Mackubin Thomas Owens
August 8, 2017
nternal conflicts are nothing new to the American presidency. Indeed, they date to the protracted, bitter clash between Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson in George Washington’s administration. Seventy years later, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase conspired with Radical Republicans in Congress to undermine President Abraham Lincoln’s policies.
Although it hasn’t reached the level of Hamilton and Jefferson’s antagonism, factional strife within the Trump administration is acute, as pro-Trump advocates associated with Steve Bannon seek to “drain the swamp,” but must contend with the more conventional Republican establishment. The problem that Trump faces is similar to Lincoln’s need to maintain a working coalition between maximalists and minimalists: Republicans, who saw the war as an opportunity to end slavery; but also War Democrats, who wanted merely to restore the Union.
Today’s internal strife is exacerbated by social media, competing leaks, and a press keen to publicize claims most damaging to one faction or another. Indeed, the current situation is reminiscent of the “Chicago Way” from the film The Untouchables: “They put one of yours in the hospital, you put one of theirs in the morgue.”
In this intra-administration dispute, no one has been a bigger target than H.R. McMaster, the president’s National Security Adviser. McMaster, an active duty U.S. Army lieutenant general is the epitome of the thoughtful, well-read soldier-scholar. Not only a successful combat leader, he’s also a clear thinker and straight talker. Indeed, McMaster’s intense, fierce outspokenness has not always endeared him to his superiors.
Ironically, McMaster is attacked by both opponents and supporters of President Trump. The former are mainly his alleged friends, many who served with him in the Army. They engage in a particularly sanctimonious form of virtue signaling, sniffing that McMaster has sacrificed his integrity and sold his soul to Trump. The latter, his enemies in the administration, see him as a creature of the swamp that they pledge to drain, an operative of the “deep state” that continues to work against the Trump agenda, part of the establishment that needs to be purged in order to achieve Trump’s goals.
But the charges against him are baseless. Most of the attacks come from anonymous sources associated with the Bannon crowd, which are then trumpeted in such vociferously pro-Trump outlets as Breitbart News and the Gateway Pundit. Then there is the Alex Jones acolyte, Mike Cernovich, the alt-right’s answer to Louise Mensch, who has established a website devoted to attacking McMaster. A recent cartoon on the site portrays McMaster and his mentor, David Petraeus, as puppets dancing to the tune of the odious George Soros. Many conservatives have panicked and seem to be buying into conspiracy theories about personnel changes on the NSC staff. Those who mock the way that Trump’s enemies rely on anonymous sources are doing exactly the same thing when it comes to McMaster.
The main charge against McMaster is that he is a “globalist,” one who subordinates U.S. interests to those of the “international community.” This charge, however, rests on a misunderstanding of what American alliances and support for international institutions are intended to accomplish. American foreign policy since World War II has been based on “hegemonic stability theory,” which holds that a liberal world order does not arise spontaneously as the result of some global invisible hand. Instead, such a system requires a state willing and able to secure the collective goods of economic stability and international security for the entire world. The United States, as Great Britain before it, took up this role—not out of altruism, but to advance its own national interests. The United States can be fully secure, free, and prosperous only in a world where everyone else is also secure, free, and prosperous. The mere existence of liberal institutions is not sufficient. A liberal world order is possible only if the United States is willing and able to maintain it.
McMaster understands that the sole purposes of American power are—or should be—to secure the American Republic, protect its liberty, and facilitate its people’s prosperity. He understands that it is not—or should not be—to create any global good, a corporatist globalism divorced from patriotism or national greatness. He understands that because America does not have a moral entitlement to superior power for the global good, it must work constantly at maintaining its power. Part of that work is persuading the sovereign American citizens that it is good, right, and in their interest to maintain that power. A healthy regard for the safety and happiness of American citizens requires U.S. supremacy.
There are more specific charges leveled against McMaster: that he has not terminated the security clearance of Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice; that he is hostile to Israel; and that he is a dove on Iran.
Some have treated the Rice affair as a bombshell that reveals the extent of the deep state. But continuing the security clearance of personnel from a previous administration, a procedure that makes it easier to ask questions of individuals who have served in previous administrations, applies not only to staffers but to presidents as well, and is common practice for both Republicans and Democrats. Contrary to the claims of the anti-McMaster conspiracy theorists, there has been no collusion between Rice and McMaster. Indeed, Rice has had exactly zero contact with the Trump administration.
The charge that McMaster is somehow anti-Israel is false as well. The claim, again based on anonymous sources, has been leveled by the usually reliable Caroline Glick and my friends at Power Line. But the president himself has vociferously rejected it, as have an array of Israeli officials.
Some cite McMaster as the source of the decision to have President Trump visit the West Wall in Jerusalem without Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but this is common practice as well. (The chief rabbi of Jerusalem, not the prime minister, accompanies foreign political visitors to the Western Wall.) In addition, McMaster’s speech on the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War was a paean to the state of Israel.
When it comes to Iran, McMaster, like Secretary of Defense James Mattis, is willing to keep the Iran nuclear deal in place for the time being. That hardly makes either a dove. Indeed, Obama fired Mattis as commander of U.S. Central Command because of his pushback against what he believed to be the administration’s weak stand on Iran. And the charge illustrates the contradictory nature of so many of the claims against McMaster. On the one hand he’s soft on Iran, but on the other he’s a warmongering interventionist determined to drag the United States into conflict.
Those who study the role of the National Security Adviser postulate two models: the “honest broker” and the “policy entrepreneur.” The former seeks to bring the president competing alternative policies, while the latter pushes a particular outcome. I believe that McMaster will act as an honest broker at NSC meetings, ensuring the president hears from all parties in order to make informed decisions. Nonetheless, McMaster will also be willing to tell the president what he may not want to hear but needs to hear. Some of Trump’s supporters might object to this advice...one more reason McMaster is well suited to be National Security Adviser.