An Honorable Man at the Heart of Civil-Military Turmoil
Editor’s Note: This week, War on the Rocks is featuring some old favorites from the archives. This article was originally published in 2017.
Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster is in an exposed position. As national security advisor, it understandably falls to him to defend President Donald Trump’s conduct on the sensitive issue of sharing an ally’s highly classified intelligence with Russia in the course of directing the war effort against the Islamic State. The White House was justified in putting the national security advisor on camera to defend the president’s decision.
And yet, McMaster is an active duty military officer, bound by an oath to “uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” and by a code of honor that not only does not permit lying but also rejects standing by in silence as others lie. As the military adage related earlier this year in these pages by Maj. Matt Cavanaugh holds, if you choose to walk past someone who is acting below standard, then you’ve just created a new standard.
The present case is, of course, not without irony as McMaster is the author of Dereliction of Duty, a book that stingingly condemns the conduct of military leaders a generation ago who were complicit as elected leaders lied to the American public for domestic political gain. That he, of all people, put his credibility on the line for a president who routinely tells outlandish and easily disprovable lies is cause for disappointment to many in the community of defense experts.
The tension between these two sets of responsibilities — that of a national security advisor and that of an active duty military officer — was easily predictable in appointing an active duty military officer to a political role — something that has happened only twice before. In choosing McMaster, the White House was surely seeking to vest the job in someone of unimpeachable integrity (as the Reagan White House did in selecting Lt. Gen. Colin Powell after the Iran-Contra scandal). It strengthened the storyline that even if President Trump couldn’t be trusted, the “grown-ups” would bring order out of chaos and serve as a bulwark against erratic or untoward actions deleterious to America’s national security by the president and his political advisors.
But McMaster was “in the room” and assures us “[t]here’s nothing the president takes more seriously than the security of the American people.” And McMaster is an honorable man.
As such, he deserves the benefit of the doubt that he is carrying out both of these roles with integrity. Even his civil-military critics ought to admit the possibility that he is telling the truth when he says the president did not improperly reveal classified information to the Russian foreign minister. Yet that presumption of honesty ought not to prevent assiduous investigation. As the City News Bureau taught us all, “if your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
While the forensics are being conducted on that issue, two others relevant for civil-military relations cropped up this week: an important shortcoming in the skill set of military officers in filling these political position and how high-visibility military and veteran appointments may affect public attitudes about the military.
Criticisms about appointing people whose professional experience is solely military often suggest they will lack familiarity with non-military levers of power. The criticism may be valid generically, but it’s mostly not true of the military officers and veterans appointed by President Trump. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, and Lt. Gen. McMaster are exceptionally sound strategic thinkers who worry about over-reliance on military tools to achieve broad objectives. The better criticism may be that they lack political sensibilities.
The White House put McMaster in front of cameras to shield the president with General McMaster’s integrity. That integrity may not be an unalloyed advantage in the current circumstances, because the American military is — blessedly — not very good at politics. McMaster was so torturously careful in parsing his words on Monday he drew all of our attention to all he did not say. “The Washington Post story, as written, is false,” he said, obviously uncomfortable in front of the cameras. No seasoned politician would have made such careful delineations that avoided the core of the issue and expected it to satisfy the public. Forty-eight hours later, he was predictably forced into a much more sweeping defense of the president. The U.S. military favors soldiers who avoid Washington assignments and screens to exclude ambitious political types from its high ranks. Even those that get through and are considered “political” seldom match the standard of garden variety elected politicians. And what President Trump needs most at this moment is a shrewd political operator as ruthless and smart as James Baker or Howard Baker to figure out how to stamp the story out or twist public understanding.
Mattis’ reported tangling with the White House and Congress over appointments provides another example. Since much of the Republican bench opted out of service in this administration, and the president is himself so polarizing a figure, it would make sense to make cross-party appointments and depoliticize our national defense. Mattis seems to have seen it this way, and as a substantive judgment it was sound. Yet, as a political judgment it squandered precious time and effort to no effect. It is both reprehensible and entirely predictable that Sen. Tom Cotton and Sen. Ted Cruz would object to the appointment of Democrats to senior positions in the Department of Defense, and that the president would support them. But that they did it is unsurprising to political pros. They’re building bench strength for future Republican presidents and rewarding loyalists. Reporting suggests the secretary of defense has been slow to accommodate himself to those constraints. Someone whose experience was more political would have chosen top staffers from the offices of those senators and earned their loyalty. With Mattis’ magnetic leadership, this would have been easy to achieve.
The other problem now playing out relates to how senior military leaders and veterans serving in political capacities affect how the public views the U.S. military. In putting together our book on civil-military relations, Warriors and Citizens, Mattis and I worked with YouGov to field surveys that shed new light on the relationship between our society and our military. These surveys found that political elites increasingly view military leaders as political actors. Military leaders were scandalized when the Obama White House inquired about the political affiliation of officers recommended for top military jobs. Seeing McMaster defend the president during a political scandal will only aggravate that suspicion, making the work of military leaders more difficult (as both Gen. Joe Dunford and retired Gen. Martin Dempsey have argued).
Whatever McMaster’s own views, he was in the room when President Trump told the Russian foreign minister, “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job.” According to The New York Times, the president continued, “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” On This Week yesterday, McMaster assured us: “I find no difficulty at all serving our nation and serving the president in my current capacity.” That may be the case, but that an active duty military officer was a participant in that conversation — now at the root of a major political scandal — will affect how political elites view the military and what the public considers appropriate behavior by military officers.
The American military is justifiably proud of its tradition of being robustly apolitical. The institution inculcates through its professional education system the importance of military subordination to elected leaders. It stresses the laws and norms of appropriate military involvement in policy formation. At all levels of the military, they debate endlessly where the boundaries should lay for uniforms publicly supporting suits’ policies. The YouGov surveys also indicate that the only significant brake on a much more expansive role in politics by our military is the professional restraint of our military itself. The public is fine with the kinds of shocking displays of political activity like that of retired generals Mike Flynn and John Allen in the 2016 presidential election.
Across the past 20 years, confidence in our political leaders has plummeted while belief in the integrity of our military has remained extraordinarily high. Which is likely to lead our politicians to rely ever more heavily on active duty officers and veterans, both to defend their policies and to fill senior civilian positions when elected civilians have a deficit of public trust. And that will reinforce political elites’ views of the military as partisan. Parties will begin to have “their own” generals and admirals. In fact, they already do: Gen. Cartwright was routinely described as “President Obama’s favorite general.”
But in a political crisis, actual political skills are exceedingly valuable. Most military leaders don’t have those skills, so will not show to good effect as shields in those circumstances. That will damage the public’s image of the military. Moreover, military leaders who take political jobs damage the institution of the military by creating a public perception of the military as a political force. Research by James Golby, Peter Feaver, and Kyle Dropp suggests endorsements of political candidates do not change voter behavior, but do diminish voter support for the military. Rather than exemplifying the military as an apolitical institution working to protect the country from reckless politicians, the effect of military and veteran appointees in high political jobs could well be to accelerate the public perception of the military as just another special interest group engaging in politics. And that would bury Caesar rather than praise him.
Kori Schake is the deputy director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. She was formerly a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. She is the editor, with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis of Warriors and Citizens: American Views of Our Military.