POLITICO reported yesterday that Donald Trump overruled his new national security adviser, choosing to keep a protege of Michael Flynn in a key intelligence post. Although Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster is a decorated combat veteran with the most successful track record in command of any soldier in his generation, 30 year-old Ezra Cohen-Watnick has the approval of Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner, and that is all anyone really needs to succeed in Trump’s White House.
Like Flynn, Cohen-Watnick is deeply critical of the CIA’s human intelligence operations, so the agency regards him as a threat. McMaster had tried to reassign Cohen-Watnick in order to resolve the bureaucratic impasse and unwind tensions between the Oval Office and the intelligence community. Never a political animal, McMaster’s service in the new administration was widely seen as an act of patriotism by someone who could mitigate the president’s worst instincts and advisers.
But the Trump administration is increasingly defined by suspicion of the “deep state” and casual, even flippant rejection of expertise. Reports of paranoia and fear among White House staffers are a mirror of the intelligence community’s anxiety about Trump, whose proposed budget cuts to the CIA and State Department would eviscerate America’s ability to cope with matters all around the world, or use non-military means to respond.
If McMaster hoped to reassure the president, and protect American intelligence institutions as well as the American military, this a warning sign that the two objectives may be incompatible. McMaster has never failed a mission, rising to near-godlike levels of admiration within the ranks of the US Army through victories over Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard in 1991 and Sunni insurgents at Tal Afar in 2005. But there is good reason to be pessimistic about his chances in this fight.
Bannon and Stephen Miller, the white nationalist duo now in charge of policy at the White House, are ideologically opposed to diplomacy, and reliant on their ideological echo-chambers for information about the world. Contrary to his image as a moderating influence on these frightening people, Kushner seems unwilling to counter their extremism unless it’s important to Ivanka. Against this spread of influence, McMaster has only his name and reputation and skill as a counter-influence.
As exemplified in the Russian connections which brought down Flynn, Trump operates on leverage, and McMaster’s biggest leverage is the threat of resignation. That would be politically damaging to Trump, but would not bring this government down as it might in a parliamentary system. Such a move could very well make things much worse for America. Right now, his ability to provide the president with good information is one of the few bright spots in a rather dark and foreboding environment.
McMaster would be loathe to see a replacement ruin all his good work. He does not want to see Cohen-Watnick handed even greater power in the National Security Council, leaving the nation’s analysts, linguists, and policy professionals to be purged and vital operations diminished. He does not want to see America’s foreign policy apparatus shrunk so small that it can be drowned in Grover Norquist’s bathtub at the pleasure of the Kremlin. The general loves his country way too much to let that happen.
But McMaster does face a stark calculus while serving the American people. If the president becomes safe in McMaster’s loyalty rather than reliant on his judgment, then he is merely replicating the mistakes he criticized so effectively in the Vietnam-era Joint Chiefs. If Donald becomes heedless of his counsel — if the star of ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ uses too many peremptory challenges to his appointments — then McMaster serves the American people best by withdrawing his participation in a farcical, dangerous government. We are still a long way from that point, but signs do not auger well.
Bear all of this in mind as the Pentagon applies Trump’s new policy expanding The Never-Ending War On Terror Everywhere.
By devolving authority for drone strikes and commando raids, the president clearly means to kill his way out of the Middle East; better than almost anyone else in this administration, LTG McMaster knows that we cannot kill our way out of the Middle East. He needs to tell the president that. And if the president won’t listen, H.R. McMaster should start going on cable news to talk about it, because that seems to be the only way to get his attention.
Failing all other remedies, I trust and hope that McMaster will default to his principles, as he always has.
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