The Administration

Moral courage: Why HR McMaster is right choice for national security adviser

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In his book “Dereliction of Duty,” H.R. McMaster writes, “Any interpretation of direct American intervention in the Vietnam War must address the question of responsibility for one of the greatest American foreign policy disasters of the twentieth century.

“Assessing blame for the disaster in Vietnam, however, is beside the point. Much more important is to determine how and why key decisions were made, decisions that involved the United States in a war that it could not win at a politically acceptable level of commitment.”

{mosads}Gen. McMaster takes over the role of national security adviser with different forces at play on U.S. foreign policy than the Vietnam era he wrote about. Today we are mired in what looks like an endless war in Afghanistan. We are supporting on ongoing conflict in Iraq; the Chinese military is on the rise in the South China Sea, and a Russian adversary has already provoked the Trump administration. Of all the skills McMaster brings to the table, it might be that of a military historian and a transformational leader that will be the most valuable as he navigates the president through what promises to be a turbulent period in U.S. foreign policy.


Given the unsettled start the administration has had in this area, his assignment could prove the beginning of the stabilization of the foreign policy in both manner and communication that those in the national security community have been waiting for.

McMaster is a true warrior-scholar, which typically the Army does not reward because very bright junior officers tend to make their methodical senior leaders nervous. The Army normally breeds these types of officers out at the rank of colonel. A Silver Star winner for the battle of the 73 Easting in Desert Storm, he was quick then to document and establish the record for what would be the last large tank formation and battle of the 20th century. His Ph.D. dissertation for teaching history at West Point would eventually be published in book form. In “Dereliction of Duty,” McMaster eviscerated the uniformed military leaders who knuckled under to President Johnson on Vietnam for failing to show the moral courage to stand up to the political leaders.

He showed his tremendous versatility as a leader when he executed a counterinsurgency operation to virtual perfection in western Iraq, even though it went counter to the senior leaders above him at the time. Originally passed over for promotion to general officer twice, it took the then commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, to come back from Iraq to sit on his promotion board to ensure the Army did the right thing and promote him to general officer.

What McMaster will bring to the table is a cadence and discipline surrounding the vast information made available by the intelligence community. I expect him to be an affiliative leader — one who will build harmony and emotional bonds in what is clearly an intelligence community leaking information like we have not seen before.

McMaster will have to first heal the rifts within the community, and then get to work motivating and building loyalty in what is a highly stressful environment. He’ll be successful if he can get the president to stay on message, especially when it comes to matters of foreign policy. We cannot confuse our allies and allow our enemies to miscalculate our intentions, so they feel they can act without our response.  

McMaster is someone who grew up in the military during the Cold War, and watched from the forward lines of Europe the conditions the Reagan administration created to bankrupt the former Soviet Union. I am sure one of his first tasks will be to get the president to be clear on how we are going to deal with Russia going forward, and what the U.S. will do to contain Putin as he clearly tries to reconstitute the Russian empire.

Where this could go wrong is that McMaster could be met with resistance by ideologues in the White House surrounding the president who don’t believe he will support their agenda. It’s likely that he will be faced with situations not unlike those in uniform 50 years ago — and have to tell the president something he might not want to hear. We’ll find out if the Trump administration confuses moral courage with loyalty.

I would not expect that to happen. Gen. McMaster will establish himself as such a valuable asset, and will provide the stability required to finally establish a working security apparatus for the president.


Maj. Mike Lyons (retired, U.S. Army) is a senior fellow with the Truman National Security Project and is a military analyst for CBS News.

The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill

Tags Donald Trump Foreign policy HR McMaster National Security Adviser National Security Council Republican Party Russia Trump Administration United States US Army Vladimir Putin Washington D.C.

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