In December I attended a foreign policy conference on the Middle East sponsored by the Hoover Institution. The dinner speaker had to back out . . . because he had just been nominated to be secretary of defense. In place of Jim Mattis (who was at Hoover prior to being named secretary), Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, a visiting fellow at Hoover, spoke.
While the remarks were off the record, the audience of foreign policy gurus was treated to a big-picture view of American strengths and challenges. He was erudite and charismatic. He is obviously a student of history. Aside from being hoarse, a result of excessive shouting at the Army-Navy game, he explained, he was a splendid speaker. He's now President Trump's pick for national security adviser.
McMaster is highly respected in the conservative foreign policy community, and a man with little pretense and a great deal of battlefield experience.
"H.R. McMaster is widely respected as a terrific combat leader and also as a brilliant scholar and writer," says Tim Kane, a Hoover fellow. "He is the whole package. McMaster will speak truth to power and, frankly, his selection reflects extremely well on President Trump."
Unlike his predecessor, who many would say was "wound too tight," McMaster is forceful but not tense, with a good sense of humor. He is, as one foreign policy academic put it, a "straight arrow." This is not a man to promote coddling with Russia or to buy into the notion that NATO is a burden or to indict the entire Muslim world. He's no Michael T. Flynn -- and that's a good thing. Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute tells me, "He may be the best possible outcome under the circumstances."
McMaster is also an author of a book remarkably relevant to his challenges going into this administration, "Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam." One reviewer explained the value of the book:
What gives "Dereliction of Duty" its special value, however, is McMaster's comprehensive, balanced and relentless exploration of the specific role of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He has doggedly waded through the records of every meeting of the Joint Chiefs concerned with Vietnam, followed every memo and report to its final, usually inconclusive, end and read through dozens of memoirs and histories. As a result, he is able to explode some longstanding myths about the role of the Chiefs.
According to the most popular of these, the Joint Chiefs always knew what was needed to win in Vietnam but were consistently ignored or circumvented by Johnson, Robert S. McNamara and their associates. McMaster shows that the President and his civilian advisers did indeed ignore the Joint Chiefs whenever it suited them, but he also demonstrates that the Chiefs were willing, or at least silent, accomplices in this process.
Well, that sort of mess may provide guidance as to the dangers of dysfunction and distrust in warmaking. How will he fare in this administration, an organization lacking the discipline and clear lines of command in the military in which he served his entire life?
In his role as national security adviser, he is supposed to be an honest broker, a presenter of information and formulator of choices for the president. Without his own axes to grind and with good working relations with Mattis, he has the opportunity to be an effective conduit between the president and the various foreign policy agencies and departments.
If the strategy for surviving the Trump years and quarantining Stephen K. Bannon is to provide coherent, unified and persuasive advice without political interference, you'd want someone like McMaster, a no-nonsense manager who can create whenever possible a united front with Mattis, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, director of national intelligence nominee Dan Coats, CIA director Mike Pompeo and others. That still leaves the problem of Trump's judgment, conflicts of interest, honesty and impulsivity, but at least the foreign policy apparatus won't be a cause of his failures.
A speech to squadron and battalion commanders McMaster gave in March 2016 is instructive. "You have enormous power as a commander. So do all leaders in your organization," he said. "It is unnecessary to shout, threaten, or intimidate. Your words -- or at least your orders -- are literally the law. Enforce orders calmly and consistently."
Well, that is how the military works, not civilian leadership, especially when so many of those with whom he will interact will report to others, not to him. His straightforward, non-bullying approach will be a welcome change at the National Security Council from Flynn, who lost the job before last, in part, due to management deficits and rotten treatment of his staff.
Not all military men succeed, however, at being national security adviser (e.g., Gen. James Jones). His success will depend on the ability to make alliances, wield a stiletto in the bureaucracy, manage a paper process, prevent freelancing aides and officials from working around the policymaking process, and forge consensus among his peers. In this administration in particular, it's no easy job.