Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster says what he thinks, and can’t resist a tough problem that everyone else says is impossible. He’s also been called bullheaded, by those who call him friend and enemy.
Those qualities help explain why he said yes to becoming President Donald Trump’s second national security adviser, after the resignation of Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn amid charges Flynn improperly communicated with the Russian ambassador and then lied to the vice president about it.
McMaster’s stubborn streak also helps explain why he got passed over twice for promotion, before breaking through a logjam of Army officers who were offended by his renowned frankness, and not impressed by his prodigious scholarship and Ph.D, which is sometimes an impediment to advancement in the U.S. Army.
Now the question becomes: Is McMaster too bullheaded for a White House already filled with power players like Counselor to the President Steve Bannon, presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Trump himself? Or is McMaster just contrary enough? Trump, the ultimate political insurgent, has just picked one of the U.S. military’s most famous counter-insurgents to become his top national security aide. What comes next is anyone’s guess.
Trump transition official James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation called such questions "silly."
“H.R. would not take job if he did not respect Trump. Trump would not have offered it to him if he did not plan to listen to him," he wrote in an email to The Daily Beast.
"Bannon et al are not some shadow government," he said, adding that Mattis, Kelly, Tillerson and Sessions "have enormous influence and H.R. will fit in like glove."
Indeed, the pick is meeting instant praise. Trump administration detractors hailed the choice as a chato right the controversy-tossed National Security Council.
“H.R. McMaster is one of the most impressive army officers of his generation—a rare combination of soldier and scholar,” said Max Boot, a military historian at the Council on Foreign Relations, in an email to The Daily Beast. “But not even the most talented individual will succeed in that job as long as Bannon and Kushner continue to run their own foreign policies and as long as Trump continues to make outlandish statements questioning basic American commitments and valued allies.”
Former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said McMaster can handle that. “He will quickly figure out the politics and his intellect and reputation will earn the respect of all the players,” Odierno predicted in an email to The Daily Beast.
Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who had become one of Trump’s loudest critics, said in a statement that McMaster “knows how to succeed. I give President Trump great credit for this decision, as well as his national security cabinet choices. I could not imagine a better, more capable national security team than the one we have right now.”
Friction between Trump and that team could come early, however. While Flynn took great professional risks—and reportedly $40,000 in Kremlin money, according to The New Yorker—warming up to Moscow, McMaster recently led an Army study into how best to take on the Russian military, should conflict ever break out. That could put McMaster at odds with his famously Putin-friendly new boss.
A West Point graduate, McMaster has accrued the time on the battlefield that has been a magnet for Trump in his appointments—his secretaries of defense and homeland security also served as generals. Such military commanders, active duty or retired, also have the advantage of mostly staying reticent about their political beliefs, which means they are more likely to pass the Trump “loyalty test” of never having spoken against the president publicly or in social media.
McMaster fought with distinction in the first Gulf War and second Gulf War, while also advising Gen. David Petraeus.
He took some time out to earn his doctorate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He focused on the missteps of the top brass during the Vietnam War, and turned his thesis into a book titled Dereliction of Duty.
“McMaster stresses two elements in his discussion of America's failure in Vietnam: the hubris of [President Lyndon] Johnson and his advisors and the weakness of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” a description of the book reads, an ironic foreshadowing of how he’ll have to manage the outsized ego of the current commander in chief.
The book speaks to McMaster’s historical awareness that his duty is to tell Trump what he needs to hear, not what he wants to hear—and a credit to the commander in chief who is choosing the blunt speaker as counterpoint to advisers like Bannon, who has established what many believe to by a rival to the National Security Council, and Kushner, who has been given some of the Trump administration’s most sensitive tasks.
“I have known McMaster for over a decade and cannot imagine a more decent man in his position today,” Andrew Exum, a retired Army officer and Pentagon official, wrote in The Atlantic. “This job is going to drive him crazy, because he does not suffer fools gladly. Unless he has been given some assurances about both staffing and process, he will struggle in a competition to influence the president—to be the last man in the room when the president makes a key decision.”
“H.R. is a very forceful advocate for his positions and viewpoints,” said Ohio State professor Dr. Peter Mansoor, a retired U.S army colonel who worked for McMaster in Iraq. Mansoor said then-commander Gen. David Petraeus would bring McMaster in to study tough problems and come up with solutions. “When the president makes a decision, he will salute and execute forcefully, provided it’s ethical,” he added
McMaster led troops in Iraq during some of the worst of the fighting, from June 2004 to June 2006, and was credited with driving al Qaeda of Iraq out of the northern city of Tel Afar—a city now held by the so-called Islamic State. He became one of the first commanders to use a counterinsurgency plan that focused on securing the local populace, rather than simply killing foes. It took years for the rest of the military to finally catch up. And when it was all over, McMaster was no more kind in his assessments of the political and military leadership of the early stage of that war than he was in his critiques of the Vietnam era’s chiefs.
“Believers in the theory known as the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’… predicted that further advances in military technology would deliver dominance over any opponent,” he wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times. “The theory was hubristic. Yet it became orthodoxy and complicated our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, where underdeveloped war plans encountered unanticipated political problems.”
After Iraq, McMaster went on to lead a task force trying to stem corruption in the Afghan government—a nearly impossible task, as he lamented to those close to him at the time, but he did work with Afghan officials to support innovative new ways to track money like paying troops directly by cellphone, to cut out middle management officers who were skimming funds off the top or collecting pay for “ghost soldiers” who didn’t exist.
He’s currently helping shape the Army’s future at the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, after stints as a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies.
McMaster gave a hint of what he might recommend to Trump for the fight against ISIS in a 2013 interview with Breaking Defense. It might not be totally in sync with the president’s stated preferences to “bomb the shit” out of jihadists—and keep American ground forces out of the fight.
“Targeting [enemies] is not strategy,” he said, quipping that’s merely a militarized version of “George Costanza in Seinfeld, ‘leave on an up note’—just go in, do a lot of damage, and leave.”
And while chocking up culture and language skills to work with local partners is important, he said fighting can’t always be outsourced. “Our interests are not always congruent with those of our so-called partners,” which means recommending U.S. troops do more of the job, he explained.
“It’s not my job to sell it,” he concluded in his 2013 interview. “You just provide your best professional assessment. In a democracy, you get the army that the people are willing to pay for.”