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Dereliction of Duty?

After President Trump fired former Army general Michael Flynn as national security adviser in February 2017, hope reigned that his replacement, Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, would bring order and professionalism to the vital office that Flynn—who has since pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his activities as national security adviser designate—had abused. To generate sound policy, the interagency process led by the national security adviser requires the collegial consideration of a generous range of official viewpoints and perspectives.

H. R. McMaster
H. R. McMaster; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

Flynn had been unlikely to foster that kind of open conversation. He was a shrill Islamophobe and right-wing ideologue who tolerated no disagreement and recruited acolytes he had groomed in previous active-service positions. Under Flynn’s supervision, the National Security Council would have become a crude vehicle for a far-right agenda. This was in evidence almost immediately, when Trump’s executive order banning citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries from traveling to the US was issued without being vetted by the State, Defense, or Homeland Security Departments.

As an active-duty soldier, McMaster probably felt compelled to accept the job out of deference to the commander-in-chief—whoever he or she was. His rationale—or at least his rationalization—was likely that the position would best be filled by a warrior-scholar with the spine and rectitude to protect the country against Trump’s rash leadership. No doubt he also found irresistible the opportunity to advance from something of a military backwater—he was then deputy commander of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command and director of its Army Capabilities Integration Center—to one of the most important jobs in the executive branch.

McMaster had performed brilliantly in the first Gulf War, earning a Silver Star for gallantry in leading a tank assault that destroyed a much larger Iraqi force, and he became the exemplar of US counterinsurgency prowess in pacifying Tal Afar early in the post–September 11 US occupation of Iraq. Between those two wars, he earned a Ph.D. in American history. His dissertation became a widely acclaimed book on civil–military relations, Dereliction of Duty (1997). Its main thesis was that during the Vietnam War the Joint Chiefs of Staff became politicized, deferring to senior civilian officials in the Johnson administration who crafted the policy of “graduated pressure” on North Vietnam.

That policy called for systematically inducing Hanoi to stop supporting the Vietcong through calibrated US military operations. The intent was in part to reduce the US public’s sense of nuclear dread by demonstrating precise American crisis management and military control in Vietnam. McMaster argued that the policy, as applied, failed to present a unified strategy for winning the war. This was hardly a new argument, and remains vulnerable to dispute. But McMaster made a bold and passionate case, asserting that the Vietnam War “was lost in Washington, D.C….even before the first American units were deployed.”1

Enlightened realists tend to make the best national security advisers, and McMaster seemed to be just that, keen to integrate the strategic, operational, and tactical aspects of foreign policy and able to function effectively across the political spectrum. In a 2015 review essay in the British policy journal Survival, he denigrated what he regarded as the West’s “narcissistic approach to national security” in which strategies were “based on what the purveyor prefers rather than what the situation demands.”2 His point was that policymakers too often ignored uncomfortable facts that conflicted with the results they were determined to achieve.

McMaster was known for speaking truth to power, and he appeared to have the organizational skills and command bearing befitting a three-star general. His unblinking academic criticism of national security officials reflected a conviction that officers were obliged to avoid repeating the mistakes of their predecessors, even if it meant challenging their superiors. This was not just armchair posturing. The publication of Dereliction of Duty had hurt his career, and only General David Petraeus’s intervention enabled him to be promoted to general.

One year ago, the optimistic view—I held it, as did others—was that McMaster would stand up to Trump and the anti-establishment then White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon. There was an entrenched bureaucratic means of doing so—namely, by coordinating the recommendations of the secretary of state, secretary of defense, CIA director, and other principals through a smoothly functioning NSC staff so as to inform and clarify the president’s thinking. Brent Scowcroft, himself a former Air Force general, had set the standard for this kind of NSC stewardship during the administration of George H.W. Bush, a savvy and experienced president. But Trump, unlike most postwar presidents, is not interested in a process whereby national security officials make decisions systematically. He has little use for the NSC unless it caters to his idiosyncrasies and reinforces his preconceptions.

