supremacism” conveys the divine command to implement and spread Islam’s societal framework and legal system. It demonstrates that our quarrel is not with a religion per se but with a totalitarian political ideology with a religious veneer. Violent jihadism is only one way — the most immediately threatening way — of carrying out the mission. Muslims who adhere to sharia supremacism are Islamists, and all Islamists — violent or non-violent — have essentially the same goal, even if their methods and the strictness of their sharia regimens differ. Not nearly all Muslims are Islamists, and only a small percentage of Islamists are jihadists. But jihadists, like all Islamists, quite legitimately call themselves Muslims. Fourteen centuries of scholarship supports them.
McMaster’s familiar bipartisan Beltway camp holds that Islam simply must be good because it is a centuries-old religion that nearly 2 billion people accept. Sure, it has scriptures ill-suited to the modern world, but so does the Bible. Bellicose Muslim scriptures have, in any event, been nullified or “contextualized” to apply only to their seventh-century conditions — just ask anyone at Georgetown . . . even if they don’t seem to have gotten the memo in Riyadh, Tehran, Kabul, Baghdad, the Nile Delta, Peshawar, the Bekaa Valley, Aceh Province, Chechnya, or in swelling precincts of London, Paris, Berlin, Brussels, Malmö, Copenhagen, Rotterdam, Vienna, or pretty much anyplace else in the West where the Muslim population reaches a critical mass (roughly 5 to 10 percent). Thus, we are to believe, the Islam that terrorists claim to be relying on no longer exists (not that it ever did, of course). Terrorists must, therefore, be understood as perverting the “true Islam” — indeed, they are “anti-Islamic.” In fact, they are best seen as “violent extremists” because Islam is no more prone to instigate aggression than any other religion or ideology taken to an extreme (you know, like those violent extremist Quakers). If more Muslims than other religious believers are committing terrorist crimes, we must assume there are economic and political explanations — or dodge the charge by pointing out that Muslims, far more than others, are victims of terrorism (a non sequitur that more exposes than explains away the problem).
Accommodations made to Islamists in places where we have no choice but to deal with them are not accommodations that should be made here at home.
The principal flaw in the second camp’s reasoning is that, by removing Islam as an ideological catalyst of terrorism, it turns terrorists into wanton killers. With the logic and aims of the violence thereby erased, also concealed is the cultural (or even “civilizational”) aggression spurred by the same ideology. This, in turn, diverts attention from the tenets of that ideology, which are virulently anti-constitutional, anti-Western, anti-Semitic, and corrosive of individual liberty, equality, privacy, free speech, freedom of conscience, and non-violent conflict resolution. To accommodate the ideology in the West is to lose the West.
There have been complaints that Trump is too reliant on his generals, that he is running a militarized, right-wing government. This is mostly fatuous. On balance, besides their can-do discipline, modern military officers — especially warrior-scholars in the McMaster, Mattis, Petraeus mold — tend to be politically progressive and prudently cautious about the wages of war.
There is, however, an aspect of the charge that has merit. Our commanders experience Islam on overseas battlefields where it is the only game in town. They encounter not only Islamist enemies but also Islamists with whom they can and must ally. They form strong bonds with these allies, seeing them for what they are in those settings: the progressive elements. It may not be so easy to remember that they are “progressive” not because they are, in fact, progressive but because the milieu is a fundamentalist sharia society.
This is only natural. In the foreign realm, we encounter many actors who must be dealt with on their own terms, terms that would not be a good fit for our society. It is a fair criticism that many of us who are hostile to sharia supremacism have unreasonable expectations about how (and even whether) our government should interact with shady Muslim regimes and movements overseas. It is just as valid, however, to point out that the accommodations made to Islamists in places where we have no choice but to deal with them are not accommodations that should be made here at home. On our turf, sharia principles contradict our culture — as evidenced by the Islamists’ perdurable resistance to assimilation (see, e.g., Europe’s parallel societies).
We have a right to expect that our national-security officials will appreciate, rather than blur, this distinction. It is one thing to say, as Washington does, that picking unnecessary fights with Islamists — e.g., designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization — complicates our ability to make and keep alliances against global jihadism. It is quite another thing to fail to recognize the threat Islamists pose to our own society and constitutional system.
An Islamist is a Muslim committed to the imposition of sharia. There may be “moderate Islamists” in Anbar Province; there are none in America. I have great respect for General McMaster, but I’m just as worried about whether he gets that, as he apparently is worried about whether there are too many Islamophobes on the NSC. As for the president, well, he talks a good game.