By Michael Ledeen
August 6, 2017
H.R. McMaster, currently under attack from conservative
critics, is best known for writing a book about the Vietnam War in which he put
the blame primarily on the Johnson administration officials, but also excoriated
military leaders for failing to challenge policies they knew, or should have
known, were misguided. So no one should be surprised that the national security
adviser is not inclined to salute and carry out instructions from the Oval
Office, but challenges President Trump on matters ranging from personnel
decisions to Iran policy.
The two categories are closely linked, since personnel IS
policy, and the ongoing purge of NSC officials clearly contains a political
dimension, which has been extensively documented. McMaster has recently fired
several senior NSC officials—Rich Higgins, Ezra Cohen and Derek Harvey—who
reportedly favored a tougher line on Iran than McMaster does. Their replacements
come from the CIA, which traditionally has taken a pessimistic view of chances
for changing the nature of the Tehran regime.
The political conflict extends well beyond the narrow issue
of Iran policy. McMaster has instructed his staff to avoid using the phrase
“radical Islamic terrorism,” and tried to remove it from the president’s
recent speech in Warsaw, Poland (Trump put it back in). According to a recent
rumor, the NSC declined to schedule a talk on radical Islamic terrorism by Ayaan
Hirsi Ali, one of the country’s most respected authorities, reportedly because
one of McMaster’s appointees, Mustafa Javed Ali, accused her of “Islamophobia.”
McMaster’s predecessor, General Mike Flynn, advocated waging ideological war
against “radical Islamists,” supporting moderate Muslims, and putting the
United States firmly behind Muslim governments, such as Indonesia and Egypt,
that fought the jihadis. McMaster does not agree.
This ideological component goes hand in hand with
McMaster’s refusal to fire holdovers from the Obama NSC, and with his widely
reported remarks to staff, arguing that there really are no holdovers, that
everyone at the NSC is a professional civil servant, and that everyone is trying
to do the best possible job. It’s a happy thought, but not widely shared in
Washington. Those calling for his removal ask why Obama appointees are
protected, while Trump loyalists are shown the gate.
Finally, as his critics have pointed out, McMaster not only
challenges the president’s policy views, he has been known to disregard
explicit instructions on personnel (Trump wanted Ezra Cohen to remain at his
post as NSC intelligence chief, for example), and despite explicit presidential
unhappiness with McMaster’s advocacy of sending large numbers of American
troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, he continues to call for it, while he fights
Trump’s wishes to declare Iran in violation of the nuclear deal, thereby
ending the agreement.
It’s ironic that McMaster is now being attacked for doing
what he has most famously and popularly advocated: challenging political policy
makers, even his commander in chief, when he thinks they are on the wrong
course. On the other hand, the National Security Council isn’t supposed to
craft policy; its role is to manage policy implementation across the government.
To be sure, people like McMaster have strong convictions and will invariably and
properly express them. The question is whether he has crossed the line between
good management and policy making.
Moreover, the recent personnel changes, seemingly
reflecting an ideological conviction, raise the possibility that McMaster has
violated his own call for dissenters to speak out. Those who were not in
lockstep with McMaster’s own views are now looking for new jobs. Instead, the
national security adviser who excoriated his predecessors for excessive
compliance with their leaders’ policies now stands accused of firing those who
were not compliant with his own preferences. This is not only in conflict with
his own wise words about the Vietnam generation, but a bad way to shape policy.
Good presidents and cabinet secretaries are best served by national security
advisers who present them with a full range of views. Then the president
decides, and the NSC is supposed to make sure that presidential decisions are
indeed carried out. The NSC can’t fulfill its mission if dissenting views
aren’t heard. Of late, dissenters have been fired, and the boss insists that
the survivors toe his line.