By selecting Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster as his new national security advisor, President Trump may have the opportunity to flip what has been a disastrous trajectory.
Practically, this matters more for how America functions in the world going forward than does National Security Advisor Mike Flynn being forced to resign after four weeks on the job — though it remains important institutionally to investigate the underlying issues leading to Flynn’s departure.
National Security Council principals and deputies have yet to hold a substantive discussion — despite missiles fired by Iran and North Korea, important presidential meetings with leaders from Canada, Japan, and Israel; critical military offensives ongoing in Iraq and Syria; and multiple provocative actions by Russia.
Every president shapes his own NSC. The executive order President Trump signed elevated Steve Bannon, a political advisor, to a permanent place on the NSC’s principals committee and provided the president’s military and intelligence advisors with invitation-only seating. President Obama’s EO reserved permanent principal seats for military, intelligence, and budget advisors, placed his UN ambassador at the principals table alongside his secretary of state (as did President Clinton) and included his science and environment advisors in meetings on an invite basis.
But when a president’s chosen arrangement brings the very NSC operation to a standstill, the broken apparatus of US national security decision-making registers like a four alarm fire.
Every university student I teach about NSC process understands that deputies from defense, Treasury, state, the intelligence community, and the other key national security agencies provide policy options, geopolitical and economic history, budget guidance and, in discussions, help narrow and refine opportunities for principals who lead these agencies.
Principals in turn can allow the national security advisor to bring options to the president that have benefited from scrubbing by those he has chosen to serve him, and by careerists whose mission it is to protect and defend US national security interests.
The national security advisor and his or her deputies develop the best options for the president by culling ideas from among the agencies.
The most successful, such as General Brent Scowcroft, excel, with a relatively small NSC staff, at reaching out. Scowcroft gave cabinet secretaries and their agencies’ staffs a sense of inclusion and participation in national security decision-making, even as he nurtured a particularly close advisory and policy-making role with President George H.W. Bush.
Scowcroft’s NSC had the capability to contribute to effective coordination globally in the 1991 Gulf War with Iraq, and to the congressional response, even at a time when Democrats controlled the House and the Senate. He also aided President Bush’s subsequent ability to lay the ground for the first regional Middle East peace effort, the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991, out of which were borne Prime Minister Rabin and President Clinton’s peace efforts of the 1990s.
Having participated in three National Security Council staff transitions, I have some measure of the challenges facing President Trump and those around him in figuring out how to shape and define what they want and need from a national security advisor and from political and career national security staff.
In selecting McMaster, the president seems to have taken the wise tack employed in selecting Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and in what they seek in their deputies: experienced, substantive leaders. It helps when they are leaders with rock-solid reputations internationally, high degrees of integrity, and an ability to take in varying perspectives.
As national security advisor, coordinating between national security agencies — inside and outside the White House, in the legislative and executive branches, and around the world — it helps to be able to see things from other’s viewpoints, even while remaining intensely aware of the commander in chief’s perspective. This will make the NSA that much more capable of shaping effective and sustainable options for the president going forward, and explaining what will and will not succeed and why.
McMaster presumably would have accepted this position only with the assurances that he will be able to select and structure an NSC staff that can serve United States national security interests effectively. This is an important step forward for the safety and security of the United States, and the world.
Mara Rudman is a diplomat in residence at American University School of International Service. She is a former deputy national security advisor to Presidents Clinton and Obama and worked on the national security transitions from President Clinton to George W. Bush and on Obama’s NSC transition team.