February 24, 2017 | The Weekly Standard
Take Two at the NSC
It has been a tumultuous start for President Donald Trump’s National Security Council, to put it gently. General Michael Flynn was forced to resign as national security adviser less than a month into the new administration, amid controversy over his contacts with a Russian ambassador. It is clear from press reporting that some NSC staffers have been leaking negative details while others are being heavily scrutinized and criticized in the press.
Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, a highly respected scholar and military leader, is now tasked with stabilizing the situation. As Trump's newly appointed national security adviser, he holds one of the most important positions in government. The amount of power a national security adviser wields can vary depending on the level of trust a president has in him. But McMaster certainly looks well-positioned to help shape America's role in the world.
A veteran of the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, McMaster knows America's jihadist enemies well. He is widely credited with helping to turn around the Iraq war (albeit briefly), by working with local Iraqis to defeat al Qaeda's men in the city of Tal Afar. McMaster got deep into the war in Afghanistan, too. And even while prosecuting the war on terror, McMaster has been preparing the American military for other conflicts that may lie ahead.
It is clear from a review of his writings, interviews, and congressional testimony that he has been thinking deeply about America's role in the world—and how our nation's enemies are attempting to undermine it.
McMaster is no apologist for Vladimir Putin. He has carefully assessed how the American military might deter and counter Russian provocations. “Historians will likely regard Russia's 2014 invasion of Ukraine as the event that punctuated the end of the post-Cold War era,” McMaster wrote in a book review for the Wall Street Journal in March 2016. He may very well be right. History has turned on less consequential events.
For McMaster, Russia's prying Crimea away from Ukraine and annexing it should not be viewed as an isolated act of aggression. Instead, it is one of a series of challenges to American leadership. And it isn't just Russia that is seeking to shift the balance of power in the 21st century. Regional powers such as China and Iran are expanding their footprints. Russia, China, and Iran may not be capable of mounting a sustained challenge to America's global leadership on their own. Not yet, that is. But working in parallel, and sometimes through coordinated action, they could tip the scales in favor of anti-democratic, anti-Western forces.
McMaster's warning with respect to Russia's invasion of Crimea was based on his reading of The Unquiet Frontier: Rising Rivals, Vulnerable Allies, and the Crisis of American Power, by Jakub J. Grygiel and A. Wess Mitchell. The authors are keenly aware that Americans are questioning the value of our alliances today, more than in the past. And they seek to reestablish the case for American supremacy in the world.
President Obama believed that the time for America to hold its traditional adversaries in check through alliances with other nations was over. “In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game,” Obama said in a speech before the United Nations General Assembly on September 23, 2009. “No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed.” Obama believed that rival nations jockeying for power was a thing of the past. “No balance of power among nations will hold,” Obama continued at the U.N. “The traditional divisions between nations of the South and the North make no sense in an interconnected world; nor do alignments of nations rooted in the cleavages of a long-gone Cold War.”
Obama began his presidency with this post-Cold War view, attempting to “reset” relations with Russia. He ended his presidency by ordering the expulsion of 35 Russian “diplomats” from American soil, after Russian hacking became a factor in the 2016 presidential contest. That move followed the imposition of sanctions on Russia for the annexation of Crimea—a belated recognition that some nations do, in fact, still seek to “dominate” others.
It is significant that McMaster has been thinking along the lines of Grygiel and Mitchell. The pair defend America's leadership role in the 20th century and argue that the United States must continue to take a proactive stance in various contests for power. They advocate continued support for a host of small to medium-sized countries neighboring China, Russia, and Iran. Grygiel and Mitchell recognize that America's alliances are costly, but they argue the benefits far outweigh the liabilities. In fact, the more America retreats from the world, the more dangerous the world becomes.
After eight years of Obama's illusions about the world, all is not well. “The American alliance network is in a state of advanced crisis,” Grygiel and Mitchell write. “Many long-standing U.S. allies believe that the United States, for reasons of either decline or disinterest, is in the process of pulling back from decades-long commitments and inaugurating a multi-regional diplomatic and military retrenchment.”
