In Sharp Contrast with Flynn, Trump Appoints Establishment Figure to NSC
Win Without War Coalition’s Stephen Miles says H.R. McMaster’s appointment is a real break with the recklessness of Michael Flynn, but the truth is that Trump is running a National Security Council politicized far beyond what it was under Bush
KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network in Baltimore. I’m Kim Brown.
On Monday, Donald Trump announced that he’s appointed Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster to replace Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor, who resigned after misleading Vice President Mike Pence, and others, about conversations he had with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
McMaster, who is a well-respected figure in Washington, gained prominence after leading a decisive victory in the first Persian Gulf War in 1991. Six years later, he wrote a book about the Vietnam War that detailed the failures in leadership and lack of communication, between the White House and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But less known is McMaster’s long-term support for expanding the military, both in terms of equipment and troops.
Here’s Donald Trump earlier this year in Langley, Virginia, addressing the CIA, pledging more military aid from his administration.
DONALD TRUMP: …Been fighting these wars for longer than any wars we’ve ever fought, we have not used the real abilities that we have. We’ve been restrained. We have to get rid of ISIS. Have to get rid of ISIS. We have no choice.
KIM BROWN: Here with us to help us understand what sorts of changes we could see under McMaster, as National Security Advisor to the President, as the director, we’re actually joined with the director of the Win Without War coalition, Stephen Miles.
Stephen, we appreciate you joining us. Thank you.
STEPHEN MILES: Happy to be here.
KIM BROWN: So, Stephen, before we get into what McMaster is actually going to do as National Security Advisor, can you give us a little bit of background on who he is, and why Trump may have chosen him?
STEPHEN MILES: Certainly. General McMaster is an incredibly well decorated army officer. He’s been having a very long career in the military. He started as a West Point graduate, and has been engaged in numerous conflicts over the last several decades. Most notably leading an armored brigade during the first Iraq war, the Persian Gulf War. And then at the very textbook case of counterinsurgency operations in Northern Iraq, in a town called Tal Afar that was very well regarded at the time, and has earned him a bit of a reputation.
In amongst that, he also earned a PhD, and was well regarded for a book he wrote about the history of the Vietnam War. And more specifically what went wrong, and the failure of military officers during that debacle. That earns him a reputation as a bit of a straight talking, saying-like-it-is general, and a strong reputation from, certainly key figures in the national security apparatus.
It is honestly an interesting pick for Donald Trump. He certainly does not match with the America First, break with the establishment, rhetoric we’ve been hearing from him. He’s much more in the vein of a General Mattis, who’s the Secretary of Defense, firmly rooted in the establishment, and obviously it’s a noted break from the kind of reckless, outrageous General Flynn, who just departed in disgrace from the position previously.
So, it’ll be interesting to see where we go from here.
KIM BROWN: Interesting on Twitter, I saw the Hoover Institution, which is a part of Stanford University, it’s a public policy research think tank. They tweeted that H.R. was one of their fellows as well, so he’s seen to be a little bit more intellectually militaristically-minded, more so than Michael Flynn.
But, Stephen, why does McMaster say that in the next war, for example, the United States may be outnumbered and outgunned? He’s really pushing this idea, or has pushed in his previous speakings and writings, this notion about expanding the military, that the military needs to be bigger and stronger.
STEPHEN MILES: Yeah. I mean, certainly, you can’t take the internal politics of the U.S. military out of this equation. General McMaster is a career army officer, and the army is historically fighting against the marines, the navy, the air force, for resources. There’s been a lot of debate over the last several years that the future of warfare is not in large ground deployments, it’s not in infantry combat, it’s not in the kinds of things that the U.S. Army does. But is rather in types of air campaigns we’ve seen engaged against ISIS, that obviously the U.S. air force plays a good-sized role in, kind of counter… special operations forces that we’ve seen, Navy SEALs, and others play key roles in.
