By Joyce Karam
If ousted former national security adviser (NSA) Gen. Michael Flynn was Russia’s point of contact in the Donald Trump White House — receiving, a week before he resigned, an outside proposal to lift sanctions on Moscow — then he will likely be missed by the Kremlin as his replacement Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who has fundamentally different views on the issue, takes office.
Unlike Flynn, McMaster, 54, is cautious in reading Russian behavior across Europe and the Middle East. He is also wary of the Iranian role in the region, but does not view it in ideological terms like his predecessor. McMaster is known in military circles for his strategic and critical thinking. He is a believer in smart US counterinsurgency tactics which could be visible in a more aggressive strategy against Daesh.
Respected US army intellectual
In announcing the appointment of McMaster, US President Donald Trump touted that “he is highly respected by everyone in the military and we’re very honored to have him.”
Within the military, McMaster “is one of the few Generals alive who is as highly regarded as (Defense Secretary Gen. James) Mattis,” said Tobias Schneider, a defense analyst based in Washington, DC.
McMaster fought in the first Gulf War, and served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Across his career, he is known for his critical thinking, questioning the performance of the US military leadership during the Vietnam War, and later scrutinizing the post-war planning by former President George W. Bush in Iraq.
His book “Dereliction of Duty” is “an impressive study about the failure of civil-military relations during the Vietnam War and an absolute mainstay for everybody involved in security policy,” Schneider told Arab News. His questioning of the military in both the Vietnam and Iraq wars gives the impression that he would challenge Trump as well.
Schneider described the core argument in his book as “how military experts and national security advisers failed to adequately advise and challenge the president and his team.”
Politically, McMaster is the anti-Flynn in his approach and strategic thinking. He is known to get along and work as a team player, unlike Flynn who was known for being confrontational and was fired from both the Defense Intelligence Agency (2014) and the White House (2017). The team player attributes could help McMaster immensely in a White House reportedly marred by divisions between Trump aides Steven Bannon and Reince Priebus.
In contrast to Flynn, who advocated closer relations with Russia, Schneider sees McMaster as someone who is “conscious of Russia’s threat”. “He is very much aware of Russian machinations in Ukraine (where he spent some time) when he was tasked to develop a counter strategy to Russian ground forces in Eastern Europe,” the expert said.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal last March, McMaster pointed to “isolated Russian, Chinese and Iranian actions” becoming “part of a geopolitical realignment that cuts against US interests.” He cautioned that “US rivals from Europe through the greater Middle East to East Asia are on the move, annexing territory, intimidating allies, and using proxy armies and unconventional forces to challenge the post-World War II political order.”
McMaster saw in Russia’s, China’s and Iran’s actions a test to “America’s willingness to defend its interests and its allies.” He cited “Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine, China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, and Iran’s support for terrorist groups and militias across the Middle East” as key examples.
These views set him apart from Flynn’s outlook on Russia as a potential ally against Daesh, and from Trump’s opinions calling the invasion of Ukraine “so smart”. It puts him, however, closer to Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence in countering Russia’s behavior and supporting NATO. On Iran, McMaster is expected to be more strategic in how he addresses its threat, bringing focus back on Iraq, Syria and Yemen in attempting to push back its proxies.
While McMaster was not Trump’s favorite to take the job — which was offered after both Admiral Robert Harward and Gen. David Petraeus declined or “showed no interest” in taking the position — he is seen as less controversial than former ambassador John Bolton, also a former candidate for the role.
McMaster’s appointment marks a departure from Flynn’s short-lived, controversial and rocky tenure at the National Security Council. It is too early to tell, however, if the new General will enjoy enough influence and leverage within the White House to turn the page on the internal divides, the operational dysfunctions and Flynn’s ideological outlook.