February 21, 2017 2:16:33 pm
US President Donald Trump won praise for appointing Lt Gen Herbert Raymond McMaster as his new national security advisor, but his relationship with him may be tricky. The decision was met with adulation in Washington’s power circles – the appointment of the war tactician who led in combat in two wars in Iraq and carries significant counterinsurgency savvy. However, he will require massive heft and approbation from his president to take on the notorious political engineers on Pennsylvania avenue.
While Trump promised during his election campaign that as an outsider he will challenge the established political and bureaucratic setup in Washington, he is known and is expected to be distracted on occasion. Disagreements may cause conflict in the White House as Trump deals with a war veteran whose doctoral thesis ‘Dereliction of Duty’, published as a book in 1997 which won many accolades, questions the failure of generals of the Vietnam War. In the book he has questioned the ‘failed tactics’ and ‘inadequate preparations’ particularly by President Lyndon Johnson. His book terms the failure as timidity of the then US military leadership that failed in posing any opposition to White House’s political agenda that, he argues, sowed the seeds of defeat for US and its ally south Vietnam.
Trump’s previous pick retired Vice Adm. Robert Harward declined taking the position upon hearing he will not be allowed to appoint his own team at the National Security Council. McMaster agreed to the position as by convention and propriety he cannot impose conditions to his commander in chief prior to taking up the position. He will, however, remain in duty even after taking up the position of NSA.
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But McMaster finds himself in a precarious position as the NSA job, though prestigious, comes with the rider of working closely with a President who leans heavily on political advice of Vice President Mike Pence, Steve Bannon, and his other close political aides and has a penchant for being proudly unpredictable. In a way, McMaster’s situation of being a serving military officer suits Trump and his team of politicos. However, the inherent streak of questioning half-baked decisions of strategic importance may cause friction between McMaster and Trump’s close aides, maybe even Trump.
His notable exploits include the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. His strategic nous was lauded in his 2005 offensive against the al Qaeda in the city of Tal Afar in northern Iraq. He brings a wealth of combat knowledge and proven leadership experience over decades that would act as a counterpoint to the non-military experience influencers in White House in matters of policy formulation and strategic decision-making.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said recently that Trump has given “full authority for McMaster to hire whatever staff he sees fit.” Though the denial of the same to Trump’s previous pick who wasn’t a serving officer says a lot about the extent of freedom that may be allowed to McMaster.
However, it seems unlikely that in this situation, McMaster would stay silent for the course of his term. In his book, which he wrote when he was a major, McMaster took US generals to task. He called the chiefs of the armed services as the ‘five silent men’ for giving White House the job of formulating the doomed war strategy in Vietnam and how they had even failed to give an honest opinion of the same thereafter. His book is now included in the US Marine Corps’ reading list for colonels and generals.
The challenges facing Trump and McMaster are huge as the prime adversary is the Islamic State. A harmonious relationship and balance of opinions will be crucial for proper foreign policy and strategic action. Trump has vowed to lift restraints on the US military to take decisive action against the IS and McMaster could be instrumental to that action. He is highly knowledgeable about the sectarian politics of the region and nuances of ethnic dynamics that helps elements like the Islamic State spread its roots in the Middle East.
In contrast to Trump’s initial choice Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, new NSA McMaster has won praise from all corridors in Washington, something not conferred on other members of Trump’s national security council. The tussle seems to be between White House and the ‘other’ centre of power which McMaster will be a key part of. The question now is only of the extent of influence McMaster is able to render in policy decisions.
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