Latest Tell-All, By Former National Security Adviser McMaster, Is Not All About Trump

Andrew Harrer, Bloomberg via Getty Images

President Trump and H.R. McMaster walk toward Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., on June 16, 2017.

Former national security adviser H.R. McMaster wants you to know he has not written the book you probably wanted to read — and he says it right up front.

“This is not the book that most people wanted me to write … a tell-all about my experience in the White House to confirm their opinions of Donald Trump,” the author warns in his preface.

That might have been “lucrative,” he says, but it would not be “useful or satisfactory for most readers.”

McMaster, who served as national security adviser to President Trump from March 2017 to April 2018, has instead written a book that he hopes “might help transcend the vitriol of partisan political discourse and help readers understand better the most significant challenges to security, freedom and prosperity.”

Transcending the “partisan political discourse” is a tall order in any election season, let alone this one. And it may be every bit as difficult to sell a “high-road” assessment of President Trump’s foreign policy right now, in the midst of a publishing season of scorching exposes by everyone from Bob Woodward to the first lady Melania Trump’s former close friend Stephanie Winston Wolkoff to John Bolton, the man who succeeded McMaster as national security adviser.

But McMaster is a retired three-star Army general who had 34 years of active service — including the 13 months he was in the White House. He clearly regards it as his duty to respect the commander in chief under whom he served, whatever his personal feelings toward the man who appointed him and then pushed him to resign with a campaign of media leaks about their falling out.

McMaster in Battlegrounds maintains the same rather arch attitude in discussing his departure from the innermost councils of power: “I would regret leaving unfinished our work on crucial challenges to our freedom and security. But I would also realize that the toxic environment in Washington, in the administration and the White House had hobbled my ability to make a positive contribution to the president and our nation.”

The author’s mission here is neither to praise nor trash Trump but to show how he fits into a perceived pattern in U.S. behavior, a failure to “compete effectively on the world stage” that has prevailed “over the last several presidential administrations.”

For example, McMaster expresses dismay at President Barack Obama’s willingness to deal with Iran largely through negotiation, hope and faith in our alliances. But he is also critical of President George W. Bush’s handling of Iraq, because the Bush administration thought defeating that country would be “easy.”

He is at pains to preserve his standing as a nonpartisan actor and adviser on national security. “I never saw myself as political,” he writes. “I never even voted.”

In something like the same spirit, McMaster writes of his White House time with surprising detachment. We hear little of his former colleagues and associates, such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was replaced in the same month. McMaster does not quote more than snatches of his conversations with the president. The name Trump does not leap from every page (roughly 1 in 4, in fact), and then often as an adjective: “the Trump administration.”

“Optimism bias”

But he does have strong feelings about issues most people would consider profoundly political, such as the role the U.S. plays in the world. He sees recent foreign policy largely as a series of failures. He attributes these to what he calls “optimism bias,” which takes different forms in different administrations and leads to different errors — from the “aggressive” behavior of George W. Bush in Iraq to the “retrenchment” of Barack Obama to Trump’s confidence in his own ability to cut deals face to face.

Beginning with the Allied victory in World War II, this notion really took hold with the Western triumph in the Cold War. Secure in the notion of American superiority in ideas, military prowess and goodwill, the U.S. tended to disregard or downplay a world of other threats. Writes McMaster: “It was easy to lapse into strategic narcissism and … do what one might prefer to do rather than what the situation demanded.”

Attributing the “strategic narcissism” term to German American political scientist Hans Morgenthau, McMaster defines it as a “tendency to view the world only in relation to the U.S. and to assume that the future course of events depends primarily on U.S. decisions or plans.”

McMaster prefers a less presumptuous and more realistic approach he calls both “strategic empathy” and “strategic competence” — the knowledge of other countries and the determination to “compete effectively” on all fronts of engagement. He stresses the need to know more about a complex world of actors who, as it turns out, do not think as we do or share our world view. He devotes the bulk of his book to a tour of the globe with an eye out for the parts most fraught — now, and in the foreseeable future.

It is, one suspects, the master in-depth briefing the author always wanted to give the president. For better or worse, listening to lengthy historical explanations is not Trump’s style. As John Bolton, McMaster’s replacement as national security adviser, wrote in his own memoir, The Room Where It Happened, people “had heard the stories, true or not, about Trump tuning out long, exhaustive briefings by McMaster.”

Six tutorials

Battlegrounds presents six tutorials comprising the core of McMaster’s knowledge and thoughts about Russia, China, South Asia, the Middle East, Iran and North Korea. While he may be uninterested in being juicy, this author is intent on being meaty. So readers should approach this work as a chance to earn several mini-McMaster’s degrees.

The general leaves little or no doubt as to his own hard-power thinking and attitudes. Each of his “hot spot” sections consists of a historical chapter and a prescriptive one. The latter usually tends toward some form of getting tough, or getting tougher, than recent policy. Thus the Russian segment ends with “Parrying Putin’s Playbook,” China’s section with “Turning Weakness into Strength” and Iran’s with “Forcing a Choice.” So the reader will get the drift, even without the book title’s reference to combat or the book jacket’s photo of McMaster in dress uniform with decorations and cantankerous scowl.

To make his points about global competition, McMaster draws often on his personal experiences. As an Army captain in the first Persian Gulf War, he led an outnumbered tank column to a smashing victory at the outset of the campaign to end Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait in 1991. He also won recognition for his tactics in suppressing insurgents in Iraq more than a dozen years later.

Along the way, he got a doctorate in history from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and had academic roles both within the military and at various outside think tanks. He is now a scholar in the Hoover Institution and the Spogli Institute, both at Stanford, and a lecturer at Stanford Business School.