Retired vice-admiral Robert Harward, Trump’s first choice to replace Flynn, was alert to this attitude. He declined Trump’s offer, candidly labeling the post a “shit sandwich” and implicitly anticipating the frustration of dealing with an incurious, heedless, and peremptory commander-in-chief. He got it right. In early November, Trump said in a Fox News interview that he was “the only one that matters” in US foreign policy. The results are clear: a “transactional” approach to foreign policy uninformed by deliberation; the reflexive and vindictive purging of Barack Obama’s legacies in US policy, regardless of the objective unsoundness of doing so; and the indulgence of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s reckless defunding of the State Department, which has precipitated a drastic drop in morale, an attrition of invaluable career officials, and a steep decline in the United States’ diplomatic capacity and performance.

Trump’s remark about being “the only one that matters” was typically ahistorical. Prior to his presidency, the position of national security adviser had evolved into the most difficult and perhaps the most powerful foreign policy job in the US government aside from the president’s. Formally established by the National Security Act of 1947 as “civilian executive secretary” and not subject to Senate confirmation, it remained a relatively modest bureaucratic post until the Kennedy administration, when McGeorge Bundy shaped the response to the Cuban missile crisis and Vietnam policy. The national security adviser now has an office in the West Wing and greater access to the president than the secretary of state or the secretary of defense.

Under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Henry Kissinger elevated the position to its highest level of authority, wresting bureaucratic power from Secretary of State William Rogers until Kissinger himself replaced him. During Jimmy Carter’s tenure, Zbigniew Brzezinski ultimately gained primacy over Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. In the Reagan administration, the position got a bad name when Robert McFarlane and then John Poindexter went rogue, using the NSC to forge the illegal Iran-contra arms arrangement. But by the end of Reagan’s presidency Frank Carlucci and Colin Powell had restored the job’s discipline and standing.

During the George H.W. Bush administration, Scowcroft consolidated that effort, reemphasizing consensus and coordination and respecting operational departments. While Anthony Lake, Bill Clinton’s first national security adviser, became a discreet policy entrepreneur, both he and his successor, Sandy Berger, followed Scowcroft’s lead in emphasizing collegiality and process. Narrowly conceiving of her job as George W. Bush’s agent and tutor, Condoleezza Rice failed to coordinate policy and action. But Stephen Hadley, her successor, crucially reestablished a Scowcroftean focus on improving policy execution.3

During Obama’s presidency, after James Jones’s brief and rather inert tenure, Thomas Donilon and Susan Rice approached the job like Scowcroft and Hadley, though they were sensitized to their boss’s preference for controlling foreign policy from the White House. Obama’s NSC, which essentially laid out the foreign policy agenda for the State and Defense Departments to implement, opened the White House to occasionally justified charges of micromanagement and control-freakery. But the larger reality was that international affairs had become too complex and the news cycle too fast to allow US foreign policy to proceed without centralized, top-down supervision. The merits of this approach were manifest in a number of accomplishments and initiatives, including the killing of Osama bin Laden, the strategic rebalancing toward Asia, and, perhaps most notably, the negotiation of the Iran nuclear deal.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
President Trump announcing his appointment of Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster to replace Michael Flynn as national security adviser, Mar-a-Lago, Palm Beach, Florida, February 2017

Flynn represented an abrupt retrogression to the Reagan-era ignominy of the NSC, doing McFarlane and Poindexter one better (or worse) in seeking to use the office illegally as much for personal gain as for strategic advantage. McMaster quite rightly wanted to distinguish himself starkly from Flynn. Certainly the Iran-contra affair demonstrated the costs of the NSC’s “going operational” by skirting policy-implementing agencies, not to mention congressional oversight. But since the NSC had redeemed itself in subsequent administrations, McMaster had abundant precedents to support a case for making the NSC’s process of forming and implementing policy more systematic.

At the outset, he appeared determined to do so. He reportedly insisted on and got a free hand in staffing prior to accepting the post. Trump initially reneged on the deal, but McMaster persevered. He excluded Bannon from the NSC Principals Committee within a few weeks, and K.T. McFarland, the unqualified deputy national security adviser, within a couple of months.

