In a system built on civilian rule, how far should military leaders and other national-security experts go to keep a president from blundering into catastrophe? The latest figure to begin walking this tightrope is Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster, Donald Trump’s choice as his new national security adviser.
A combat veteran of Desert Storm and the more recent war in Iraq, McMaster is one of the few flag officers who can boast both a Silver Star and a history PhD. He is outspoken and iconoclastic, and McMaster’s career revealed him to be an innovative strategist who was willing to buck the military establishment — even to the point of damaging his own career. He pioneered the controversial counterinsurgency approach that gave the United States an exit strategy from Iraq, before being passed over for promotion by an Army that remained focused on traditional war-fighting.
Yet McMaster also comes to his position with strong and established views that seem at odds with those of his new boss. In Iraq, McMaster was known for his respect of Islam and for polling detainees on whether their treatment was humane — a sharp contrast with the enthusiasm Trump has expressed for torture. While McMaster’s reputation as a disruptive outsider no doubt appealed to Trump, events may cast the general in a different role — not as the bull but as the guardian of the china shop.
The tension between democracy and expertise in the making of foreign policy is as old as the American republic. The president arrives in office with a democratic mandate, and voters have a right to see their preferences reflected in foreign policy.
But faced with the realities of governing, most presidents soon fall under the influence of national security experts in the “deep state,” who have better information and a better grounding in how diplomacy and military operations play out in the real world.
Especially under an untested populist president who’s vowed to change treaties and alliances, these experts face a dilemma: How hard should they push back at rash civilian leaders? Already, some career officials are leaking information about the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia, underscoring the divide between Trump and the deep state. Other experts will quietly try to steer national security policy toward the status quo. But when does an attempt to moderate the White House actually become an exercise in enabling?
We often think of civil-military relations in terms of sober elected politicians trying to hold back bloodthirsty generals and rapacious defense contractors. But generals do not always lean toward war, and civilians do not always lean toward peace. During the Clinton administration, it was then UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright who reportedly asked Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” Describing the moment in his memoir, Powell wrote, “I thought I would have an aneurysm.”
In a similar spirit, many in the American military blame feckless politicians for dragging the United States into a losing war in Vietnam. McMaster turned that charge around in his 1997 book, “Dereliction of Duty.” By not insisting loudly and repeatedly to President Lyndon Johnson that America was sleepwalking into disaster, he argued, the Joint Chiefs had to share responsibility for the tragedy that ensued.
On the one hand, McMaster argued that Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara were ignorant of military matters and contemptuous of the true experts. Driven by their own political imperative to find a shortcut to winning the war, they led the country into a quagmire for which it was ill-prepared. On the other hand, the experts shrunk from fulfilling their responsibility to the country by warning of what was to come. McMaster presumed that military experts had the power and the obligation to exercise independent judgment.
Today, McMaster is joining an administration that openly scoffs at experts of all sorts and revels in following its populist political instincts. On Monday, President Trump argued that US military forces lose wars because “we don’t fight to win.” Trump is a self-proclaimed master of national security affairs who credits his knowledge to assiduously watching Fox News. He has proudly boasted: “I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me.”
During his campaign, he also signaled a radical shift on established policies regarding torture, American alliances, and respect for Islam — policies that national security experts, including McMaster, have long regarded as vital to American security. Ethno-nationalists such as Stephen Bannon, a key Trump adviser, espouse a dark view of the world that, if translated into policy, would shred longstanding alliances and global norms.
Historically, national security experts have been able to thwart sudden, radical shifts in US policy. In a sober briefing, the deep state can puncture the wildest campaign promise. This dynamic disappointed many supporters of Barack Obama, who saw promises to close Guantanamo and soften other aspects of the “war on terror” fade away into a continuation of the status quo.
Trump’s supporters have not yet been similarly disillusioned. To an extent unlike any president in the modern era, Trump rejects the advice of the deep state — even disparaging one of its most sacred routines, the presidential daily brief. In the never-ending balancing act between democracy and expertise, he leans almost entirely toward the former.
Now McMaster, who condemned Vietnam-era Americans for getting the relationship of expertise and democracy wrong, will himself be the one charged with striking the right balance. In his book, McMaster scolded Vietnam-era generals for forgetting that they ultimately served not themselves or their political masters, but the Constitution. Seen in this light, service in the Trump administration is a duty, even a noble sacrifice. But anyone engaging with today’s populists also risks becoming an enabler — just like the American generals who failed to prevent feckless and ignorant civilians from leading America into an unwinnable war in Vietnam.
Andrew Gawthorpe is a lecturer in history and international studies at Leiden University. Follow him on Twitter @andygawt.