Sep 24, 2020

The top Trump adviser who chose not to write a tell-all book,

The top Trump adviser who chose not to write a tell-all book Opinion by Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst "Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the editor of the Coronavirus Daily Brief and author of the new book "Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos." The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN." (CNN)Retired Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who was President Trump's national security adviser from February 2017 to April 2018, has written a book that will likely confound both the President's fans and his critics. In the preface to "Battlegrounds," McMaster acknowledges that despite the advice of friends, editors, agents and even family members, he chose not to write a paean to Trump "as an unconventional leader who ... advanced American interests," nor did he write a takedown depicting the President as "a bigoted narcissist unfit for office," despite the fact that writing either of these types of books "might be lucrative." So, for those hoping for a tell-all book along the lines of John Bolton's "The Room Where it Happened," which was written by McMaster's successor as national security adviser and that oozed contempt for Trump, "Battlegrounds" will disappoint. Nor is McMaster's book a full-throated defense of Trump's record, such as the 2019 book, "The Case for Trump" by the historian Victor Davis Hanson -- a colleague of McMaster's at Stanford University's Hoover Institution -- which attempted to make the best case for the President. But in the long run, McMaster's book will likely have a far longer shelf life than the tell-all books about Trump or the books that laud the President because McMaster ably outlines the national security challenges facing the United States that will last long after Trump leaves office. As McMaster explains, "I wanted to write a book that might help transcend the vitriol of partisan political discourse and help readers better understand the most significant challenges to security, freedom and prosperity." By implication, McMaster's book advances the view that when it comes to US foreign policy, "politics stops at the water's edge," as the then-chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, famously observed at the beginning of the Cold War in 1947. This view is not surprising when you consider that McMaster never voted during the three and half decades that he served under six presidents, a fact that he reveals early on in "Battlegrounds." The book operates on several levels: It's a lively memoir of McMaster's time in office, and a scholarly, engaging history and deep analysis of the wide range of national security threats that face the United States and its allies. However, there are areas of clear disagreement between McMaster and Trump over American national security policy that McMaster's book also articulates. An early tell about how McMaster sees the world is his book's subtitle: "The Fight To Defend the Free World." It signals that "Battlegrounds" will not be a jingoistic apologia for 'America First,' but rather the book assumes that Afghans liberated from the Taliban and Iraqis freed from the yoke of Saddam Hussein are as much part of the effort to defend the free world as Americans are. The framing of "the free world" also seems to differ from President Trump, whose fawning admiration for authoritarian leaders from Russia's Vladimir Putin to North Korea's Kim Jong Un is well known. In "Battlegrounds" there is no score-settling, which has been a feature of so many of the books about the Trump White House. Despite their somewhat rocky relationship, McMaster doesn't even mention Trump's former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis once in his 545-page book about US national security. Nor does McMaster mention Steve Bannon, who was Trump's chief strategist for seven months when McMaster was national security adviser, despite the fact that they both clashed repeatedly about the best way forward in Afghanistan. The key big idea in "Battlegrounds" is that Americans are often guilty of "strategic narcissism" and that they should invest in greater "strategic empathy." Empathy of course, is not a synonym for sympathy; it is simply trying to put yourself in someone else's shoes -- whether they are an ally or an enemy -- in order to understand their points of view, even if you might profoundly disagree with them. (McMaster's former boss, of course, is not someone who engages in much "strategic empathy," and "America First" seems like the height of "strategic narcissism.") An important example of US strategic narcissism was the erroneous lesson many Americans derived from the first Gulf War after Saddam Huseein seized Kuwait in 1990 and the Iraqi army -- the fourth largest in the world at the time -- was subsequently easily defeated by the US military. Indeed, then-Capt. McMaster led a tank battle during the Gulf War that lasted only 23 minutes, in which his force destroyed an astonishing 28 Iraqi tanks, 16 personnel carriers and more than 30 trucks. McMaster writes that the easy victory against Saddam led many Americans to presume that "military competition was over," given the US technological overmatch of any likely opponent. This led to the overconfidence that underpinned the botched 2003 invasion of Iraq, which, at least initially, was an easy victory against Saddam's conventional army. But soon Iraqi insurgents started deploying unconventional tactics such as suicide attacks and improvised explosive devices that bogged down the