After four months, having at first been thwarted by Senior Adviser Jared Kushner, Bannon, and Trump himself, McMaster threw out Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the inexperienced NSC senior director for intelligence who had been appointed by Flynn. McMaster also fired Rich Higgins, the NSC senior director for strategic planning, for writing and circulating a hysterical memo that warned about the depredations of a chimerical “deep state,” and Derek Harvey, the senior director for the Middle East, for circumventing NSC procedures. More substantively, he prevailed on Trump to grudgingly confirm the United States’ commitment to NATO and efficiently marshaled the NSC process of laying out options for US cruise missile strikes against the Syrian regime in retaliation for chemical weapons attacks.

All the while, it was becoming clear that Trump preferred to make policy extemporaneously, via unvetted Twitter venting and other emotive public statements. Last March, for instance, upon reading in a Breitbart News report that the Obama administration had ordered surveillance on Trump Tower, he tweeted his alarm rather than turning to the NSC for information and guidance, as most presidents would have done. Later, he used Twitter to engage in brinkmanship with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

McMaster seemed to acquiesce to Trump’s erratically autocratic disposition. Kushner had been given a central role in determining America’s policy on China and operated outside the NSC’s interagency process, but since he lost traction due to perceived self-dealing, the NSC has struggled to forge a mature policy. Now it appears that Beijing is playing Washington by cagily flattering Trump.4

With little latitude for formulating policy, the NSC started to look like a glorified event-planning and public-relations unit. During the run-up to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Mar-a-Lago in April, NSC Senior Director for Asia Matthew Pottinger—a Flynn holdover—found himself at a State Department press briefing marveling that “both sides’ spouses will be there” and that “President Trump is an extremely gracious host.” McMaster himself was mainly acting as normalizer-in-chief for national security—essentially, as an apologist for the president. In early May, Trump trotted him out to defuse, with a series of dissembling excuses, the controversy over Trump’s indiscreet disclosure to Russian officials of sensitive human intelligence shared by Israel.

Later that month, McMaster solidified his status as an administration mouthpiece when he coauthored with Gary Cohn, the White House’s chief economic adviser, a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed explaining Trump’s “America First” doctrine. The essential passage stated:

The world is not a “global community” but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage. We bring to this forum unmatched military, political, economic, cultural and moral strength. Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.5

With this strutting paean to Social Darwinism and Ayn Rand, McMaster jettisoned balance and sophistication in favor of American exceptionalist dogma of the most simplemindedly brutal variety, whereby the United States is entitled to get its way solely on account of its muscle. The article matched Trump’s fevered, noncooperative, and fundamentally juvenile conception of American power and implicitly justified his disruption of the postwar rules-based order. Its final paragraph’s reference to “the restoration of American leadership” was Orwellian. So was a second jointly written New York Times Op-Ed in July that claimed, without apparent irony, that Trump’s “America champions the dignity of every person, affirms the equality of women, celebrates innovation, protects freedom of speech and of religion, and supports free and fair markets.”6 It was more than a little rich that a soldier who made his intellectual reputation as a truth-teller should become a stooge of the most mendacious US president in history.

Even so, later in the summer, Breitbart and other “alt-right” media outlets sought to discredit McMaster as a subversive force, spreading stories that he did not strongly support Israel and was complacent about the Iran nuclear deal. By all appearances, he bowed to the pressure. If the Op-Eds had represented his surrender in words, his bureaucratic abdication came in the guise of “devolution.” On October 10, McMaster said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) that “we have devolved responsibility…back to the departments,” adding that he was steadily seeking to return more power to the Pentagon, the State Department, and other Cabinet agencies after the NSC’s purported assumption of power in recent years. Operational authority at the NSC “did cross a line,” he said, “between a coordinating and integrating organization into an executing arm of the government.”7

While paying lip service to a “historical perspective”—several former national security advisers participated in the discussion—McMaster was actually extending the Trump administration’s vaunted evisceration of the “administrative state” to the NSC, which he boasted of shrinking. There are two primary “executing” foreign policy bureaucracies: the State Department, which is primarily responsible for diplomacy, and the Defense Department, which handles the military. Since the day-to-day business of foreign policy is mainly diplomatic, the principal agency to which McMaster planned to redelegate responsibility would be the State Department.

