Mr. Trump got lucky when Lieutenant-General H. R. McMaster accepted his invitation to serve as national security adviser. Commentators from a wide range of political perspectives have applauded this choice, pointing to McMaster’s distinguished record of military service, from Operation Desert Storm to the present. Some have called him a “warrior-soldier,” noting his PhD from the University of North Carolina. It’s as a fellow scholar that I know McMaster best.
We met in graduate school in the fall of 1992. He was at UNC to get a Master’s Degree on his way to teach at West Point. Also a veteran of Desert Storm, I had enrolled in the Ph.D. program at Duke after leaving the Army. McMaster was an unforgettable classmate, with boundless energy and intellectual curiosity that have remained intact since. His classmates had the opportunity to read his Master’s thesis, which he quickly expanded into a dissertation that even more rapidly became the bestselling “Dereliction of Duty.” For 25 years, I have respected and admired McMaster’s intellect, his battlefield record, and his incisive analysis of the strategic problems that have bedeviled the American military in the last 75 years: from tank warfare in the plains of Europe, to counterinsurgency in Iraq, to counter-corruption in Afghanistan.
So what’s the problem with McMaster’s appointment? Just this: how long can an officer best known for blunt and incisive opinions based in careful study, last in a Trump administration that is cavalier with the facts and intolerant of dissent?
Other pundits have already weighed in on the issues posed in “Dereliction of Duty,” in which McMaster eviscerated Lyndon Johnson’s military advisors for their failure to give honest advice about the probability of success in Vietnam. Those pundits wonder if McMaster will live up to his own standard for blunt and honest advice. Knowing McMaster, I’m confident he will. But what exactly will they clash about?
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They will disagree about the fundamentals of U.S. strategy. In essence, Trump’s strategy for the physical security of the United States against attack by terrorists is “body-based.” It’s a sort of non-lethal version of what the military calls “interdiction.” His executive orders on refugees, on the seven named majority-Muslim nations, and his notion of “extreme vetting,” all stake out an intention to make the nation safer by preventing the arrival of individuals who would do us harm. His hope is to literally stop every body that might be a threat from entering the country.
In contrast, McMaster is an expert practitioner of the much more subtle, traditional counterinsurgency strategy, which is based on hope and persuasion rather than fear and interdiction. Known for his skillful use of counterinsurgency in Tal Afar, Iraq, he played a key role in authoring the military’s current counterinsurgency manual. In contrast to Trump’s body-based strategy, traditional counterinsurgency promotes a vision of a more hopeful future and then protects and supports a wide enough population in a given war zone that the silent majority among them, persuaded by that hopeful message, will provide intelligence against insurgents. In the face of this slower, more steady approach, physical threats from insurgents will diminish or disappear. McMaster is wise enough to recognize that total interdiction of individual threats is an unattainable goal—as American attempts to interdict North Vietnam’s support for the guerrilla war in South Vietnam proved. If our goal is to prevent a San Bernardino or an Orlando, interdiction cannot possibly lead to success, given the easy access to weapons within the United States. And as McMaster is keenly aware, even the attempt will only generate a greater level of antipathy and mistrust from the Muslim population. And in the end, the friendship, cooperation, and support of that population are necessary preconditions to preventing any attacks that might arise from a tiny minority within it.
Furthermore, since the Second World War, American national security strategy has had two separate but intertwined components: the physical security of the homeland, and the promotion of our interests abroad. Promoting our interests has meant a lot of different things, but one assumption has remained constant: that acting on behalf of allies and against threats emerging abroad will promote the physical security of the United States while also preserving our economy and thus our way of life. The Trump administration’s proposal to secure a total interdiction of physical threats will radically undermine the pursuit of our interests abroad. Neutral and allied nations are already dismayed, and worse, over a billion normally peaceful Muslims will be forced to reassess their understanding of what America stands for, and whether America has become a threat to them personally.
Lieutenant-General McMaster knows all this as well as I do. So does almost any strategist of either party over the last seventy years. In fact, McMaster has already departed from the administration’s emphasis on “radical Islamic terrorism,” arguing that the broad brush implied by that phrase does more harm than good. We have long been a nation whose strategy was based on the appeal of our ideas. If we begin to forsake those ideas, our strategy will suffer. And then, I predict, there will be conflict between President Trump and his new national security adviser.
Wayne E. Lee, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the formert Harold K. Johnson Chair of Military History at the US Army War College. He is the author of “Waging War: Conflict, Culture, and Innovation in World History.”