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H.R. McMaster criticized – and not for his defense of Trump

The February replacement of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn with Lieutenant General Herbert Raymond McMaster was greeted by the American journalistic and foreign policy establishment with barely restrained glee. In place of the erratic, unsavory Flynn, Donald Trump had chosen “a battle-tested veteran . . . considered one of the military’s most independent-minded officers,” in the words of one report in the New York Times. “McMaster,” wrote Fred Kaplan in Slate, “is widely viewed as the Army’s smartest officer”—someone who “has made a career of speaking truth to power.” McMaster was everything Flynn was not: calm, self-effacing, and, crucially, an intellectual. Here at long last was a true scholar-warrior, a man who rejected the bizarre conspiracy theories and apocalyptic obsessions that were guide and mantra for Flynn, Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and Trump’s other unsavory foreign policy mediocrities. McMaster’s many supporters in government, journalism, and the nonprofit sector hoped that the decorated veteran could, at last, rationalize Trump’s foreign policy. With McMaster calling the shots, the American Century—and the American empire that undergirded it—could continue well into the future.

Until earlier this week, it seemed that the advocates of US global dominance had good reason to be reassured. McMaster is a passionate champion of our foreign policy consensus: he believes that the American empire is a force for good in the world and appears ready to do whatever he can to defend its international standing. And he is a talented manager able to synthesize large amounts of information into easily digestible lessons—a useful skill in an administration led by a Twitter-addicted reality TV star.

But as the furor over Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s complicity in the firing of former FBI Director James Comey has revealed, the regime, person, and policy “agenda” of Donald Trump have made it virtually impossible for even dedicated public servants to impose order on chaos. Instead of rationalizing the Trump Administration, people like Rosenstein and McMaster have been sucked into its morass. On Tuesday night, McMaster found himself standing outside the White House, visibly uncomfortable and reading carefully drafted legalese that would be contradicted by the President a few hours later. McMaster had been forced into a position he has been unwilling to occupy throughout his long career: political operative. He is not particularly good at this job.

That McMaster has been swallowed up by an administration that he was perhaps uniquely suited to reform is an extraordinary irony. Now derided by the very same people who praised his appointment, McMaster is beginning to lose the credibility that got him the job. Slate’s Kaplan recently published an article titled “The Tarnishing of H.R. McMaster”; in Politico, Jack Shafer has claimed that McMaster is now “diminished when measured by his own standards”; the journalist Tom Ricks told Shafer that McMaster might very well have lost the trust of the military, which “may never welcome him back in.” Short of a spectacular reversal of fortune, McMaster’s career, and perhaps even his place in history, has been irrevocably stained.

What does H.R. McMaster believe? I’ve spent the last couple of months reading everything he has published since 1991 that I could find; what emerges from these texts is somewhat paradoxical. On one hand, McMaster has been willing throughout his career to critique fellow officers for placing too much faith in military technology. On the other hand, McMaster’s views about the United States’ role in the world are highly traditional: he believes the nation presently confronts existential challenges that, because they threaten the values of “civilized peoples,” must be annihilated. For all his supposed intellectual independence, McMaster clearly and unquestioningly embraces the premises that have supported the American empire since 1945. The fact that such a perspicacious officer could endorse such an outdated vision of the world suggests that not only the Trump Administration, but also the entire culture of the American national security establishment, is broken. ..

H.R. McMaster is one of the United States’ most astute theorists of modern warfare. Unlike so many other military thinkers, he understands that history is complex, contingent, and irrational, and that no amount of technological superiority could tame the real world’s unpredictable dynamism. He also rightly feels an ethical responsibility to the people who live in countries the United States invaded. So how could he have gotten it so wrong? Why, in spite of his sophistication, did his solutions to the American disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan ultimately fail to produce even medium-term victory?

McMaster’s intellectual reputation rests on the quality he displayed on the battlefield in 1991, in Dereliction of Duty in 1997, and in Crack in the Foundation in 2003: his commitment to thinking that goes against the grain and troubles colleagues and superiors. The cheers that greeted his appointment in February were predicated on exactly this notion: that McMaster was a tenured radical, an establishmentarian committed to discarding whatever elements of the establishment that needed discarding. Yet McMaster remains a prisoner of ideas formed over half a century ago. He has never once doubted the underlying premises that have guided American foreign policy since World War II. He is unwavering in his belief that the US must continue to serve as the world’s policeman and retain its permanent military mobilization. He has never considered whether the imperial projects undertaken in Iraq and Afghanistan were illegitimate from the start and destined to fail. He has never questioned how Americans’ obsession with security might affect democracy at home. McMaster would have been an adequate, perhaps even excellent, leader if American imperialism had proven to be an unalloyed good. Recent history, though, has demonstrated that ours is a moment that requires a new, post-imperialist understanding of the US’s role in the world. This is something that McMaster is unlikely to provide.

Like so many of his less perceptive peers, McMaster has embraced the flawed assumptions that have been used to justify any number of unwise recent American entanglements. To McMaster, ISIS, Iran, and other Islamic enemies of the United States are equivalent to the Nazis and Soviets, and he insists that the contemporary geopolitical environment is defined— as it was during World War II and the Cold War—by an existential struggle between good and evil. ...

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