Global Politics

An old Army friend dishes on National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster

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HR McMaster meeting with President Trump, Monday

HR McMaster meeting with President Trump, Monday


Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Herbert Raymond “H.R.” McMaster has been picked to serve as President Donald Trump’s new national security adviser. The active duty 3-star Army general is expected to have a relatively easy confirmation process, as he is widely respected in Congress.

“H.R. is the most bull-headed, nicest, smartest, most ego-free person I think I have ever met,” says retired Army Col. John Nagl, who has known and worked with McMaster for more than 20 years.

“He is absolutely dedicated to taking care of America’s national interests,” adds Nagl. “Razor-sharp, and actually every once in a while even a little bit funny.”

As a soldier, Nagl says McMaster is the most demanding trainer of forces, and “the best implementer of both tactics and strategy, and the best military leader, I think, of his generation.”

Like McMaster, Nagl is a scholar, with a PhD. Together they helped reinvent the military’s counter-insurgency doctrine in 2006 and 2007, using techniques McMaster pioneered in Iraq's Tal Afar district with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in 2004. In addition to outstanding service in Iraq and Afghanistan, McMaster was awarded a silver star for gallantry and leadership during one of the largest tank battles since World War II, in the Gulf War in 1991.

But he has a reputation as a maverick.

“The Army hasn’t loved him,” Nagl points out. “He’s been very critical of some of the Army’s thinking and some of the Defense Department’s thinking [for example] about the nature of future war. He is a guy who will do what he believes is right to the detriment of his own career, [but] never, never to the detriment of his troops.”

McMaster’s rise through the ranks was repeatedly slowed down by a promotion board that did not approve of his frankness and initiative. His 1997 book “Dereliction of Duty” was extremely critical of the high command during the Vietnam War for failing to stand up to President Lyndon B. Johnson.

“The president has chosen a man who is absolutely unafraid to go toe-to-toe with anybody, including the president of the United States,” says Nagl. He will "fight absolutely tooth and nail for what he believes is right.”

As a serving soldier, Nagl expects McMaster to salute the president and execute his decisions to the best of his abilities. “But I tell you, I think the President is going to have a hard time convincing H.R. that he’s wrong.”  

Critics say they’re concerned McMaster has little or no experience managing a complex, inter-agency committee like the NSC. But Nagl is optimistic.

“The good news here is that he’s got a very good relationship with [James] Mattis, the secretary of Defense, [and] with John Kelly, the secretary of Homeland Security," Nagl says. "He will be respectful of the Cabinet secretaries. He understands how executive agencies work, and he will make the trains run on time.”

“He’s not ideological,” adds Nagl. “He understands, for instance, that while we are facing threat in radical Islamic extremism, the Islamic world is not our enemy.”

However, the president’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, does see the world in ideological terms. Nagl does not disagree with the idea that McMaster may come into conflict with Bannon.

“I’d buy tickets to watch that fight,” he says.

Nagl expects the president will need to make decisions when Bannon and McMaster are divided, and McMaster will do his utmost to implement those decisions, consistent with the Constitution. “And that’s important — remember, military officers swear oaths to uphold and defend the Constitution, they do not swear oaths to the president.”

McMaster will also be hard to fire, Nagl argues, given that his predecessor Michael Flynn lasted only 24 days. Another quick succession would be very bad for the administration’s credibility.

“The administration badly needed a credible appointment. They needed someone who was seen as a professional, as a capable professional, who across the board in the national security community would be seen as: Wow!”

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