President Trump announced that H. R. McMaster will be his new National Security Adviser, replacing Michael Flynn.
Removing Flynn was already addition by subtraction, and adding one of the military’s foremost intellectuals will strengthen the administration’s foreign policy team. But how much influence McMaster will have remains to be seen.
To counterinsurgency wonks like me, McMaster is a living legend. In Iraq, he stabilized Tal Afar, a city of 200,000, with 5,200 soldiers.
For states fighting an asymmetric campaign against non-state actors, as in post-Saddam Iraq, there are essentially two available strategies: counterterrorism (CT) and counterinsurgency (COIN).
CT is terrorist hunting. Locate enemies and kill or capture them. But insurgencies are fluid, willing to flee areas where the military is concentrated. Critics deride CT as whack-a-mole, since the military kills insurgents in one place only for them to pop up elsewhere.
COIN addresses this shortcoming with a strategy known as clear, hold, build.
The first part is similar to counterterrorism: clear an area of enemy fighters. But unlike CT, forces continue holding the territory so insurgents cannot return. This provides security, sending a signal to the population that they should side with the counterinsurgents. Then, in the build phase, the military partners with locals, earning their trust, developing basic services such as water and electricity, and training local forces so they can eventually provide security themselves.
The downside is that it’s more resource intensive. COIN campaigns require a sustained commitment, and put soldiers in vulnerable positions. Holding territory and working with local forces leaves counterinsurgents exposed. They have to go on patrol, openly protect infrastructure projects, and take risks to establish relationships. The strategy is expensive, and leads to more casualties than CT.
McMaster’s Tal Afar campaign is already a textbook example of successful counterinsurgency. The clear phase demonstrated his tactical prowess, and the partnerships he established with local leaders facilitated both security and economic development, further building trust.
McMaster recognizes that war, especially asymmetric war, is fundamentally political. Force plays an important role, but popular sentiment is a key component. In Tal Afar, McMaster made humane treatment of detainees and respect for Iraqi culture and religion central to his strategy. He will be a valuable addition to a White House that appears tone deaf about how much al-Qaeda and ISIS gain from the perception that the United States is making war on Islam in general, rather than jihadists specifically.
McMaster made his name speaking truth to power. His dissertation, later turned into a book called Dereliction of Duty, challenged the U.S. military’s belief that Vietnam was everyone else’s fault.
Dereliction doesn’t spare politicians, especially the Johnson administration, but denounces military leaders for failing to provide advice that could have led the war in a better direction. In a memorable phrase, McMaster called LBJ’s Joint Chiefs of Staff “the five silent men.”
This instinct might seem like a bad fit for a president known to bristle at criticism, but Trump appears open to disagreement from prominent military officers. For example, Secretary of Defense James Mattis got Trump to change his public stance on torture.
McMaster’s appointment means the Mattis camp will likely gain influence over foreign and security policy relative to the radical revisionists led by chief political strategist Steve Bannon. How much, however, is unclear.
McMaster will chair the National Security Council, but Bannon set up what amounts to a shadow NSC, called the Strategic Initiatives Group. The SIG is light on foreign policy and national security experience, and heavy on anti-Muslim sentiment. The poorly designed, strategically counterproductive travel/refugee ban came from them.
To gauge how much McMaster’s appointment reduces the SIG’s influence, keep your eye on senior NSC staff, especially Deputy National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland. McFarland’s previous experience in national security was speechwriting and public relations jobs in the 1980s. In recent years, she was a commentator for FOX news.
Trump’s original replacement for Flynn, retired Vice Admiral Robert Harward, turned down the job because the president denied Harward’s request to bring in his own staff (among other reasons). Unlike Harward, McMaster is active duty, and couldn’t really say no to the Commander in Chief. If McFarland stays on, that’s a sign McMaster’s influence is limited.
My McMaster Story
When I was in graduate school, I worked on a project with my adviser George Quester on preemptive warfare. In 2008, Quester took me with him to present our results to the Office of Net Assessment, the Pentagon’s internal think tank, which focuses on long-term grand strategy. I expected a moderately sized audience, but it ended up being just me and Quester in a room with the Director of Net Assessment, Andrew Marshall.
Marshall is the most powerful person the public hasn’t heard of. His influence-to-fame ratio is off the charts. When the Pentagon set up Net Assessment in 1973, Nixon tapped Marshall to run it, and he remained director until retiring in 2015.
Military strategists nicknamed him Yoda. The Chinese military translated all his public writing (and presumably some classified writing if they could get their hands on it). When I later told a former Undersecretary of State about my presentation to Net Assessment, he responded “you met God? Circle that date and save the calendar.” Marshall is, to quote Ron Burgundy, kind of a big deal.
Andrew Marshall, receiving the Presidential Citizens Medal from George W. Bush in 2008.
He might not be a public figure, but he’s not a secret, and as someone in grad school for security studies I knew who he was. I didn’t expect the opportunity to meet him, and I wasn’t going to squander it.
Right after the presentation, I launched into a conversation. In one of his questions, Marshall lamented that the United States wasn’t as strategic as it used to be, and I argued there were two positive recent developments:
The nuclear deal with India. If China is America’s long-term rival, then India is our natural ally. By normalizing nuclear relations with India — even though it remains outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — the Bush administration cultivated India as a balancer in Asia.
The McMaster promotion.
Advancing McMaster from colonel to brigadier general was a watershed moment for the Army. After his successful Tel Afar campaign, McMaster, along with John Nagl and other COIN experts, worked with David Petreaus to revise the Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Under Petreaus, American strategy in Iraq shifted from counterterrorism to counterinsurgency, yielding greater success.
This was popularly known as “the Surge,” because the United States deployed over 20,000 additional soldiers. However, the biggest reason violence decreased was the shift to a population-centric strategy, especially cooperation with Sunni Arab tribes in what came to be known as the Sunni Awakening.
Given his successes in Iraq, many believed McMaster’s advancement was a sure thing. But the Army promotions board passed over him in 2006, and then again in 2007. Board members tend to promote officers like themselves, which meant WWII tank commanders promoted tank commanders, who, in turn, promoted more tank commanders rather than counterinsurgents. This institutional sclerosis got bad enough that Secretary of the Army Pete Geren took the unusual step of asking Petreaus to come home from Iraq to oversee promotions.
The Army announced McMaster’s promotion in July 2008. In 2014 he earned his third star, becoming Deputy Commanding General of the Training and Doctrine Command, shaping how the Army fights.
In my one opportunity with Andrew Marshall, that’s what I talked about: how promoting McMaster indicated the Army finally recognized the importance of asymmetric warfare to America’s 21st century security challenges.
And now he’s National Security Adviser. I hope the president listens to him.