McMaster is a Promising Choice

By | 2017-02-22T13:35:17+00:00 February 22nd, 2017|
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President Trump’s selection of Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster to be his national security adviser has been widely praised, and rightly so. McMaster is a remarkable man cut from the same cloth as the new secretary of defense, Jim Mattis. Both are inspirational leaders. Both are thoughtful, well-read “soldier-scholars.” Both are clear thinkers and straight talkers. Indeed, McMaster’s intense, fierce outspokenness has not always endeared him to his superiors.

McMaster’s story has been recounted many times in recent days. A native of Philadelphia, he is a 1984 graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point. Later, he earned a PhD in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studying under Richard Kohn, the eminent military historian and civil-military relations expert. His doctoral dissertation became Dereliction of Duty, a withering critique of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Vietnam War.

As a captain commanding an armored cavalry troop during the first Gulf War, McMaster proved himself to be an aggressive, fearless leader. In what became known as the battle of 73 Easting, his troop of nine Abrams tanks destroyed an entire Iraqi armored battalion.  For this action, he was awarded the Silver Star medal.

During the early part of the Second Gulf War, McMaster served on the staff of Gen. John Abazaid, who eventually became Commander of US Central Command, the unified command responsible for the conduct of the war. In this post, McMaster was able to assess the effectiveness of different approaches to the war in Iraq. His observations shaped the approach he would employ as commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment to pacify Tel Afar, a major city in northern Iraq’s Nineveh Province in 2005.

I had occasion to address McMaster’s operation in a Naval War College leadership case that I wrote in 2009. Titled, “Counterinsurgency From the Bottom Up: Col H.R. McMaster and the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Tel Afar, Spring-Fall 2005,” it dealt with the way that McMaster prepared his command for the emerging operational environment in Iraq and then implemented a counterinsurgency campaign that pacified this major city.  His approach in Tel Afar became the prototype for Gen. David H. Petraeus’s largely successful operational strategy to stabilize Iraq in 2007 and 2008.

Despite his success, McMaster was twice passed over for promotion to brigadier general. It took Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Petraeus, one of his staunchest supporters in the Army. to finally break the logjam. Observers attribute his problems with selection boards to his passion, intensity and high tolerance for risk, which sometimes put him at odds with his superiors.

For one thing, McMaster was skeptical of the popular idea that technology had transformed the “nature” of war. He was a vociferous critic of the “strategic happy talk” that prevailed in the early part of the 21st century. As editor of Orbis, the quarterly journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), I published his essay, “Learning from Contemporary Conflicts to Prepare for Future War” in the Fall 2008 issue. The article was a frontal assault on the conventional wisdom of the time. As he wrote:

Recent and ongoing wartime experience has discredited much of the thinking that underpinned the “Defense Transformation” effort in the 1990s. If we are to be prepared for future conflict, it is vital that we learn from experience and adjust our thinking about war. It is time to develop idealized visions of future war that are consistent with what post-9/11 conflicts have revealed as the enduring uncertainty and complexity of war. These concepts should be “fighting-centric” rather than “knowledge-centric.” They should also be based on real and emerging threats, informed by recent combat experience, and connected to scenarios that direct military force toward the achievement of policy goals and objectives. We must then design and build balanced forces that are capable of conducting operations consistent with the concepts we develop.

Many in the Army hierarchy were not pleased.

McMaster later served in Afghanistan as deputy to the commander for planning at International Security Assistance Forces as director of ISAF’s anti-corruption task force. From January 2012 to June, 2014, McMaster commanded the Army Center of Military Excellence in Fort Benning, Georgia. He has served as the deputy commanding general of Training and Doctrine Command and director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center since 2014.

McMaster’s splendid record is all well and good but what can we expect from him as national security adviser? First of all, he possesses the temperament and experience for the position.  I believe he will work well with Trump’s cabinet. For one thing, Secretary Mattis and McMaster have great respect for one another, which suggests a smooth and effective collaboration when it comes to providing for the common defense.

Those who study the role of the national security adviser postulate two models: the “honest broker” and the “policy entrepreneur.” The former seeks to bring competing alternative policies to the president. The latter pushes a particular outcome. I believe that McMaster will act as an honest broker at NSC meetings, ensuring the president hears from all parties in order to make informed decisions. Nonetheless, McMaster will be willing to tell the president what he may not want to hear but what he needs to hear.