It remains to be seen how the Trump administration will address this dire situation. President Trump often seems more comfortable questioning the value of America's allies than seeking to reassure them. There are competing schools of thought within the new administration. McMaster seems unlikely to side with those in favor of deeper American retrenchment.
McMaster spearheaded the Russia New Generation Warfare Study, a government panel that pondered how the U.S. Army should adjust to Russia's evolving military doctrine. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in April 2016, McMaster warned that Russia had learned from the American military's shortcomings. “It is clear that while our Army was engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, Russia studied U.S. capabilities and vulnerabilities and embarked on an ambitious and largely successful modernization effort,” he testified. “In Ukraine, for example, the combination of unmanned aerial systems and offensive cyber and advanced electronic warfare capabilities depict a high degree of technological sophistication.” Politico reported at the time that the McMaster-led review was expected to have a “profound impact on what the U.S. Army will look like in the coming years.”
In testimony delivered to the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2015, McMaster and other U.S. officials warned that Putin's Russia was “willing to use force to achieve” its objectives. Although they noted the “centrality of land forces” in Russia's “effort to assert power and advance its interests in former Soviet states,” McMaster and his colleagues recognized that Russia also “used cyberspace capabilities and social media to influence perceptions at home and abroad.” The reference to social media is noteworthy. One of the ways Moscow is seeking to destabilize Europe is by spreading disinformation and misinformation, “fake news” in the current parlance.
McMaster and his fellow military commanders warned, “Without a viable land force capable of opposing the Russian Army and its irregular proxies, such adventurism [as in Ukraine] is more challenging to deter.”
In other words, the U.S. military, degraded by budget sequestration, must be rebuilt, especially its ground forces. If American military might does not evolve to counter what Grygiel and Mitchell describe as Russia's “revisionist probing,” it will be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to deter further aggression. The result could be an even more disastrous conflict.
The concept of “probing” plays a prominent role in Grygiel's and Mitchell's thinking. In his review of their book, McMaster endorsed this way of framing strategic behavior. “Russia, China and Iran are using aggressive diplomacy, economic overtures and military action to test America's willingness to defend its interests and its allies,” he wrote. In addition to Russia's invasion of Crimea, “China's assertiveness in the South China Sea, and Iran's support for terrorist groups and militias across the Middle East are all examples of probing.” To be sure, this trio of American adversaries have many other reasons for their behavior, but challenging American power is central to their thinking.
Outside of these regional powers, other actors continue to threaten American interests. The jihadist threat is as virulent as ever. Many foreign policy thinkers tend to underestimate the jihadists as strategic adversaries. Not McMaster. In an op-ed for the New York Times in 2013, he decried the “hubris” in America's military circles leading up to the 9/11 wars. The dominant theory held “that further advances in military technology would deliver dominance over any opponent,” so less advanced adversaries “would not dare to threaten vital American interests.” That was grossly mistaken. In Afghanistan and Iraq, McMaster wrote, “planning did not account for adaptations and initiatives by the enemy” or recognize the complex “political and human dynamics” of the insurgencies raging in both countries.
McMaster's celebrated 1997 book, Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam, is an extended case study in the failures of military leadership. “The war in Vietnam was not lost in the field, nor was it lost on the front pages of the New York Times or the college campuses. It was lost in Washington, D.C.,” he concluded. He has made similar critiques of Washington's role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, arguing that the enemy gets a vote and that American military planners did not sufficiently understand who they were fighting.
America's enemies are surely hoping to capitalize on uncertainty surrounding the nation's role in the world. And as the first weeks of the Trump administration have demonstrated, the knives are out in Washington, too. McMaster has earned a reputation as an effective commander, a military intellectual, and a contrarian—someone who can buck authority and still succeed. Now that he is at the center of power he will need all those traits. As national security adviser, he will no doubt be reminded daily, if not hourly, of the perils of underestimating his adversaries.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard. Follow him on Twitter @thomasjoscelyn.