US military in Iraq for years. The United States subsequently overlearned from the failures of the Iraq War and swung back to what McMaster describes as a policy of "resignation" under President Barack Obama, who didn't appreciate "the risks of inaction" when it came to not enforcing his own "red line" against the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons against his own people in 2013. This policy also led the Obama administration to pull out of Iraq at the end of 2011, which helped pave the way for the subsequent rise of ISIS. In other words, in US foreign policy, strategic narcissism can lead both to sins of commission and omission. Putin. Just as the swift victory over Saddam in the first Gulf War produced American strategic narcissism, so too did the contemporaneous collapse of the Soviet Union, which some presumed meant history had "ended" and that the self-evident benefits of liberal democracy, embodied in the United States, would ensure that liberal democracies would become the preferred mode of governance everywhere. This, too, was an illusion. As McMaster notes, in fact, "autocracy was making a comeback." It was underlined by the election in 2000 of a hitherto obscure former KGB officer as Russian president -- Vladimir Putin (who has recently pushed through constitutional changes so he can continue ruling Russia until 2036). McMaster doesn't share Trump's admiration for Putin. McMaster, who is fond of alliteration when it comes to describing enemy tactics, says that Putin uses "disinformation, denial, dependence and disruptive technologies" in order to reclaim Russia's "lost honor" after the collapse of the once-mighty Soviet Union. In particular, Putin seems to want to drive a wedge between the United States and NATO. Trump appears to be playing along with Putin's strategy with his regular attacks on NATO, his denigration of key allies such as Canada and Germany, and his cozying up to Putin, none of which makes any strategic sense. McMaster makes the good point that Trump is far from the only American president who thought they could do business with Putin. George W. Bush famously looked into Putin's soul as if he were some kind of kindred spirit. Hillary Clinton, when she was Obama's secretary of state, pursued a "reset" with Russia. But this was all before Putin set out to subvert the bedrock American principle of free and fair elections, according to the intelligence community. McMaster ignores Trumpian orthodoxy when he notes that "Russian disinformation showed a clear preference for Trump" during the 2016 US presidential election. China It is China, not Russia, that McMaster says presents the "larger, more complicated threat to the United States," a conclusion that will not surprise anyone familiar with Trump's 2017 national security strategy, written by McMaster and his national security team. That strategy document made the case that the Chinese steal US intellectual property every year valued at "hundreds of billions of dollars" and are "building the most capable and well-funded military in the world, after our own," and warned that Chinese "land reclamation projects and militarization of the South China Seas flouts international law, threatens the free flow of trade, and undermines stability." McMaster alliteratively asserts that China pursues a strategy of "co-option, coercion and concealment" as it seeks to collapse "the free, open, and rules-based order that the United States and its allies established after World War II." The ruling Communist Party, he contends, is using the Chinese telecom giant Huawei to "control global communications infrastructure and the data it carries" in particular for 5G networks and it "surpassed Cisco as the world's most valuable telecommunications company after it stole the latter's source code." In August, the Trump administration barred Huawei all access to US technology. Huawei has repeatedly denied that it enables Chinese spying. Interestingly, given the Trump administration's stance on immigration, McMaster suggests that a useful response to Chinese authoritarianism is to expose more Chinese to living in a free society and to actually increase immigration from China into the US, "issuing more visas and providing paths to citizenship for more Chinese, especially those of who have been oppressed at home." The Longest War McMaster spent two years in Afghanistan running an anti-corruption task force and he has pronounced, well-informed views about what to do about America's longest war. (Disclosure: Before the publication of "Battlegrounds" McMaster asked me to comment on a draft of the chapter about Afghanistan and I offered some minor observations.) McMaster characterizes US officials involved in negotiations with the Taliban under both presidents Obama and Trump as exhibiting an "extreme case of strategic narcissism based in wishful thinking and a false premise that the Taliban was disconnected from terrorist organizations and open to a power-sharing agreement consistent with the Afghan Constitution." Amen to that. US officials negotiate with the Taliban as if they are just a bunch of misunderstood backwoodsmen and a de facto government-in-waiting and so they have to gloss over some important facts, such as the Taliban's dismal record on women's rights and human rights in general and their hosting of al-Qaeda when they were actually in power before 9/11. McMaster points out that this wishful thinking persists despite the fact that the leader of al Qaeda, Ayman al Zawahiri, pledged allegiance to Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, the leader of the Taliban in 2015 