Yet Trump, via Tillerson, has systematically emptied and disempowered it. Devolving authority over US foreign policy to a clueless secretary of state who is gutting the most important administrator of that policy is not principled but cynical, and a prescription for poor execution. If doing so is intended to inordinately empower the Pentagon—the primary executing bureaucracy left fully standing after Tillerson’s machinations—the move is also sinisterly militaristic. And it is doubly ironic and vexing that McMaster has not challenged Tillerson’s treatment of the State Department as the vanquished object of a hostile takeover, given his excoriation of the Joint Chiefs for acquiescing to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s construal of the Vietnam War as just “another business management problem.”8

McMaster could have used NSC precedents to advocate for preserving its authority over policy, but he has declined to do so. In his book, he criticized the imbalance between political and military considerations in the way Vietnam-era policy was made. McMaster preferred generals who spoke up in NSC meetings and pushed back against tendentious political distortions that civilian officials might make as to what was actually required to attain American policy objectives. As national security adviser, he is ideally positioned to encourage that sort of spirited collaboration. Yet owing to Trump’s disdain for interagency deliberation, McMaster has accepted a process in which there is very little meaningful back-and-forth among national security principals. Despite his protestations at CSIS of superior coordination and integration at the NSC, it has broadly failed to reach consensus on policy; one insider described a Principals Committee meeting on Afghanistan as a “shit show.”

Indeed, lack of coordination at the White House is clearly chronic. Trump and McMaster have undercut Tillerson’s and Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s advocacy of diplomacy on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Despite sharing the overwhelming US military consensus that there were no preemptive military options in North Korea that could reliably preclude escalation and protect South Korea’s population, McMaster appears to have pressed the Pentagon for a preemptive plan to satisfy Trump’s rash, counterfactual demands. This was further evidence of McMaster’s overriding determination to humor Trump at the expense of sound policymaking.

The NSC has been especially maladroit on the Middle East, the world’s most volatile region. Trump announced that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital over the objections of key principals, reportedly without giving Tillerson and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley advance notice, and probably undermined the Trump administration’s much-anticipated Israeli–Palestinian peace initiative before it had even been rolled out. The administration’s inconsistent attitude and cuts in aid to Egypt have prompted it to pivot to Russia. Against State and Defense Department advice, Trump fueled discord between Qatar, which hosts a critical US air base, and its Gulf Cooperation Council partners.

Although Mattis and Tillerson believe that Iran is adhering to the nuclear deal, Trump has refused to recertify it on irrelevant pretexts, and McMaster has backed him, potentially shattering Washington’s bona fides in Pyongyang as well as Tehran and European capitals. Unstinting White House support for Saudi aggressiveness in Yemen and elsewhere has antagonized Iran while increasing its regional influence, and stoked strategic tension between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Since the cruise missile strikes last April, McMaster has marshaled no policy coherence on Syria, where the United States has ceded the diplomatic initiative to Russia.

Until mid-February, McMaster had not pushed back on Trump’s dismissal of the issue of Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election for fear of offending him. Then, after the Justice Department indicted thirteen Russians for such interference on February 16, McMaster angered Trump by finally stating publicly, at a major security conference in Munich, that the evidence was “incontrovertible.” Whether he follows up this acknowledgment in a substantive way remains to be seen. Despite the intelligence community’s assessment that Russian interference occurred and is a continuing threat, McMaster has declined to convene a Principals Committee meeting on the problem and left it unexamined while Trump persists in courting Vladimir Putin, to the consternation of close allies.9 The national security adviser has also bolstered Trump’s denials of collusion with Russia, stating implausibly that Trump’s job security “doesn’t even come up” in conversations with those allies.

McMaster publicly admitted that Trump had no agenda for an ostensibly important private meeting with Putin at the G20 summit in July, which McMaster did not attend; urging and crafting such an agenda is a prime function of the NSC. In this light, the new National Security Strategy approved by McMaster, which blithely heralds the revival of the cold war, reads, at least in part, as political cover for Trump’s chumminess with Putin. Deliberately removed from the strategy were references to global climate change as a threat to national security—even though the military is worried about it and plans for its operational impact—to placate Trump’s ideological, anti-science domestic base.

