The force of newly named National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster’s personality and notoriety as one of the US Army’s most celebrated leaders does not guarantee a stronger National Security Council under the Trump administration, former administration officials familiar with the job warned.
If he is ineffective, the administration will continue making national security decisions without the entity created to help protect the president through the process.
McMaster’s persona must be supplemented with access to the president, control over his staffing, and the potential to have as much influence as long-time Trump supporters who already have the president’s ear, like Steve Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, they said. That is, he must manage those above him, below him, and lateral to him within the administration, Douglas Ollivant, a senior fellow at New America Foundation who served on President George W. Bush’s and President Obama’s National Security Councils, said.
“And that’s just inside the White House. Then he needs to manage the interagency” departments that he will manage as national security adviser, Ollivant said.
Not since Colin Powell became national security adviser in 1987 has the National Security Council been led by an active-duty soldier, in this case a three-star Army general. Two of the people McMaster is supposed to manage are his military bosses — Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. And that could easily become awkward.
“The job of the national security adviser is to sometimes pick up the phone and yell at the secretary of defense,” Colin Kahl, national security adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden and current associate professor at Georgetown University, told BuzzFeed News.
McMaster’s naming Monday was celebrated across Washington and the US military, where nearly every commander has had McMaster’s 1997 book Dereliction of Duty assigned as required reading. But while McMaster is celebrated as the best warrior-intellectual of his generation, one who is as savvy on the battlefield as he is in the classroom, he is not necessarily politically savvy.
He holds strong opinions and conveys them just as forcefully. It is, friends say, the natural result of someone so smart and committed to those ideas. But perhaps because of that, McMaster is not one to muddle through a situation. He likely will either succeed or fail spectacularly.
McMaster inherits an NSC composed almost entirely of military intelligence officers loyal to his predecessor, Ret. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who was ousted Feb. 13. Even Vice President Mike Pence, whose anger over Flynn’s dishonesty spurred the lieutenant general’s firing, has a national security adviser who also is close to Flynn. But many of those Flynn loyalists also worked with McMaster in the wars in Iraq.
On Tuesday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters that McMaster will have “100%” say over staffing decisions.
"He will have whatever he needs to implement a successful team,” Spicer said.
But it remains unclear whether McMaster can change the current deputy, K.T. McFarland, who reportedly has a fan in Trump. The deputy national security adviser essentially must be a detailed-oriented person who properly tees up the issues the top NSC officials must address. And the national security adviser has typically been allowed to choose the most important person to them.
Trump has shown no signs of relinquishing control of staffing to McMaster. When announcing McMaster’s appointment on Monday, he appeared to make a unilateral NSC staffing decision, saying John Bolton, former ambassador to the United Nations, would “work with us in a somewhat different capacity.” Trump did not specify what that role would be.
McMaster himself addressed the importance of subordinates in The Art of Command: Military Leadership from George Washington to Colin Powell, for which McMaster wrote the foreword last month.
“Ultimately, subordinates are in the best position to judge a leader’s effectiveness. And those individuals are not only the agents of a leader’s success, but also his or her legacy,” McMaster wrote in the book, set to be released in December.
Once he sorts out staffing needs, McMaster will also need to establish a relationship with Trump. The national security adviser, perhaps more than any other national security job in Washington, depends on the interpersonal relationship with the president. To be effective, he must be the last person in the room when the president makes a major national security decision. McMaster’s relationship with Trump is so far unclear. During the announcement, Trump appeared to be holding a factsheet about his incoming adviser and said he had “watched and read a lot over the last two days.”
Should McMaster successfully navigate such potential pitfalls in what is considered one of the toughest jobs in Washington, he could become the third leg of the strong coterie of national security voices – alongside Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
The three are seen as like-minded thinkers within the administration on the war against groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda, as well as on how the US should deploy military force. But of the three, only McMaster is inside the White House. Should he establish his voice in the administration’s national security circle, his influence could bolster the Pentagon and intelligence community’s positions.
“That’s a powerful group that is hard to ignore and hard to override,” Ollivant said.
McMaster’s job as adviser is to manage the various agencies and departments that deal with national security and determine which decisions should involve the president. And there are tangible measures of success, Kahl said.
“I think we will know if its succeeding if there is a clear process in place to set policy goals and implement them. And also to the degree there is less of a chasm between what Trump says and what everybody else in national security cabinet does. Right now, there is huge confusion,” Kahl explained.
The turmoil around the NSC has subsumed the first month of the Trump administration. The NSC was not part of discussions over the Jan. 29 raid on a suspected al-Qaeda compound in Bayda, Yemen, that led to the death of a Navy SEAL and as many as nine children. And questions about Flynn's contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the US last year over sanctions put in place by the Obama administration have swirled around the NSC.
McMaster becomes the third person to lead the NSC of the month-long Trump administration. The council was created in 1947; in all there have been 25 national security advisers before McMaster.
For now, McMaster is adjusting to a rapid change in his career in a matter of days. On Friday, he planned to retire this summer. Over the weekend he met with Trump and then flew to Washington to start his new job. He is not expected to head home again to Fort Eustis, Virginia, anytime soon.