once it became clear that the original leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, had died two years earlier. Similarly, documents found in bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, after he was killed by US Navy SEALs in 2011, underline that bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders continued to be in touch with leaders of the Taliban, including Mullah Omar almost a decade after 9/11. Also, as McMaster documents, Afghanistan has moved on from the Taliban era in myriad ways. In 2001 there were fewer than one million children in Afghan schools. while the UN estimates that as of 2017 there were almost 10 million children in schools. Where once there had only been the Taliban-controlled Radio Shariat, there are now many hundreds of TV, radio channels and print outlets around the country. When McMaster was Trump's national security adviser, he was able to persuade Trump that a long-term public commitment to Afghanistan and the addition of 4,000 US troops, a relatively small number, to the around 10,000 troops already in Afghanistan, would help to secure American interests there. McMaster would expend much political capital advocating for this Afghan policy, which the President intensely disliked. A White House staffer told me for my book "Trump and His Generals" that McMaster "got shot in the face for articulating views that other people also held but were not articulating." Departure from Trump orbit McMaster's departure from the White House was sealed when he spoke at the Munich Security Conference in February 2018. McMaster told the Munich audience that the recent indictment in the United States of 13 Russian officials for meddling in the 2016 presidential election showed it was "now incontrovertible" that Russia had interfered in it. Trump quickly tweeted, "General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians and that the only Collusion was between Russia and Crooked H, the DNC and the Dems. Remember the Dirty Dossier, Uranium, Speeches, Emails and the Podesta Company!" Once Trump started publicly contradicting his top aides, they were generally toast. McMaster had wanted to stay on as national security adviser until August 2018, but it was now clear that this wasn't going to happen. On the lovely, sunny afternoon of April 6, 2018, McMaster was "clapped out" of the White House by hundreds of cheering staffers. This was a far from routine send-off for senior Trump officials who had been pushed out, many of whom had simply slunk away without any celebration of their service. Once McMaster left the White House, the Afghan policy was reversed. Trump is planning to draw down US troop levels to as low as 4,000 in Afghanistan by Election Day in the US. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has continued negotiating a "deal with the Taliban for the purpose of withdrawing from America's longest war," which McMaster says is likely to have a "far worse" outcome "than a sustained commitment" to Afghanistan. Isolationists and internationalists have long debated America's proper role in the world ever since President John Quincy Adams famously declared "America ... goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy." McMaster makes a convincing and comprehensive case for continued US engagement with the world underlined by the emergence of the novel coronavirus in 2020 which he says requires "international cooperation on health." Trump never seemed to really warm to McMaster, who had spent his entire adult life in public service since entering West Point aged 17, unlike Trump who had famously avoided military service during Vietnam and until he had become president had held no public office. McMaster was also a war hero in both the Gulf War and the Iraq War and is too modest to mention in his own memoir that he earned a Silver Star for bravery and was wounded in action. Along the way, McMaster also earned a PhD in history which became the basis for his bestselling book "Dereliction of Duty," one of the most influential studies of the US military's conduct of the Vietnam War. McMaster's erudition and scholarship are evident in "Battlegrounds," which comes with more than 75 pages of notes and selected bibliography. In "Trump and His Generals" I reported that Bannon had warned McMaster before he took the job as national security adviser, "Whatever you do don't be professorial. Trump is a game-day player. Trump is a guy who never went to class. Never got the syllabus. Never bought a book. Never took a note. He basically comes in the night before the final exams after partying all night, puts on a pot of coffee, takes your notes, memorizes what he's got to memorize. Walks in at eight o'clock in the morning and gets whatever grade he needs. That's the reason he doesn't like professors. He doesn't like being lectured to." McMaster largely ignored this advice. He didn't go to Mar-a-Lago regularly with the President, which meant that he had less face time with Trump than those who did go. Where other senior officials put a premium on presidential face time, McMaster put a premium on making sure that he had closely vetted the papers that were circulated to other cabinet members and their staffs. He was a grind while those who connected with Trump were generally schmoozers. McMaster is, in short, a lot of things President Trump is not. But in "Battlegrounds," he highlights only his policy disagreements with the President and never any kind of personal animus. It's a stance that Trump must find hard to get his head around since for Trump politics and policy are always personal, as is everything else.