Michael A. Cohen

Trump’s military affliction

President Donald Trump, right, speaks as Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, left, listens at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., Monday, Feb. 20, 2017, where Trump announced that McMaster will be the new national security adviser. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Susan Walsh/Associated Press
President Trump spoke as Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster listened at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate on Monday.

IN THE FOUR days since President Trump announced his selection of H.R McMaster as his national security adviser, the move has been met with practically universal praise.

Writing in the Atlantic, Andrew Exum called McMaster “one of the most talented officers the US Army has ever produced.”

“McMaster is the real deal,” says Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. “He is a warrior intellectual.”


The accolades for McMaster are richly deserved. He is both a well-regarded scholar and one of the Army’s more effective field generals. His book “Dereliction of Duty’’ is a widely praised look at the failures of America’s military leadership during the war in Vietnam. His battlefield achievements in the Gulf War and a decade later during the Iraq War are the stuff of legend among military geeks.

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But this doesn’t mean he’ll be an effective national security adviser or that the fundamental problems with the Trump administration’s foreign policy will be fixed any time soon.

McMaster does have one major advantage: he’s not Michael Flynn, who resigned as national security adviser amid a scandal about his contacts with Russia. That means he’s not a conspiracy theorist, Islamaphobe who appeared to be about as effective at managing a national security bureaucracy as I am at performing open-heart surgery.

But being a “bulwark against insanity,” as one former Obama administration foreign policy hand said to me, does not mean McMaster will be a great national security adviser. Others have suggested that McMaster will bring to the White House a willingness to stand up to the president.

But ideally, one would want a national security adviser who is in tune with the president on foreign policy and understands how to manage the inter-agency national security process to best serve him or her — not somebody whose most attractive attribute is that he can tell the president when he’s wrong.


And considering that McMaster doesn’t know Trump and appears to have been selected largely because Trump has a soft spot for men with medals on their chests, there’s little reason to believe that McMaster will have some kind of a mind meld with the commander in chief.

Beyond that, McMaster’s entire career has been about driving transformation in the Army, even if his intellectual energy and interests cover a wide array of issues. McMaster is an effective and talented Army general, but that’s not the key skill set that he will need in his new job.

Indeed, the choice of McMaster speaks to a fundamental problem at the heart of Trump’s foreign policy thinking: his disquieting affection for men in uniform. McMaster now makes for the fourth military leader that Trump has chosen for a major national security office. Trump appears to believe that the best possible qualification for a national security position is a military background.

Trump’s not alone here: many civilians think that military officers are experts on foreign policy or the best choice when it comes to matters of national security strategy. They’re not. They’re skill set is the opposite. If your focus is tactics and getting from Point A to Point B, the can-do spirit and professionalism of the American military can’t be beat. But by and large, military officers are not trained to think in strategic terms. They’re not big picture people: they’re “get things done’’ people.

In fact, there is not one single deep strategic thinker in the entire Trump foreign policy orbit — not Jim Mattis at the Pentagon, not McMaster, not Rex Tillerson at the State Department, and certainly not Trump. To the extent there is anyone in the White House thinking about strategy it’s Steve Bannon, who seems intent on dismantling the institutions that have preserved international peace for the past half-century — and who very much appears to have Trump’s ear. Ideally McMaster would be able to clean out the National Security Council of the ideologues and former military offices who Flynn brought in and instead stock it with regional experts, well versed on international politics. If he can’t he’ll likely find himself an isolated beacon of sanity in a White House filled with ideologically-driven mediocrities who have a very different — and far more destructive — agenda.


All of this is to say that one might rather have McMaster advising the president on foreign policy than Michael Flynn, but as long as Donald Trump is the man sitting in the Oval Office there’s little reason for optimism that American foreign policy is about to get better any time soon.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.