McMaster will remain on active duty, as was the case when Colin Powell served as national security adviser to President Reagan. This has led some to raise the issue of his book, Dereliction of Duty. Interestingly, this book, which was frequently invoked during the “revolt of the generals” during the Iraq War, has been largely misunderstood. As I have noted before,

Many serving officers believe that [McMaster] effectively makes the case that the Joint Chiefs of Staff should have more openly voiced their opposition to the Johnson administration’s strategy of gradualism [during the Vietnam war], and then resigned rather than carry out the policy. .  . .But the book says no such thing. While McMaster convincingly argues that the chiefs failed to present their views frankly and forcefully to their civilian superiors, including members of Congress when asked for their views, he neither says nor implies that the chiefs should have obstructed President Lyndon Johnson’s orders and policies by leaks, public statements, or by resignation.

I have known H.R. McMaster for some time. I firmly believe that he will distinguish himself as President Trump’s national security adviser. He is a remarkable man, whose character, temperament, intellect, courage, and prudence will served the United States well.

By | 2017-02-22T13:35:17+00:00 February 22nd, 2017|

About the Author:

Mackubin Owens
Mackubin Thomas Owens is dean of academics for the Institute of World Politics in Washington DC, a Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, and editor of Orbis, FPRI’s quarterly journal. He recently retired after 29 years as Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. From 1990 to 1997, Dr. Owens was also Editor-in-Chief of the quarterly defense journal Strategic Review and Adjunct Professor of International Relations at Boston University. Owens is the author of Abraham Lincoln: Leadership and Democratic Statesmanship in Wartime (2009) and US Civil-Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain (January 2011) and coauthor of US Foreign and Defense Policy: The Rise of an Incidental Superpower (2015) and The Evolution of the Executive and Executive Power in the American Republic (2014). Before joining the faculty of the War College, Owens served as National Security Adviser to Senator Bob Kasten, Republican of Wisconsin, and Director of Legislative Affairs for the Nuclear Weapons Programs of the Department of Energy during the Reagan Administration. Dr. Owens is also a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam, where as an infantry platoon and company commander in 1968-1969, he was wounded twice and awarded the Silver Star medal. He retired as a Colonel in 1994. Owens earned his Ph.D. in Politics from the University of Dallas, a Master of Arts in Economics from Oklahoma University, and his BA from the University of California at Santa Barbara.


  1. AEJ February 22, 2017 at 3:03 pm

    I have some doubts about McMaster. I don’t doubt his commitment and abilities to destroy the ‘enemy’. It’s his past comments (as recent as this past Nov) about Islam that give me great pause. He sounds no different than Obama and Kerry and the rest of those numbskulls when he says, “organizations like Daesh, who cynically use a perverted interpretation of religion” (speech at VMI) and “ISIL who use this irreligious ideology, this perverted interpretation of religion”. I guess he really thinks Islam isn’t a problem, it’s just terrorists who are the problem, and that Jihadis, and Islamists, and Salafists , etc, pervert the tenets of Islam (that so-called religion of peace). That’s kind of like thinking Communism is not a problem, only people who engage in terror and violence who happen to be Communists are a problem. He went so far as to say Islamic State is not Islamic.
    I suppose he could do his job without rocking the boat with his opinions; that he could be told who the ‘enemy’ is in given situations and accept that and make sure the ‘enemy’ is vanquished.
    I still have my doubts. This McMaster assessment isn’t what we’ve heard from DJT -nor from Flynn for that matter (DJT’s first choice).
    But I’m going to give him a fair shake and see what happens.

    • Haga Akane ✓ᴰᵉᵖˡᵒʳᵃᵇˡᵉ February 23, 2017 at 4:45 am

      I’d suggest not taking LTG MCMaster’s comments at face value; military officers are expected to toe the party line (at least in public). There’s a decent chance he doesn’t/didn’t truly believe any of that guff and was simply parrotting the Obama Regime’s policies.

