Any national-security adviser must be judged on two broad criteria: How faithfully has he or she served the president? And how well has he or she served the nation?
One important element of serving a president lies in the question, Has he or she made the chief executive’s job easier or harder? Obviously some individuals on the White House team have made more than a little trouble for Trump, but not H. R. McMaster.
He has earned a reputation as a quiet professional. He has not, so far as we know, undermined Trump (Twitter notwithstanding), nor has he made trouble for the secretary of state or the secretary of defense. In fact he has efficiently and effectively ensured that senior cabinet members’ views are presented to the president. The kind of poisonous rivalry that nearly wrecked the George W. Bush administration has been avoided.
The principal objection to his operation is that he has staffed the National Security Council with too many conventional establishment types. As far as we know, this has had little impact on the policies coming out of Trump’s White House. The Jerusalem decision should be proof enough that this president can and will stand up to the traditional Washington policy types whenever he feels strongly about something.
How well has he served the nation? In the end, that’s the biggest and toughest question.
In his 1997 book Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Lies that Led to Vietnam, McMaster pointed out that “Clausewitz observed that ‘the political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose.’ The Great Society, the dominant political determination of Johnson’s military strategy, had nothing to do with the war itself.” In the context of Washington in 2018, this is a strong indication that whatever else happens, McMaster will not let U.S. war-fighting policy be subordinated to domestic political ambitions.
Whatever else happens, McMaster will not let U.S. war-fighting policy be subordinated to domestic political ambitions.
The results of the Trump–McMaster partnership are, as of February 2018, that the ISIS caliphate has been destroyed, at minimal loss in U.S. lives, though it remains a danger as a terrorist organization. No doubt the Obama administration deserves some of the credit, but by giving America’s military commanders the freedom they needed to operate without the kind of White House micromanagement we saw during the Obama era, this administration undoubtedly hastened the victory.
Letting the field commanders get on with the job is also the hallmark of the new strategy in Afghanistan. No one should expect to see concrete results in less than a year. The renewed pressure on Pakistan has so far had little impact on the ground, but no one knows what is really happening behind the scenes.
Dealing with Iran is an even harder challenge. The administration’s relentless push for harder sanctions against the Tehran regime has not yet paid off, but neither Trump nor McMaster shows any sign of letting up.
On North Korea, McMaster has earned a reputation as a hard-liner. In this case his own instincts, that enemy provocations can be effectively met only with strength and resolve, would seem to fit perfectly with those of the president.
His greatest achievement, though one unrecognized by most pundits, was to put together a new National Security Strategy policy document that reconciled Trump’s America First vision with the need to provide guidance to the political appointees and the policy-making elements inside the bureaucracy. For all the talk about the deep state and the swamp, the fact is that given clear and legal marching orders, the upper ranks of the civil service will, for the most part, respond.
The National Security Strategy, with its emphasis on serving the American national interest and building the nation’s overall strength, is a clear break from Obama’s “citizen of the world” approach. Under Trump, Washington has finally shaken off the post-1945 habit of thinking that America can afford to be the kind and generous giant that it was in the days of the Marshall Plan and of JFK’s New Frontier.
It’s too early to grade McMaster compared with other national-security advisers, but after a year in office, he has passed all the main tests. In this environment, we should at least be grateful for that.