When U.S. President Donald Trump named a new national security adviser just over a week ago, current and former national security officials did more than just breathe a sigh of relief. Many expressed cautious optimism.
Those who knew or had worked previously with Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster saw his selection as a sign the barely month-old Trump administration was starting to get its footing.
McMaster came in with a reputation for being able to quickly command respect, take a room full of divergent opinions and then forge them into solid policy recommendations, all the while not being afraid to stand up to his superiors.
“He is a convincing, well-thought out strategic thinker who’s able to persuade decision makers on how to do things the right way,” said Michael Pregent, a former intelligence officer who worked with McMaster in Iraq.
Now though, just over a week into the job, McMaster’s skills, and his ability to hold the president’s ear, will likely be put to the test as the White House begins to discuss the Pentagon’s long-awaited plan to destroy the Islamic State terror group.
Counter-Islamic State plan
Defense officials have described the plan, delivered to the White House Monday and later presented to key staffers by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, as merely a preliminary document.
“This is really the framework for a broader discussion,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters Monday. “There are a number of details that will need to be filled in as this plan moves forward.”
Pentagon officials also emphasized that the plan, even is these early stages, draws upon more than just military force.
“It is a plan to defeat IS rapidly … to do it on a global level with all instruments of national power in a synchronized way,” Davis said. “Diplomacy is a key part of the plan.”
How such a plan will fare with Trump, who has said he wants to “totally obliterate” IS, remains to be seen. And the plan’s reliance on diplomacy in addition to military might could signal a potential flashpoint, especially after the administration announced its intent to cut the State Department and foreign assistance budgets by at least 30 percent.
It might seem like a daunting task even for a national security adviser as widely respected as Lt. Gen. McMaster; but, those who know McMaster believe if anyone is able to navigate the internal political schisms, it’s the general.
“He’s the kind of guy who will sit there and listen to opposing points of view, get the best arguments from both sides and be able to collate, put it together and present it to the president,” Pregent said. "He won’t just let them sit at the table and say how much things aren’t working."
Pregent recounted one meeting in Iraq during which McMaster, then a colonel, was unrelenting in arguing a point with Gen. David Petraeus, who served as commander of multinational forces in Iraq.
“Gen. Petraeus said, ‘Alright. I got it. Enough,'” Pregent said. “But because of his [McMaster’s] adamant stance on a position, policies were changed.”
NSC power struggle?
Still, a number of former national security officials question whether McMaster will be able to find a way to make sure that in the end, the president listens to him instead of other advisers like White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, who have little formal foreign and national security policy experience.
“Domestic politics is always wrapped up in American foreign policy so I’d think it would be naive to think that you could exclude them entirely,” former NSC staffer Kenneth Pollack, now with the Brookings Institution, told VOA’s Press Conference USA. “But we just don’t know what role Steve Bannon will have.”
Pollack, who has known McMaster for decades, said his hope is that McMaster will find a way “to grab control over the National Security Council and the wider American national security process.”
“He’s obviously a tremendous battlefield commander,” Pollack added. “But he’s also demonstrated a real understanding that military force can only be part of a wider foreign panoply.”
Still, Bannon and Miller are not the only voices with which McMaster will have to compete. There’s also Sebastian Gorka, the deputy assistant to the president who sits on the White House’s Strategic Initiatives Group, a body described by some as a parallel NSC.
“The definition of victory for us is a very simple one,” Gorka said last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, outside Washington. “We are going to make the black flag of jihad as repugnant around the world, not just here but around the world, as repugnant as the black, white and red swastika flag of the Third Reich.”
“The brand of jihad has to be destroyed,” he said.
Gorka, who did not reply to several email requests for comment, has come under sustained criticism in recent weeks from some within the academic and national security communities who question his approach.
Critics like Michael S. Smith, II, a terrorism analyst who has consulted in the past with both the White House and members of Congress, say Gorka’s penchant for rejecting nuance in favor of more sweeping sentiment, while catchy, is potentially dangerous.
“Americans should pray Gen. McMaster can pull the wool from over President Trump's eyes, and help him realize Bannon and Gorka are not qualified to work on national security policy in the White House,” Smith said. “But when it comes to the question of whether he can, I'm not holding my breath.”
A general's perspective
There is no shortage of former officials who see reason to worry, pointing to both the lack of international experience and the rhetoric coming from White House officials like Bannon and Gorka, and from even Trump himself.
“There is this sincere and present danger of thinking that there’s a military solution to almost any problem,” cautioned retired Air Force Lt. Col. Hal Bidlack, who emphasized he was speaking on his own behalf.
Bidlack, who served on the National Security Council in the late 1990s, characterized some of the talk coming from White House officials as naïve.
But he said that is where military veterans, like McMaster and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general who led both NATO and U.S. Central Command, can play a vital role.
“Given the people whispering in the president’s ear, perhaps it’s good to have someone who’s seen the battlefield, who can whisper, ‘Not so fast, sir,’” Bidlack said.
Michael Pregent, who worked with McMaster in Iraq, is likewise optimistic the new national security adviser will be able to use his experience and credibility to help change the administration’s tone.
“What he understands is how U.S. military power, U.S. military actions affect the population - the second and third order effects, the long-lasting ramifications of aggressive military action on a community,” he said.
Pregent added McMaster is also unlikely to back down to anyone at the White House on Islamic State, Russia or anything else.
“I believe he will tell the president that Russia is not an ally in the war against IS in Syria because they will indiscriminately target a Sunni population and that Iranian militias in Iraq are not an ally in the fight against IS.”