HR McMaster served as National Security Advisor for just over a year. His struggles to work with Donald Trump have been widely reported. After a year, the swashbuckling tycoon fired the military intellectual – via tweet.
Two years later, the retired general wrote a book. Despite its troubles, it’s not a White House revelation.
Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World contains elements of memories but is more concerned with discussing US foreign policy – about Russia, China, the Middle East, Iran – complaining about how these enemies profit from the drastically deepened internal political divide from Trump.
“I’m talking about how we’re more connected to each other electronically than ever,” says McMaster, over the phone to New York from Stanford, where he is now a colleague at the Hoover Institution. “But more distant from each other psychologically and emotionally than ever. So I recommend we get together, you know, on the basketball and rugby courts, to renew our mutual friendship and to transcend the vitriol we see on social media. “
From an American political figure, the mention of rugby might seem rather unusual. But it’s not unexpected here.
McMaster and I have already talked about a sport that could be – after his family, the US military and history – the fourth great love of his life. That interview, shortly after McMaster’s firing, quite baffled some in a Washington press eager to hear him spread the dirt on Trump. So could this.
“What I like about rugby,” he continues, “is that it has real lessons for us. We can fight like crazy on the pitch, and then we all have a pint at the party. And immediately become friends with the same people. I just think it’s extremely important to bring this attitude into our civic life and into our communities. “
In the US military community, a growing chorus is lining up against Trump. McMaster did not join it. He says he never voted and went to the White House as a soldier, simply to serve the president. When asked about the controversy over Trump’s dismissive attitude towards US military and women, even those killed in combat, he said he had not personally heard such comments.
But it would be wrong to say he doesn’t criticize Trump. Battlegrounds is a critical look at foreign policy, from a hawkish but internationalist point of view, praising the president in some cases but generally at odds with his administration and others, particularly that of Barack Obama.
In the promotional wake, from The Late Show starring Stephen Colbert to PBS Newshour, McMaster commented on Trump’s flattery of Vladimir Putin, his feeding divisions encouraged by Putin’s Russia, and even his “aiding and abetting” the new election interference. from Moscow; its failure to condemn white supremacists; his suggestion that he might not leave office if beaten by Joe Biden in November.
As the election approaches, Trump seeks foreign policy victories. When it comes to the “eternal wars” in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, it has sought to bring US troops home, regardless of the cost to allies. Peace talks are underway in Afghanistan.
Trump’s policy, says McMaster, is “based on what we want war to be. We want war to be in a situation that favors our withdrawal, right? So, then, let’s create the enemy we want. In the Taliban we conjure a enemy who has completely disconnected from transnational terrorist organizations or jihadist terrorists who pose a threat to us, like Al-Qaeda. Well, that’s a complete fiction. “
“Let’s create a Taliban who will not pursue the same brutal form of Sharia law that it imposed on the Afghan people and on Afghan women in particular, but on the entire population from 1996 to 2001. And so I think it’s totally unrealistic. What is amazing about Afghanistan is that if we wanted to leave, we would have to get out. What we have done is come out of it in a way that greatly complicates the situation for the Afghan government and the Afghan people, 95% of whom want nothing to do with the Taliban. “
For McMaster this is a perfect example of “strategic narcissism,” a concept coined by political scientist Hans Morgenthau and examined in depth in Battlegrounds. McMaster says it’s a term he “started using a few years ago”. It seems doubtful that the clearly non-strategic narcissist in the Oval Office ever listened if he tried to explain.
When he went to the White House, McMaster was known as a military thinker, a soldier who won a famous tank battle in the Gulf War, wrote a book about Vietnam, and pursued counter-insurgency tactics in the wars after 9/11.
“I’m telling a story,” he says. “My partner in the Middle East was often Joel Rayburn, who is now in the state department [as special envoy for Syria]. And at a time when we failed to understand the disconnect between reality on the ground in Iraq and our politics, [which seemed] a race to fail, he said, ‘You know, the problem is we’re in I-raq, but the people in Washington are basing the policy on My-raq. And My-raq is everything you want it to be.
“It’s dark humor, because obviously the stakes were pretty high, life or death in a combat situation. But I think it perfectly captures strategic narcissism.”
“It is important to read”
On the page, McMaster describes his family’s bewilderment when, preparing to go to Washington, he packed “more books than clothes.” Once in the Trump administration, he served – not always happily – alongside another ardent reader, Secretary of Defense and retired Marine Corps general James Mattis.
McMaster’s book on Vietnam, Dereliction of Duty, grew out of his history thesis and described the failures of the joint chiefs of staff who advised Lyndon B. Johnson in the early days of a war that turned into a nightmare. It is considered a classic.
“In this case I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to research, write and think about national security decision making and presidential decision making in the context of the Vietnam War,” he said. “So I brought with me that perspective and determination to avoid at least the same pitfalls that I identified from a historical perspective.”
Did he avoid them?
“Yes, I think I did. I think we did it, like real National Security Council staff. I can only talk about those 13 months, but in those 13 months we put in place a process that I believe prevented us from repeating the mistakes I identified about the period during which Vietnam became an American war, from November 1963 to the summer of 1965. “
In the White House, McMaster faced problems including Russian election interference; North Korea and its nuclear threat; an Iran nuclear deal that Trump wanted to wipe out; and the rise of China.
