WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump has tapped Army lieutenant general HR McMaster, a prominent military strategist known as a creative thinker, as his new national security adviser, replacing the ousted Michael Flynn.
Trump, by appointing McMaster, is hoping to course correct after his first pick resigned and his second turned down the vital post.
Trump announced the counterinsurgency strategist’s appointment at his Florida estate Mar-a-Lago, ending a one-week search to replace Michael Flynn, who lasted less than a month on the job.
Trump described McMaster as “man of tremendous talent and tremendous experience. He is highly respected by everyone in the military and we’re very honoured to have him.”
Sitting next to Trump for the announcement, McMaster said he was honoured to take on the role and added that he looks forward to “doing everything that I can to advance and protect the interests of the American people.”
The president later in a series of tweets announced the general’s appointment to the post of national security adviser.
The president’s choice further elevates the influence of military officers in the new administration. Trump, who has no military or foreign policy experience, has shown a strong preference for putting generals in top roles.
In this case, he tapped an active-duty officer for a post that’s sometimes used as a counterweight to the Pentagon. McMaster, who wore his uniform for the announcement, joins Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, both retired generals, in Trump’s inner circle of national security advisers.
The White House said Monday McMaster plans to remain on active military duty.
He will take on the challenge of leading a National Security Council that has not adjusted smoothly to Trump’s leadership. The president suggested he does not trust holdovers from the Obama administration and complained about leaks to reporters. His decision to put his top political adviser on the senior committee of the National Security Council drew sharp criticism.
On Friday, the head of the council’s Western Hemisphere division was fired after he criticised Trump’s policies and his inner circle of advisers.
Trump said McMaster would work in a “very, very special” collaboration with Keith Kellogg, a retired three-star general who had served as acting national security advisor since Flynn resigned a week ago.
Trump said will now serve as the National Security Council chief of staff. He also said he would be asking John Bolton, a former US ambassador to the United Nations, to work with them in a “somewhat different capacity”.
The position of national security adviser does not require Senate confirmation.
A soldier-scholar and creative thinker
The 54-year-old McMaster is known for his criticism of the US military’s handling of Vietnam War and his own service as a commander in northern Iraq in 2005.
McMaster is viewed as soldier-scholar and creative thinker. He has a doctoral degree in history from the University of North Carolina and has been heavily involved in the Army’s efforts to shape its future force and its way of preparing for war. He is the director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, a sort of military think tank, at Fort Eustis, Virginia.
Outside of the Army, he may be best known for his 1997 book, Dereliction of Duty, a searing indictment of the US government’s mishandling of the Vietnam War and an analysis of what he called the “lies that led to Vietnam.” The book earned him a reputation for being willing to speak truth to power.
McMaster commanded troops in both American wars in Iraq — in 1991, when he fought in a storied tank battle known as the Battle for 73 Easting, and again in 2005-2006 in one of the most violent periods of the insurgency that developed after the US-led invasion in 2003.
He is credited with using innovative approaches to countering the insurgency in the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar when he commanded the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. He later served as a special adviser to the top US commander in Iraq.
Appointment of McMaster in capacity of national security adviser
McMaster was Trump’s second choice to replace Flynn, who has been under FBI investigation for his contacts with Russian officials. Trump dismissed Flynn last week after revelations that the adviser had misled Vice President Mike Pence about the nature of his discussion with Russia’s ambassador to the US during the presidential transition. Trump said in a news conference Thursday that he was disappointed by how Flynn had treated Pence but did not believe Flynn had done anything wrong by having the conversations.
Trump’s first choice to replace Flynn, retired Vice Adm Robert Harward, turned down the offer, amid a wrangling over lower-level National Security Council appointments and a meandering Trump press conference.
Trump announced his choice sitting between McMaster and Kellogg in a luxurious living room at the resort property. The president told reporters that Pence had been involved in the process, but he did not elaborate.
Trump brought four candidates for the position to Mar-a-Lago over the weekend for in-person interviews, Kellogg; John Bolton, a former US ambassador to the United Nations; McMaster and the superintendent of the US Military Academy at West Point, Lt Gen Robert Caslen.
McMaster called the appointment a “privilege”.
McMaster on Russia
It was not clear how closely McMaster’s and Trump’s views align. On Russia, McMaster appears to hold a much dimmer view than Trump of Moscow’s military and political objectives in Europe.
In remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in May 2016, McMaster said Russia managed to annexe Crimea and intervene militarily in eastern Ukraine “at zero cost” from the international community.
McMaster said Moscow’s broader goal is to “collapse the post-Cold War security, economic and political order in Europe and replace that order with something that is more sympathetic to Russian interests.”
In his current role, McMaster has been studying the way Russia developed and executed its campaigns in Crimea and Ukraine, where it used what some call “hybrid warfare” — part political, part disinformation, part military.
Reaction to the appointment
Sen John McCain, an increasingly vocal Trump critic, called McMaster an “outstanding” choice.
“He is a man of genuine intellect, character, and ability. He knows how to succeed,” he said in a statement. “I give President Trump great credit for this decision, as well as his national security Cabinet choices.”
Lt Gen HR McMaster is outstanding choice for nat’l security advisor – man of genuine intellect, character & ability https://t.co/rYmJm00Xdf
— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) https://twitter.com/SenJohnMcCain/status/833794401289793539; February 20, 2017
Former president Barack Obama’s last national security advisor, Susan Rice, congratulated McMaster on his appointment. “I wish you every success,” she said.
Congrats to Lt Gen McMaster. I wish you every success as National Security Advisor. — Susan Rice (@AmbassadorRice) https://twitter.com/AmbassadorRice/status/833832835354075137, February 21, 2017
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes was prompt to praise McMaster’s “history of questioning the status quo and infusing fresh thinking and new approaches into military affairs.”
His experience in Iraq’s Tal Afar is likely to come in useful as US and allied forces attempt to retake nearby Mosul from the Islamic State group.
In the path of Kissinger
The post of national security advisor is a crucial, if discreet, engine for White House power and the smooth functioning of government.
Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell are among those who previously held the post.
The national security advisor manages hundreds of staff members, arbitrates between sometimes feuding government departments, balances foreign policy and military policy and ensures the president’s national security agenda gets implemented.
Current and former staffers fear that under Trump the council is currently being bypassed as political aides like strategist Steve Bannon seize the agenda.
They point to an ill-conceived ban on travellers from seven majority-Muslim nations that further complicated counterterrorism partnerships in the Middle East and sullied America’s image abroad, but was ultimately struck down by US courts.
If policy is “being done over dinner with the president, or in Steve Bannon’s office or haphazardly via email or phone calls” said Loren DeJonge Schulman — a veteran of Barack Obama’s NSC — then “they are shooting themselves in the foot because you can’t implement foreign policy from the White House.”
“This is something that President Obama learned, this is something that every administration goes through,” she told AFP.
“Being on Fox News and announcing a policy doesn’t mean that policy is going to be executed.”
Current NSC spokesman Michael Anton said that although the full NSC — chaired by Trump — had not met since he became president, the deputies and principals committee had.
Peter Feaver, a veteran of George W Bush’s national security council, said that under current circumstances the administration could struggle to handle crises that have both diplomatic and military components.
“Some kind of crisis will be more challenging for this team until they fix their process,” he said.
The more difficult potential problems “that would stress them would be (those where) you have to integration across cabinet, departments and agencies,” Feaver added.