President Trump has continued his practice of picking senior military officers to the senior posts in his administration by naming General H.R. McMaster to the post of National Security Adviser following the recent forced resignation of General Michael Flynn.
This came after the President’s original choice – Admiral Bob Hayward – turned down the offer.
Hayward’s refusal to accept the post has led to speculation that he did not want to be associated with a “dysfunctional” White House. It seems that the real reason was that he insisted on bringing his own team with him to the National Security Council and filling all the top posts there. That was unacceptable to the President, which in turn led to Hayward turning the post down.
In choosing McMaster President Trump has once again resisted calls – notably from Senator Ted Cruz – to appoint a civilian neocon, in this case John Bolton, as his National Security Adviser. As is the President’s way, he interviewed Bolton for the post, and in turning him down showered with praise, but in the end decided to go for McMaster.
This too follows a pattern the President has followed in his foreign and defence appointments. Various neocon veterans of the foreign policy and defence bureaucracy – John Bolton, David Petraeus and Elliott Abrams – appear to be considered for top posts. They are then invariably passed over, with the President instead bringing in new people – Tillerson, Mattis, Flynn, Kellogg and now McMaster – who would never have been in the running for such posts before.
This reflects the President’s obvious mistrust of the neocon dominated foreign policy and defence bureaucracy and his belief – which may however turn out to be misplaced – that the new people he is bringing in are more amenable to his way of thinking.
One point about the various military officers the President has appointed to top posts is that none of them – Mattis, Flynn, McMaster or Kellogg – has held senior command positions within NATO or is associated with the NATO bureaucracy. All of them have instead made reputations fighting the US’s wars in the Middle East, far away from Europe and the confrontation there with Russia.
This reflects the President’s priorities, which involve a downgrading of NATO and detente with Russia as the President seeks to refocus on defeating Jihadi terrorism in the Middle East.
The President probably chose McMaster in part because he is something of a historian with a reputation for risk taking and straight talking. His 1997 book Dereliction of Duty, which harshly criticised the US Joint Chiefs of Staff for their failure to criticise the Vietnam war strategy of President Lyndon Johnson and his Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, is apparently well-regarded and within the US military widely read. It probably however also upset some people within the military, and may be the reason why McMaster’s promotion to Brigadier General was delayed.
However the main reason for McMaster’s appointment is surely that he is the US military’s acknowledged expert on counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency tactics, which he studied and perfected whilst serving in the US’s various Middle East wars. With defeating ISIS and Jihadi terrorism the President’s priority it is understandable why he would look to a counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency expert for his National Security Adviser. After all that in a sense is what McMaster’s predecessor in the role – General Flynn – also was.
McMaster is joined in the National Security Council by General Keith Kellogg, who the President had announced back in December (before the inauguration) was to be the National Security Council’s Chief of Staff and Executive Secretary, and whose appointment to these posts has now been confirmed.
Kellogg is the President’s most longstanding foreign policy adviser from within the military, having joined candidate Trump’s team as his foreign policy adviser back in March 2016. At 72 Kellogg is significantly older than McMaster, a fact which may be the reason why he was not made National Security Adviser himself.
Kellogg – like Flynn – started his career as an airborne soldier in the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. He has also been an officer in the US Special Forces serving in the early 1970s in Cambodia during the war there. Though much of Kellogg’s active service career happened in the 1960s and 1970s in Vietnam and Cambodia, like the other military officers President Trump has chosen for his top posts Kellogg has experience of the Middle East, having been from 2003 to 2004 a key figure in the Coalition Provision Authority which governed Iraq after the 2003 US invasion of that country.
The President announced the appointments of McMaster and Kellogg in his usual florid way, hinting at the same time at a possible future role for John Bolton and for some of the other generals (including David Petraeus) whom he interviewed for the National Security Adviser post. After describing McMaster as “a man of tremendous talent and tremendous experience”, he went on to say that
[McMaster] also has known for a long time, General Keith Kellogg, who I also have gotten to know this terrific man. They will be working together, and Keith is going to be chief of staff, and I think that combination is something very, very special
For once one of the President’s sternest critics – Senator McCain – agrees with the President’s high assessment of the people he has appointed. He has issued a statement saying as much
I give President Trump great credit for this decision, as well as his national security cabinet choices. I could not imagine a better, more capable national security team than the one we have right now
The President’s foreign policy and defence team is not yet complete. Many of the senior posts in the State Department need to be filled, and there is still no Assistant Secretary of State, though the President’s comments about John Bolton suggest he may be in line for that post as rumour had previously suggested.
However the key posts have now been filled, and the people who have been appointed – Tillerson, Mattis, McMaster and Kellogg – look capable enough, and reflect the President’s foreign policy and defence priorities.