Not surprising then that the chapters on Russia and China are heavy on history, stressing the imperial pasts that still animate the aspirations of autocratic rulers in both countries. The South Asia chapters focus on ancient animosities, and the visit to the Middle East is a multilevel puzzle of asymmetrical warfare.

McMaster was not enamored of Obama’s negotiated deal to restrain Iran’s nuclear program, but neither does he favor the go-it-alone approach that has become a hallmark of the Trump administration. “America’s allies on the Eurasian landmass and across the islands of the Indo-Pacific region are invaluable,” McMaster concludes, “not only to deterring aggression but also to engaging in critical competitions short of conflict.”

Focus on North Korea

The prospect of a renewed Korean war looms large in this book, as it does in Bob Woodward’s Rage. (Woodward describes the differences McMaster had with Trump in dealing with Kim Jong Un, the mercurial dictator of North Korea.) And while McMaster does not excoriate his former boss (as Bolton does), North Korea clearly sticks in his craw. He notes that two years after he left the White House, North Korea’s nuclear capabilities had only grown more threatening.

He also regrets that Trump backed away from the approach McMaster favored — “maximum pressure” on Kim Jong Un — because Trump thought he and Kim were “getting along.” He describes Trump’s delight in his exchange of “beautiful letters” with the North Korean dictator, quoting Trump saying: “We fell in love.”

That love proved “insufficient to achieve a breakthrough,” McMaster reports. The second summit between the two men, held in Hanoi, “exposed misunderstandings on both sides.” In the end, says McMaster, the president’s “love had gone unrequited.”

The general is similarly blunt in his review of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Having seen combat in that country himself, he has a personal connection to the sacrifices Americans have made there over two decades. He felt a sense of betrayal when the Obama administration dialed back on the U.S. military commitment and leaned into negotiations with the Taliban.

McMaster managed to install a more aggressive anti-Taliban policy during his time as national security adviser, and he was deeply disappointed when Trump returned to a strategy of disengagement. He writes: “The results of striking a deal with the Taliban for the purpose of withdrawing from America’s longest war are likely to be far worse than a sustained commitment under a sound strategy.”

Measured as that language is, McMaster may be more willing to take the gloves off now, as the book goes on sale. On CBS’ 60 Minutes on Sunday, he said the Chinese have been emboldened by the divisions in U.S. politics and the Russians similarly see opportunities in this moment.

If all this is implicitly critical of the Trump regime, McMaster is more explicit about Trump’s drawdown of troops and negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan. On CBS, he said the president “in effect, is partnering with the Taliban against, in many ways, the Afghan government. Terrorist organizations that pose a threat to us are stronger now than they were [before the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.]”

Known as iconoclast

McMaster has a well-known reputation as an iconoclast, willing to question doctrine, protocol and the upper echelons of authority. His first book, written in the 1990s, was called Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam — and it was a remorseless indictment of the military and political leaders of the 1960s.

But as much as McMaster wishes to remain above the fray, it is simply not possible for anyone who has served in so critical a position at so fraught a moment to avoid discussing the president he served. Trump is not just an elephant in the room, he is the original woolly mammoth.

McMaster takes care to praise Trump where he can. Trump is, after all, the only president who put him in a Cabinet-level job — and the only one with whom he has worked directly. Plus, he really does like some of the stands Trump has taken with foreign rivals. He praises Trump for his handling of North Korea in one breath (“The Trump administration sanctioned more North Korean entities in 18 months than the Obama administration did in eight years.”) but in the next shares his frustration with Trump’s dalliance with a personal brand of diplomacy, one-on-one with Kim Jong Un.

Thus it may be possible for Trump or his minions to cherry-pick flattering quotations from Battlegrounds. At a minimum, the president may be relieved to find someone who has been in his immediate circle publishing an evenhanded assessment weeks before the election.

Much to take amiss

On the other hand, actually reading the text will reveal plenty that the president would take amiss. Even before his policy critiques on Afghanistan and North Korea, McMaster takes on what Trump calls the “Russia hoax.” Departing from the White House line from the outset, he takes as a given that the Russians, at the direction of Vladimir Putin, interfered with the 2016 election via social media and attempted to do far more than that. He also makes clear that it was done deliberately to help Trump — and that the Russians are back at it with a vengeance in 2020.

The Russian issue was clearly an irritant in McMaster’s relationship with the president, who at one point told Twitter that McMaster, in public remarks condemning Russian interference in 2016, “forgot” to say there had been “no collusion” and the “real” offense was what the Russians did in concert with Hillary Clinton.

At the same time, McMaster gives rather a short shrift to the Robert Mueller investigation (which interests him primarily as evidence the Russians want to put our elections “under a cloud”). He says neither party handled the Russian challenge well.

There is also barely a mention of Trump’s pressuring Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Joe Biden’s son Hunter, the subsequent impeachment, or COVID-19. As they do not directly relate to his chosen points of focus, or arose late in the period of his tenure, McMaster chooses not to let them distract him.

But McMaster does find time for one last departure from Trump’s orthodoxy on a somewhat tangential issue: immigration. Although it is almost a free-standing observation near the end of the book, he seems determined to confront his former commander on one more front: “Immigrants have been and remain one of America’s greatest competitive advantages. Oppressed peoples who come to the United States, a self-selecting group, have the intrepidity to start a new life and are appreciative of the freedom and opportunity in America.”

In the end, McMaster sees his former boss not as a monster but as merely the latest of several disappointing occupants of the Oval Office who have failed to meet what he considers its demands. All the same, Trump is the only one on the ballot this fall, and the likeliest to push back.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.