And so, part of that, I think, you can chalk up to a rhetoric that’s designed around promoting the future of the army. But it’s also a helpful reminder that the General is, despite his reputation as an intellectual, he’s a general. He’s a military man. He is someone who believes fundamentally in American military might, and the pursuit of American military power. And we shouldn’t expect that somehow there’s going to be a departure, with his ascendancy to the National Security Advisor’s role.
KIM BROWN: Talk to us some about his time in Vietnam, and then later on in his career, him writing a book about the failures of the Vietnam War, because this is pretty significant.
STEPHEN MILES: Mm-hmm. Yeah, so this is really kind of one of the things, besides his battlefield reputation that makes General McMaster kind of well respected, well regarded. He wasn’t in Vietnam himself. He was a student of Vietnam, of that war, and the really, kind of key takeaway from his book –- the title, “Dereliction of Duty”, refers to the failure of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time. The leading military officers, to push back against the unrealistic demands, and the kind of falsehoods we heard coming out of the Johnson administration, and particularly from the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, about the Vietnam War.
The thesis of his book is that the military officers knew what they were being asked to do, and what they were doing was destined for failure, but they didn’t fight back, they didn’t speak up. He kind of left his book with three key takeaways for how we should run American foreign policy. And what military officers should do. Don’t lie, don’t rely on a close-knit group of key advisors, and don’t blame the media.
Yeah, it’s interesting to see if those are his three takeaways. It’s hard to imagine that those are not the three cardinal sins of the Trump administration.
KIM BROWN: I was going to say, Stephen, we could be talking about Donald Trump right now, with those three pillars of General McMaster’s thesis of his book.
STEPHEN MILES: I think that’s exactly right. I think it’s the great question here is, how exactly is General McMaster going to take the lessons that he espoused, and that he helped define from the Vietnam War, and apply them to this position. You know, right out of the gate, we have to ask the previous person that was going to be offered this job. Admiral Hayward reportedly turned it down, because he wasn’t going to be offered the ability to shape his own staff.
Now, the White House says that General McMaster can hire whoever he wants, but hiring whoever you want is not the same as actually determining who your staff is. There are key folks like, K.T. McFarland, the Deputy who folks rightly questioned what her reason for being as part of the National Security Council are.
There are other folks, like Steve Bannon, who is the President’s Chief Political Strategist, who now sits on the prestigious Principles Committee, essentially at the same level as the Secretary of Defense, and the other key leaders, the Secretary of State. And at the same time, demoted the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence.
Will General McMaster be able to do anything about that level of politicization? We don’t know, and we’re going to have to wait to find out. But until we do, we have to work under the assumption that Donald Trump is still running a politicized National Security Council, despite General McMaster’s best intentions.
KIM BROWN: Indeed, and General McMaster, I believe, is still going to remain on active duty, in addition to his position as National Security Advisor. How unusual, or perfectly normal is that?
STEPHEN MILES: It is unusual. You know, Colin Powell did this when he was the National Security Advisor previously. Brent Scowcroft, some people have pointed out, saying he had done this when he was Gerald Ford’s National Security Advisor. He actually didn’t. He actually retired before assuming the role.
So, it’s fairly unusual, and obviously the problem is, as a uniformed military officer, he serves in a direct chain of command from the President of the United States, as the Commander in Chief. He is supposed to follow orders from the Commander in Chief, not raise questions about those orders.
Now, without prejudging how General McMaster will handle that responsibility, that’s the question that’s raised here. When he’s confronted with things that he believes not to be in America’s security interests, will he be a good officer and follow orders, or will he raise his voice and put America’s security first?
General McMaster himself says that that’s what an officer should do. We have to wait and see whether he’ll do that or not.
KIM BROWN: Now, there has been a tremendous amount of reporting coming out of Washington, detailing the alleged lack of confidence that the intelligence community has with this Trump White House. Some reports even going on to say that, some very important presidential briefings are being withheld, or rather some details from the daily presidential briefings, are being withheld from Donald Trump and his immediate circle.
