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H.R. McMaster and Donald Trump: A Partnership That Was Never Meant To Be

The qualities that worked for McMaster so well in the military proved less than ideal in a Trump White House.

Herbert R. McMaster is the ideal National Security Advisor—for any administration but this one.

In some ways, McMaster seemed perfect: He’s a decorated general with a history of winning big battles (paywall). He is also known for successfully challenging groupthink and for taking chances that pay off. Unfortunately, the qualities that worked for him so well in the military proved less than ideal for the Trump White House. Trump is reportedly close to ousting him.

I interviewed McMaster a few weeks before he got the job, for a book I’m writing about risk. In hindsight, it seems obvious that this particular pairing wouldn’t work out, for two big reasons:

1. McMaster is a warrior intellectual

My exchange with McMaster was more like a debate with my graduate-school advisor than an interview. He peppers his conversation with quotes from Greek philosophers and references from books he loves. He also followed up by sending me reading assignments, alongside instructions to get back to him with notes. This is not surprising: McMaster has a PhD in history from University of North Carolina. Trump, by contrast, is notorious for preferring his information in short, digestible memos.

2. McMaster is a hawk

The general’s worldview could not be more different from Trump’s. Yes, McMaster also wants to pursue American interests, but he believes that’s best achieved with more global engagement, not less.

In our interview, I asked McMaster about the inherent risks of warfare, which he has been critical of the military for not fully appreciating. After the Gulf War, the U.S. military started subscribing to a philosophy known as the Revolution in Military Affairs. It was the idea that the U.S. military could win any war quickly and easily because of its size and technology. McMaster was critical of that notion from the start (pdf) because, he said, war is inherently uncertain; there is no cheap and easy way to win one. (He’s right.) These days, McMaster is critical of the idea the U.S. can achieve its military objectives with drones and special forces. War in inherently human, he believes, and wining takes human engagement.

Still, he’s hawkish. McMaster argues that the U.S. needs to be a stable, secure presence around the world, while also being culturally sensitive(paywall). He is keenly aware of the human cost of war, but believes that maintaining peace often takes more intervention, not less. His worldview could be summed up as: Intervene, but do it right, not on the cheap. This approach does not seem to square with Trump’s “America First” doctrine, which preaches less intervention and for American to recognize it will not always be “the policeman of the world”.

McMaster is thoughtful about his views, even if many people don’t agree with them. But the things that make him unique did not mesh well with Donald Trump. And the fact is, meshing with the president is a major job requirement for the national security advisor.