President Trump’s first National Security Advisor (NSA) pick, retired Army LTG Mike Flynn, was a mistake. Flynn did not appear to have the skills, temperament or policy background to navigate or manage U.S. security actions, especially in such a heavily scrutinized political position. Flynn’s background is purely intelligence with little security or political savvy outside of the military. However, Trumps’ new pick, LTG H.R. McMasters, appears to possess a better qualifications and is considered within the military, an iconic visionary. A better strategist, very good on his feet and more than adept to provide credible and sound policy advice as well as effectively manage the National Security Council (NSC).
The new NSA’s intellectual curiosity, articulate skills, pragmatism, and insatiable appetite to challenge the status quo makes him a tremendous and non-controversial asset for the administration. Or does it?
The primary duty of the NSA is to provide security policy and advise the President. The NSA also manages and acts as an “honest broker” for the National Security Council (NSC). Additionally, he or she oversees and manages the NSA/NSC staff.” The position has evolved over the years since its initial establishment as part of the 1947 National Security Act. The act was a major restructuring of the United States government’s military and intelligence agencies following World War II. The State Department and military bodies lacked a central organization and process to deliberate and fuse security policy for the president. It merged and created several organizations to include the National Society Council (NSC).
The NSA position
The NSC was statutorily established as an advisory body to the president on security policy matters. The act also created the “executive secretary” or what is now known as the National Security Advisor (NSA). Over the years, the role of the NSA has become the president’s most important source of policy advice on national security. The position is so close to the president that many NSA’s develop a personal relationship with the President that transcends everyday business. Each president has treated it differently, but it has gained substantial importance and value within the White House. For example, Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s NSA, became a household name and some argued solely shaped, influenced and determined critical security policy for the United States (e.g. Vietnam War, Israel and China).
Why it is important today
Today’s security challenges are no different as the U.S. approaches an aggressive and powerful China, a resurgent Russia, misaligned migrations, growing radical Islam and both a nuclear capable North Korea and potential nuclear cable Iran. In some respects, the security environment today is at a defining turning point in world history. A point in which the U.S. must return to its leadership role and follow through with some tough and potentially unpopular security policies. There is no doubt that the selection of the NSA is more critical today than at any point this century – a selection President Trump must get right.
My first exposure to H.R. McMasters was reviewing some of his writings on his experience in Iraq. In the fall of 2005, I had just spent six months in Afghanistan running the counter-IED program. Entering Afghanistan, I walked into a deeply entrenched Army and Air Force culture. One where tactics were still Desert Storm vintage design and execution –nothing could have been farther from what was needed. Then, Col McMasters, had commanded the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Iraq. Post deployment he wrote extensively about the militaries inability to adapt to the security situation. The U.S. and many of its commanders were executing as if we were fighting a large “force on force” enemy. However, what existed was a non-contiguous and non-linear battlefield concentrating on single insertion points of small forces targeting high-profile insurgents. And a security environment that required numerous boots on the ground securing ministries, power stations, oil fields and neighborhoods. Protecting the infrasture and providing safeguards for the people was just as important as taking out bad guys. The reality of Iraq and Afghanistan was a classic counterinsurgency (COIN), where there was little large force on force operations and success was dependent on garnering the will of the people; not just levying destruction.
My personal experience
I decided to write about my own experiences in Afghanistan when I came upon Col McMasters writings. HE GOT IT! His work concentrated on COIN operations. Here the emphasis was on limited kinetic engagement, more boots on the ground, and real-time intelligence. The ultimate goal was winning the hearts and minds of the locals. Further, and to possible insight of LTG McMaster’s pysche, he spent time understanding Islam and respecting their cultures — at least the peaceful side of it. The only way to get intelligence was to get the confidence and trust of the populous; dropping 2000lbs bombs on civilians did little to gain native support. COIN was not groundbreaking. We had forgotten our own experiences in Vietnam as well as the Israeli’s in Lebanon and the French in Algeria. Lessons of improper force application, disprespect for locals and a misunderstadning of cultures and beliefs. The sins of arrogance and a reaffriming of the old adage, “we are only as good as our last war”, spoke volumes the early involvement in Iraq. McMasters pushed the Army to change. And to his credit, successfully played out in the 2006 surge led by Gen Petraeus (another great COIN proponent).
Dissent can be costly
McMaster’s would eventually challenge Army leadership and it would catch up to him as he was passed over for promotion to Brigadier General. Many senior Army generals had quite a distaste for his objectionable flair. And today, this very propensity to challenge may also catch up to him with the President?
There is no doubt that on Army doctrine and tactics, few can match the intellect and forward thinking of an H.R. McMasters. And to his credit, his boldness to challenge an outdated and inflexible Army culture brought success in Iraq. But will this same success and the influence of Middle Eastern culture play out in a Trump administration where challenging the boss’s doctrinal position on radical islamic terrorism, may not go well??
McMaster’s is misunderstanding Trump’s position
Recently, during an “all hands” meeting with NSC staff, McMaster’s questioned Trump’s labeling of “radical Islamic terrorism” as “not helpful.” Further adding, “these terrorists actions are un-Islamic.” No doubt, an influence from his COIN experience in Iraq. Similarily, it is true that labeling radical terrorists as Islamic may not be useful overseas as it fundamentally questions and labels an entire faith. And we will need Islamic countries to help eradicate ISIS. But Trump’s issue with Islam’s perversion is not outside the U.S. but inside our borders. His immigration ban against seven predominantly Muslim countries was not to stop terrorism in those countries but to keep it from entering ours. It is a warning shot to any country that has terrorist-linked problems, there will be heavy scrutiny at our border; meaning, we don’t want your terrorists or any culture that condones or promotes it. McMaster’s should step back and ensure he fully understands this position. Appeasing or swaying NSC staff members to his line of thinking may sit well with his team and other concerned people or main stream media, but may not go well with the boss?
Furthermore, LTG McMasters wore his uniform while addressing his new staff. To many, this may seem insignificant but to me (a retired two star general and 35-year veteran), this shows his inexperience dealing with civilians and the need for him to quickly make this transition. He may effectively still be in the Army (which I disagree with), but the job is all civilian and political. McMaster’s must leave his uniform and the Army culture behind him. And do not make the same mistake many do by reminding your new staff, “this is how we did it the last place I worked.” If he is to survive, he must take his military hat off, completely understand his new boss and adapt to a political environment. In policy and politics, words mean things much deeper and broader than surface sound bites. Remember, millions voted for President Trump on this “Radical Islamic Terrorist” position. It would be good for the new and talented NSA to recognize this.
Words of advice
In closing, the NSA position is more than just security policy. It is about politics. LTG McMaster’s may have a difficult time convincing the President that what he campaigned on is off the mark. America loved this President’s boldness and ability to say what most American’s were thinking and believed. And to the main point of this blog, they expect the President to deliver…and so far, he has. If McMasters thinks that hiding from a label will lessen radicalization, then ask Europe how it has worked out?