How is this going to play with McMaster as National Security Advisor, being an active member of the military, obviously having to have quite a lot of communications with the intelligence community, and still trying to gauge these leaks coming from Trump’s White House?
This does not sound like a very enviable position that McMaster has found himself to be in.
STEPHEN MILES: No, it’s certainly not something I think that anyone would envy. It’s a difficult position, when you see an administration that has politicized national security within their first month in office. Far beyond anything we ever saw in the Bush administration. It’s not surprising that you’ve seen the kind of leaks from career security and intelligence officials that we’ve seen. And I don’t think you should expect those to stop, despite the best intentions of those… sorry, not the best intentions, it’s like the intentions of the Trump administration to crack down on those leaks. I think it’s safe to say that you’re going to continue to see them, as long as the ship keeps being run as recklessly as it is now.
Now, General McMaster is just going to be one component of this. And it remains to be seen how the National Security folds into the Trump administration. There are already reports that Steve Bannon, and Jared Kushner, have set up what’s called, a Special Initiatives Group, a SIG, an entirely separate power structure outside of the National Security Council, that they’re hoping to run intelligence through. There’s talk of various different inquisitions, and inquiries, into national security staff. To see who they are, what their loyalties are, these sorts of things.
We’ve simply never seen anything like this. General McMaster may have the best of intentions, but this level of corruption, this level of recklessness, may be too much for even someone well intentioned to handle. And the test will be how he handles these pressures, and these tests, when they come his way.
KIM BROWN: Well Stephen, finally, I wanted to ask you about General McMaster’s predecessor, Michael Flynn, who tendered his resignation to the President, after it was revealed that he was having conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, about U.S. sanctions on Russia, maybe not about U.S. sanctions on Russia?
What is going to happen with this situation with Mike Flynn? Has Mike Flynn… has he committed some sort of crime, and is it likely that he will be investigated, even possibly prosecuted for his actions?
STEPHEN MILES: Well, there’s an open question about the case of law… the piece of law in contention here, would be the Logan Act. Which essentially says, that individual private citizens can’t go around the government’s back to represent America on their own volition abroad. It’s a very old piece of law. Frankly, no one’s ever been prosecuted under it. It would be very hard to bring a case.
But there’s some very real questions, not just about that, but about what exactly was Mike Flynn talking about? What authority was he doing this under? Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee in the House, has pointed out, and I think it’s true, that it’s somewhat inconceivable that he was doing this on his own. That he was acting as a rogue agent. That others in the Trump administration, and potentially the President himself, didn’t know that he was having these conversations, and what the content of those conversations were.
There are ongoing investigations into Donald Trump’s campaign, and officials around it, by the FBI and the Senate Intelligence Committee. They’re looking into Russia’s activities around the election, and conversations, and contacts with the Trump administration, and Trump campaign.
Those investigations will continue. We don’t know if General Flynn will be the target of any prosecution going forward. But I think one thing is clear, anyone who paid attention for five minutes to General Flynn’s career, knew that he was this level of reckless with our state security. This is a pattern he had. This is a reckless behavior with confidential information that he had.
The real question is why was someone like this ever put in a position of authority in the first place? And then, why, when the Trump administration, weeks before he was forced to resign, was confronted with the information that he was lying about speaking about sanctions, did they do nothing about that?
I think until we get to the bottom of those and many, many other questions, there’s no reason to believe that this administration is doing anything. Other than being completely reckless with our national security.
KIM BROWN: Indeed. Two months into the Donald Trump presidency, he is now on his second National Security Advisor, General H.R. McMaster has been appointed to that position, and we’ve been discussing this with Stephen Miles. He is the director of the Win Without War coalition. He’s been joining us today from Washington, D.C.
Stephen, we appreciate talking to you. Thanks a lot.
STEPHEN MILES: Thanks. Have a good day.
KIM BROWN: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.