He tried, he says, to “understand issues holistically before rushing to action, not to tell the president what the president wanted to hear, but to give him more options and evaluations of those options. And not to allow internal political considerations to shape those options in such a way as to be disconnected from overseas realities. “
It’s hard to say that the United States under Trump made much progress on any of the overseas realities above, when McMaster was in office or ever since.
Russia is interfering in the elections again, Trump shines with his silence; North Korea has increased its nuclear threat, despite Trump’s courting of Kim Jong-un; Trump withdrew from the Iran deal; and Trump’s trade war with China has turned into a blame game for the coronavirus pandemic – in the midst of which, the president is now a statistic.
But it’s easy to say that no adviser could have locked Trump up on any of these issues, let alone the whole hideous buffet. And unlike his successor as National Security Advisor, McMaster has resisted the temptation to vent his spleen in the press.
John Bolton wrote The Room Where It Happened, a barrage of bombs on China, Russia and the Ukraine scandal that led to Trump’s impeachment, a book that seems to pour notes and memos straight onto the page and that the White House has been looking for. to stop.
McMaster says he “skimmed” Bolton’s book. “I looked into how he dealt with particular topics, but I didn’t get a chance to read it.”
If not really a “no comment”, it’s close. Of other books by former Trump insiders, McMaster says he’s only seen a few.
“I once asked one of my advisors at UNC Chapel Hill, a great historian of the American Revolution, a wonderful man, Don Higginbotham, if he had read a recent book. And he said, “HR, historians don’t read books. They use them.” So, I’ve skimmed a few. “
“The book I’m reading right now is Kim Ghattas ‘Black Wave, which is about Saudi Arabia, Iran and their rivalry. It’s really pretty good. And then the other book I’m reading is Thomas’ Active Measures. Ridd, which is a story of Russian disinformation and political warfare. “
McMaster writes about his experience at the end of those efforts, describing Moscow’s role in promoting a #FireMcMaster hashtag that Trump eventually obliged. He described dismay at the president’s reluctance to support his intelligence community on such concerns.
“The president was not an isolationist”
Regarding the challenges of Trump’s briefing, McMaster remains diplomatic, evading discussion of what Bolton called “stories, true or not, of Trump breaking up. [McMaster’s] long and exhausting briefings “.
“I never expected the president, committed as a president, to read an entire book,” he says. “And so, you know, my first few days in administration, we had an all hands meeting. And I said, ‘Hey, we can develop what we think are the perfect political products for the president and ask the president to conform to what we think is the best way to convey information, or we can convey information the way the president likes. to receive it. “So that’s what we did when I was there. And I think in those 13 months we’ve been effective at doing it.”
But if McMaster’s political creed was fundamentally interventionist and Trump’s political instinct fundamentally isolationist, then surely McMaster was then one of the “adults in the room,” widely reported for keeping Trump somewhere close to the right path until he is he finally released?
“Well, what I would think is that the president was not an isolationist. He was skeptical, I would say, of prolonged commitments, especially military overseas, if those commitments were obviously not in the interest of the American people, or did not prioritize American security. “
“What I try to argue in the book is not an argument for massive troop engagements. abroad. It is an argument in favor, I think I would call it a reasonable and sustained commitment that integrates all elements of national power, including the military, but as part of a broader diplomatic, economic, information and intelligence approach to these international competitions which are already in progress “.
In search of a metaphor, he returns to the rugby field.
“The point I try to make in the book is that these games, you know, are already underway. And if you’re not on the pitch, they’ll kick your ass. “
McMaster was kicked out of the White House by Trump. Parts of his vision are strikingly at odds with the president: he rejects the denial of climate change, writes that “immigrants have been and remain one of America’s greatest competitive advantages.” Trump will never listen. Maybe a successor will.
“I think it is possible to prioritize American interests,” says McMaster, “but also to recognize that the best way for America to promote those interests is from within a community of like-minded countries and nations, committed to preserving the competitive advantages that our free and open society and our free market economic systems have benefited from. “
‘I’m not really offended “
McMaster is determined that interviews shouldn’t become revealing. But it turns out he’s willing to discuss a notorious presidential attack.
In April 2018, the New Yorker reported that Trump, always obsessed with appearances, had despaired of his adviser’s dress sense. The suit McMaster wore instead of his lieutenant-general uniform on duty made him look “like a beer salesman,” the president said.
“After serving in the military for 33 years, I already thought no one would come to me for the fashion sense, right? But it’s so funny, I think so will tell a story.
“I work in an administration with a lot of people who have richer working backgrounds. And so I’m talking to Gary Cohn [then chief economic adviser, formerly of Goldman Sachs], it’s my first day in the west wing, anyway the first full day, and he says to me, “Hey, nice dress there,” you know. And I say, “Thanks, but the bad news is it will cost you $ 90.” Because I had received it in Afghanistan, from a tailor there. I showed him the label: “Mobin Tailor, Kabul”.
Among Trump’s books are many other examples of the president’s mocking advisor: for his military demeanor, in refusing to listen to his briefings.
McMaster laughs again and says he doesn’t “really take offense at those kinds of comments if he made them. I don’t know.
“I mean, what I’ve done, over time, has been to update myself to a level of fashion that I hoped would be commensurate with a premium Scotch supplier.”