One of President Trump’s first and most controversial foreign policy moves was to reorganize the National Security Council, removing the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a permanent member and effectively replacing him with his chief political strategist, Steve Bannon.
Now, in an ironic twist, Trump has named a new national security adviser ― Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster ― who once criticized an earlier president for essentially doing the same thing.
McMaster’s 1997 book, “Dereliction of Duty,” is a widely acclaimed account of the lies and deceptions that allowed the United States to stumble into the Vietnam War, a conflict that cost more than 58,000 American lives (and over 1 million Vietnamese lives.) The book is best remembered inside the Pentagon for its searing criticism of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who, in McMaster’s telling, became bureaucratic cowards ― toning down and tailoring their military advice to the White House and Congress about what wasneeded to successfully prosecute the war in order to suit the political needs of two successive presidents, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
But those now poring over the book for clues to McMaster’s thinking (the book is currently No. 1 on the Amazon list of bestsellers) may be surprised to discover that he aims his first fire at Kennedy ― for a decision in the early days of his presidency to reorganize the National Security Council.
Disdainful of what he viewed as the “cumbersome and unnecessary ” National Security Council structure created by President Dwight Eisenhower, Kennedyabolished two major NSC committees, the Planning Board and the Operations Coordinating Board, that were staffed by top military officers and were key channels to ensure that their views were presented to the president.
“Kennedy’s dismantling of the NSC apparatus diminished the voice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) in national security matters,” McMaster wrote. “Under the Kennedy-Johnson system, the Joint Chiefs lost the direct access to the president, and thus the real influence on decision making, that the Eisenhower NSC structure had provided.”
That assessment, written two decades ago, echoes the response of many to the Trump White House’s decision toremove Joint Chiefs Chair Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford as well as the Director of National Intelligence, or DNI, from the NSC’s “principals committee.” It is a restructuring that McMaster may already be moving to reverse: The New York Times reported Thursdaythat McMaster is considering yet another reorganization that would reinstate the Joint Chiefs chair and the DNI.
But it could also anticipate what many critics see as a coming battle inside the Trump White House ― between McMaster, a demanding, no-nonsensegeneral with a PhD but little political finesse, and Bannon, a skilled infighter who has his own nationalist, “alt-right” agenda and, from all accounts, the ear of the president.
“In the book, McMaster advocates a position of speaking truth to power,” says Thomas Ricks, a senior national security adviser at New America’s International Security Program and a widely published author on military affairs. “That persona has gotten him in some hot water in the Army at times. It also may not work well in the Trump White House. That, combined with his lack of experience in the snake pits of Washington, means that his time as national security adviser could be a real roller-coaster ride.”
As McMaster recounts in “Dereliction of Duty,” JFK’s rejiggering of the NSC reflected the president’spreference for a looser, more informal decision-making process ― as well as a widely held skepticism and even distrust within his administration about the judgment of the country’s senior military officers.
The result, McMaster concluded, was a national securitydisaster: The Kennedy and Johnson White Houses marginalized the Joint Chiefs and pursued a politically palatable middle course of “graduated pressure” and incremental escalation crafted by imperious, self-confident civilians (notably, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and national security adviser McGeorge Bundy) that was divorced from any real military strategy and had no chance of success.
When their advice for more troops and tougher measureswas ignored, the Joint Chiefs toned down their recommendations, dissembled to Congress ― and kept their mouths shut. “The Joint Chiefs of Staff became accomplices in the president’s decision,” McMaster wrote. They were, in the words of one chapter title, “Five Silent Men.” Years later, some expressed internal anguish over their failure to speak out. “Maybe we military men were all weak,” McMaster quotes Admiral David Lamar McDonald, then the chief of naval operations, as saying about his silence during the Vietnam War. “Maybe we should have stood up and pounded the table. … I was part of it, and I’m sort of ashamed of myself too. At times I wonder, ‘Why did I go along with this kind of stuff?’”
Whether or not McMaster pounds the table, and encourages others inside the U.S. military to do so about political decisions they view as wrong-headed, remains to be seen. But another delicious scene inMcMaster’s book may anticipate the tensions to come.It’s an account of a Joint Chiefs meeting in September 1963 presided over by the then-chairman Gen. Maxwell Taylor. Taylor had nothing but disdain for the military officer seated by protocol to his immediate right: Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay ― who for years had advocated massive bombing as the solution to all military problems. And LeMay had nothing but contempt for Taylor. “LeMay’s bushy eyebrows, sagging jowls and jutting jaw advertised an irascible personality,” wrote McMaster. “Aware of Taylor’s aversion to tobacco smoke, [LeMay] hung his ever-present long dark cigar out of the left side of this mouth and intentionally puffed the thick smoke in Taylor’s direction. Both men were hard of hearing, and the resulting misunderstandings worsenedthe tension between them.”
Cigar smoke aside, if McMaster thinks back to that passage, he may well wonder whether it holds a message about his own future as he presides over NSC meetings, accompanied at the table by Steve Bannon.
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