In Dereliction of Duty, McMaster was particularly indignant that the president would be guided by domestic considerations in prosecuting foreign policy. His outrage was to some extent naive or disingenuous: all wartime presidents have been transparently influenced by domestic concerns. But the central point is that McMaster used to be committed to minimizing the political skewing of foreign policy, which requires vigorous consultation at the NSC. As national security adviser, he has abandoned that commitment and channeled Trump’s “Make America Great Again” jingoism.

It is normal and human that McMaster felt duty-bound to accept his present post and was grateful for an opportunity to cap a brilliant but bumptious Army career with a move that amounted to a fourth star. Being constrained by the president’s viewpoint is of course part of the job description. McMaster was aware of this going in. But he also apparently recognizes that he is working for an unfit president: BuzzFeed has reported that, just as Tillerson allegedly called Trump a “moron” after a meeting in July, McMaster privately characterized him as an “idiot” and a “dope” with the mind of a “kindergartener” at a corporate dinner that same month.10

McMaster should know better than to follow this president into policy hell, yet he is doing just that. The degradation of the interagency process on his watch has made it easy for Trump’s ignorance to drive foreign policy, amplified the damage done by a bureaucratically nihilistic secretary of state, and eroded the United States’ global influence and standing. Perhaps McMaster fears being fired and calculates that his likely successor would be someone like current White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a retired four-star general who has revealed himself to be a grossly partisan, far-right ideologue and potentially a more willing Trump accomplice than he is. And it is possible that a president as wayward as Trump and a secretary of state as misguided as Tillerson would prevent any national security adviser, however accomplished and assiduous, from distilling good policy.

There has been friction between McMaster and Trump. The president reportedly finds his national security adviser pedantic, condescending, and potentially disloyal, and McMaster’s affirmation of evidence of the Russian election interference will no doubt intensify the latter perception. But McMaster’s very retention suggests that Trump overridingly values the general’s prestige and bearing. For him to take the job and then refrain from using those qualities to try to steer US policy in the right direction amounts to dereliction of duty.

—February 21, 2018

This article has been revised. See the clarification below from Jonathan Stevenson.


Clarification April 19, 2018

  1. 1

    H.R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam (Harper Perennial, 1997), pp. 333–334. 

  2. 2

    H.R. McMaster, “The Uncertainties of Strategy,” Survival, Vol. 57, No. 1 (February–March 2015), p. 197. Survival is produced by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a London-based think tank. Prior to his appointment as national security adviser, McMaster was an IISS consulting senior fellow and a contributing editor of Survival. I am currently an IISS senior fellow as well as editor of Strategic Comments and a contributing editor of Survival. 

  3. 3

    See Ivo H. Daalder and I.M. Destler, In the Shadow of the Oval Office: Profiles of the National Security Advisers and the Presidents They Served—From JFK to George W. Bush (Simon and Schuster, 2011).  

  4. 4

    See Evan Osnos, “Making China Great Again,” The New Yorker, January 8, 2018. 

  5. 5

    H.R. McMaster and Gary D. Cohn, “America First Doesn’t Mean America Alone,” The Wall Street Journal, May 30, 2017.  

  6. 6

    Gary D. Cohn and H.R. McMaster, “The Trump Vision for America Abroad,” The New York Times, July 13, 2017.  

  7. 7

    The National Security Council at 70: Charting the Future of America’s Security,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 10, 2017.  

  8. 8

    McMaster, Dereliction of Duty, p. 327. 

  9. 9

    Greg Miller, Greg Jaffe, and Philip Rucker, “Doubting the Intelligence, Trump Pursues Putin and Leaves a Russian Threat Unchecked,” The Washington Post, December 14, 2017. 

  10. 10

    Joseph Bernstein, “Sources: McMaster Mocked Trump’s Intelligence at a Private Dinner,” BuzzFeed, November 20, 2017.