On Monday, President Donald Trump proved he’s not only capable of neutralizing a negative and potentially damaging narrative, but he’s also willing to make personnel changes that will force some of his loudest skeptics to reassess their criticism of his still-nascent administration.
To the casual observer, Trump’s pick of Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster to be his national security adviser is merely the continuation of a theme. McMaster is replacing retired Gen. Mike Flynn who left the Administration last week after anonymous leaks and his own decision to withhold information about conversations he had with Russian officials proved to be a politically toxic mix.
In replacing Flynn, a retired general, with McMaster, a currently serving three-star Army officer, Trump is doing more than just surrounding himself with the credibility of military professionals. His pick signals a potentially important evolution in his administration’s outlook on the world, the threats posed by various potential adversaries, and America’s response to both diplomatic and military challenges.
McMaster is now the fourth general officer to serve in the Trump administration. Secretary of Defense James Mattis rose to the highest ranks of military leadership while earning a reputation as a tough-talking, deep-thinking Marine Corps officer who was simultaneously comfortable debating academics and inspiring young grunts. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly is also a retired Marine general.
But while Mattis and Kelly have appeared to be natural fits in their respective jobs, with Trump arguing on the campaign trail for both increased defense spending (something Mattis has echoed) and tougher border security (a position shared by Kelly), McMaster is not so easily identified with a specific Trump policy aim.
In fact, if Flynn got into trouble for being too cozy with Russia, McMaster is the anti-Flynn.
While the nation was preoccupied with the electoral cage match last year, McMaster was busily leading a little talked about working group tasked with assessing Russian military and diplomatic capabilities and formulating a strategy for responding to Russian aggression. McMaster’s definition of the problem is fairly straightforward: While the U.S. military was busy fighting relatively low-tech enemies in the War on Terror, Russia was developing new military hardware and a sophisticated cyber threat that could be used to reassert its dominance at the expense of American interests.
McMaster’s Russia New Generation Warfare Study has earned the praise of his peers, but it is not likely the Kremlin will say nice things about it anytime soon. Nor is that surprising given that the study is considered by some insiders to be the kind of big, next-generation thinking that will help the military retain its edge over any would-be adversary.
“Flynn’s resignation is certainly a setback for the Russians,” opined The Atlantic last week. This week they could report that McMaster’s appointment is a nightmare for the Russians.
And it is not just the Russians who are likely to be worried about the pick. At a defense conference last year McMaster joined other Army leaders in talking about multi-domain battle, an emerging concept designed to focus Army priorities on defeating adversaries like China and Iran, who either have or are seeking to develop the ability to keep U.S. forces out of their preferred spheres of influence.
While McMaster has earned a reputation as a thoughtful strategist (he helped develop counter-insurgency doctrine during the war in Iraq), his outlook on war is helpfully grounded by his experience during the Gulf War in 1991. Then-Captain McMaster led his outnumbered tank troop to engage Iraqi tank and infantry formations in a brutal, fast-moving engagement that became known as the Battle of 73 Easting (so named after the map “easting” near the engagement area). The battle was so well fought that the actions of McMaster and his subordinates are studied to this day.
It’s not likely that McMaster will replicate his predecessor’s penchant for public flamboyance, but it is undoubtedly likely that as national security adviser he will provide deep and well-reasoned advice to the commander-in-chief.