      • OldGyrene February 23, 2017 at 6:13 am

        Try reading the article again. What Owens says about McMaster is the unvarnished truth.
        McMaster has spent a lifetime saying exactly what he means (and paying a price for it). He was not EVER one of obama’s generals.
        The only surprise in this entire article is that Owens hasn’t done his usual hatchet job on Trump. It might just be possible will get his head on straight and start supporting the man who can get America back on track.

        • old003 February 23, 2017 at 7:16 am

          Promoted twice under obozo

          • OldGyrene February 23, 2017 at 9:14 am

            There are many GO’s who qualify as “Obama’s Generals” – which is a very derogatory term meant to insult every one of them who sucked up to the worst president in American history.
            There are a very small minority who were promoted in the past 8 years who made it on pure merit. McMaster is one of them.
            If you don’t know that, then you need to do some homework before posting your snarky comments.

      • AEJ February 23, 2017 at 10:10 am

        I can speculate until the cows come home about why he says what he says, whether he believes what he says (in a prepared speech; couldn’t he have left that out?) but where does that leave me? He said what he said and so I have some doubts in that area but as I wrote, I’m going to give him a fair shake and see what happens.

  2. Disappeared4x February 23, 2017 at 5:46 am

    and, the appointment of NSA McMaster made Sen. McCain happy, which was a tactical necessity for POTUS.

  3. ricocat1 February 23, 2017 at 7:12 am

    It looks like PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP has made a wise choice. Now let us hope that the Trump Team can work together to defeat radical Islam.

    • old003 February 23, 2017 at 7:24 am

      Radical moderate. Only difference is the speed in which they slit our throats. This genius sent his warriors to the arena against the most vicious enemy civilized humans face with quotes from T S Lawrence. Good grief.

  4. Historybuff February 23, 2017 at 9:49 am

    It is reassuring to read this affirmation of Gen. McMasters from someone positioned to know.

    What is worrisome… is this: Trump has assembled a “War Cabinet” of Generals. Trump himself is a draft dodger that has mocked veterans, mocked military service, and casually claimed he “knows more than the Generals”.

    Trump has no respect for the Military and those who serve. He is willing to ‘waste’ the military… the question is, Who… or What… will trump waste the military against?

    • MrLynn February 23, 2017 at 2:00 pm

      HB: “Trump has no respect for the Military and those who serve.”

      Do you seriously think that any of these distinguished officers would have joined President Trump’s administration if they thought this statement was remotely true?

      Apparently they know something you don’t.

      /Mr Lynn

      • Historybuff February 23, 2017 at 3:21 pm

        Being pragmatists, serving their country, they are simply looking at trump and accepting that he is president – for better or worse.

        Just like they were forced to decide when obama was president.

  5. Mike 3/505 February 23, 2017 at 2:22 pm

    First of all, let me say that LTG McMaster did a stellar job as a young Captain at 73 Easting. However, he is not the “maverick speaking truth to power,” that his promoters keep telling us.

    His book, published when he was a Major, was merely the latest in a very long line of books published by military authors, both active and retired, who excoriated the LBJ Whitehouse and the Pentagon for their inept/criminal conduct of the Vietnam conflict. Two of these of note, were “Soldier,” by COL Anthony Herbert and “About Face,” by COL David Hackworth, both of which were published well before McMaster had even thought about joining the Army.

    He’s also been an active proponent of the feminization of combat arms & SOF forces. while I was assigned to the WTU there, (then) MG McMaster as Commanding General at Ft Benning, supposedly directed the Ranger Training Brigade that “a woman WOULD graduate this[that] year.” The Army ended up inputting over 200 females into the “top of the funnel/filter” in order to finally and forcibly graduate 3 women–and then only after 3 attempts by each of them. Notably, one of them almost immediately afterward, resigned from the Army.

    Adding to what the author cautions about…McMaster is also a Petraeus acolyte–a “COINista.” Although thought to be innovative, out-of-the box thinking, the techniques of Clear, Hold & Build have been standard COIN techniques for over 6 decades, since we helped the Greeks defeat the communist takeover after War 2…nothing really new. He is also an Islam apologist…

    Don’t get me wrong…I’d absolutely rather have a guy like McMaster, who has smelled the smoke and seen the elephant, over some “policy wonk” who has never had the awesome responsibility and privilege of leading men into battle.

    But, let’s keep our eyes wide open on this one folks.

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