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Can McMaster 'ground' White House foreign policy on the fly?

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Three ways in which the national security adviser's influence could show up as the Trump administration faces key foreign policy tests in the Middle East and Asia.

Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, shown at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., left open the possibility of future U.S. military action against Syria while speaking in his first televised interview April 9. However, he indicated that American forces would not act unilaterally to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Susan Walsh/AP/File
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Long before he became a statesman, H.R. McMaster was known as a scholar, writing a best-selling book that criticized US military commanders for failing to stand up to Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War.

Now a three-star Army general and US national security adviser, General McMaster’s take on advising presidents has global significance. And after President Trump removed controversial chief strategist Steve Bannon from a permanent post on the National Security Council (NSC) last week, McMaster is set to consolidate his influence in a White House responding to North Korean provocations and fallout from missile strikes on a Syrian airfield.

Could McMaster, a famous tactician, become a driving force behind Mr. Trump’s nascent foreign policy? The Monitor spoke to several NSC experts and former McMaster colleagues who explained how his influence could show up as the Trump administration faces key foreign policy tests in the Middle East and Asia.

1. Deliberative decisionmaking

Michael Flynn spent just 24 days as national security adviser, but the retired Army lieutenant general wasn’t shy about making headlines. Showing up without warning at a White House press briefing earlier this year, Mr. Flynn promised to put Iran “on notice.”

Expect a more deliberative style from McMaster, former colleagues say.

“You will usually see him behind the scenes,” says retired Army Col. Cole Kingseed, a former West Point professor who taught McMaster as a cadet at the elite military academy in the 1980s. “There's no self-interest involved whatsoever. His job is not a personal loyalty to the commander-in-chief. It's a personal loyalty to the Constitution.”

But McMaster’s blunt style hasn’t always helped his career. Even though he became one of the first army commanders in Iraq to implement counterinsurgency principles focused on protecting local populations from militants, the Army twice passed him over for promotion to the rank of one-star general.

But retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, who worked with McMaster on a US Central Command assessment of the Iraq War in 2006, says the Philadelphia native’s counsel will be influential in building political consensus at the White House.

“These folks have a bit of a Vulcan mind meld about how to implement military decisions once they’re made at the White House,” Mr. Barno says. “There’s going to be a lot more unified thinking.”

2. Pentagon leadership

Trump has appointed former military commanders to run the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. But McMaster is one of the only top White House advisers who’s served in Iraq and Afghanistan, giving him unique credibility to inform decisions about the use of military force. 

“One of the things that McMaster is going to bring right to the White House is that he’s probably the only actor who’s been to war,” says Barno. “He doesn’t just know what it looks like when the bullets are flying. He’s studied war. He knows that there are second- and third- and fourth-order effects of decisions that are made.”

Last month, Trump proposed a 53-page “skinny budget” that included a 10 percent increase to the Pentagon’s coffers, alongside sizeable cuts to the State Department and foreign aid programs. McMaster’s recent appointment and Bannon’s removal from his permanent seat at the NSC could signal the military subsuming roles traditionally held by other agencies.

“You’re going to see more money going into the Pentagon, and it’s going to play a bigger role,” Barno says. “If you want to fight forest fires, you roll out the National Guard. If you’ve got a crisis in Haiti with an earthquake, you send military forces. They’re going to be relied upon more and more.”

But McMaster’s development of military options may not always take the form of missile strikes or deploying troops. For instance, appearing on Fox News with Chris Wallace on Sunday, McMaster indicated that he’ll focus on gathering a coalition of US allies to stop Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons against his own people.

“It will be our job to provide him with options based on how we see this conflict evolve in this period of time before us, after the strike,” he said. “And what we're doing now is working with our partners, our allies, everyone, except Russia and Iran, who are somehow continue to think that it's OK to be aligned with his murderous regime.”

3. Personnel changes

Bannon isn’t the only Trump appointee who won’t be sitting in on national security meetings. On Sunday, Bloomberg reported that Deputy National Security Advisor K.T. McFarland – originally brought on by Flynn – had been asked to step down from the NSC. She reportedly will become ambassador to Singapore.

Who McMaster chooses to fill that position, experts say, could play a key role in determining national security policy.

“The deputy national security adviser is really the most important position in the interagency national security agency decisionmaking process,” says John Bellinger, a former NSC legal adviser during the George W. Bush administration. “It’s a killer job. Who comes in as the Deputy NSC? That’s the person who makes sure the trains run on time.”

But even with Bannon leaving his permanent NSC post, experts aren’t convinced that McMaster has asserted himself on the policy or personnel fronts just yet. McMaster downplayed Bannon’s shifting role in the Fox News interview on Sunday. And the controversial ex-Breitbart media executive did appear in a photograph of national security decisionmakers at Mar-a-Lago on Thursday, before American tomahawk missiles struck Al-Shayrat airfield in Syria.

That leaves experts like Loren Schulman, the senior aide to former National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, concerned that the changes won't make much difference.

“The president is welcome to hear from whomever he wants,” she says. “But if you’re standing up to the president and you’re not hearing what his other adviser is saying, that makes it very difficult to run a national security process.”

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