General Knowledge: Clint Watts on the Limits of Mattis and McMasters


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You’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger gap in temperament or intellect. 

The choice of H.R. McMasters to replace Michael Flynn has been widely praised, but there are some limitations in the new Cabinet.


Even as someone with no military experience, the name H.R. McMasters was legendary, evoking the straight-talking warrior scholar, someone who cut through politics and defied conventional wisdom, and whose singular brilliance and unconventional thinking single-handedly forced the Army to fix its sclerotic system of awarding stars (as detailed here by Fred Kaplan). His name was almost a byword for thinking outside the box, but unlike many men (military and otherwise), he was able to see the flaws in his own institution. His first made his name by standing up to conventional wisdom, writing a thesis in which the blame for Vietnam was shifted from cowardly civilians and a fifth-columnist media and Jane Fonda and placed on the unwillingness of careerist generals to tell the truth. That took guts.

That’s why the choice of this most unconventional soldier, who also essentially cooked up the strategy that became the Surge (i.e. don’t treat every Iraqi like the enemy, and don’t just fly into a city, kill some bad guys, and leave), to replace the paranoid Russophile Micahel Flynn was greeted with universal praise.

No one doubts McMasters’s inherent independence. There are doubts about whether he can pick his own staff, whether the Bannon/Miller/Gorka axis and the “Strategic Initiative Group” will have more power and influence than the NSC, and whether, as someone still in uniform, he has the power to stand up to the civilian head of armed forces, but no one can imagine he went into this blind. And that, in and of itself, is good news.

Combined with Mattis, and Kelley, it’s hard to imagine a more qualified group. In this, and only in this, is Trump’s self-proclaimed ability to hire the best people and be an amazing leader given any credence. But even here, it is clear that he is making choices based on how it will reflect on him: this scion of unearned wealth and privilege, who graduated college in 1968 and immediately went into maximizing his wealth, wants to be surrounded by real tough men, thinking it will reflect on him.

Ah, but even then, one could say, at least he has the right people. Even if their hiring was essentially narcissism, a reality show where the host is the winner, it ended up picking two men of unquestioned intelligence and vision. And that’s true! But there are limits to even this approach. In a sharp essay at FPRI, Clint Watts details the essential flaw in the plan.

Aside from the singular focus on military generals, Trump’s national security team represents a “Team of Friends” rather than a “Team of Rivals”—the inverse approach pursued by President Obama in 2008.  Generals Mattis, Kelly, and McMaster—and Flynn before him—all fought the last decade’s counterinsurgencies on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. If America needs to fight and win a land war in Asia, no better assemblage of leaders could be collected. Their cohesion will aid communication and bring needed unity of command to a Trump administration off to a disastrous start.

But the “Team of Friends” approach has a downside as well. Trump’s celebrity generals ground combat depth is unparalleled, and their lack of national security breadth is unprecedented.  All are masters in the art of war, but none would be thought of as natural diplomats, economic savants, purveyors of air power, nerds in naval operations, executors of law enforcement and intelligence operations, cyber savvy tacticians, interagency hardball champions, or nation-state chess players. Even more, generals believing they could operate on fewer resources are rarer than snow leopards, calling into question Trump calls for future government cost cutting.

Now, one shouldn’t overstate this. It’s not like McMasters would hear “cyberwar” and be like “War isn’t fought with computers, boy! You get that Robot Jox bullshit out of here!” (And, to be clear, this certainly isn’t what Watts was saying). But it is true that running a war and running national security are two very different animals. Much of the tension between civilian/military relations comes in that the former thinks strategically; the latter, tactically.

Watts gets at the problem here. Just by the nature of their (vast) experience, Mattis and McMasters are limited. And that might be fine, if they had a boss who understood literally any of this stuff. But they don’t. They have a boss who understands nothing outside his own self-centric cosmology, who is in the thrall of some other people who have a more expansive, extremely limited, and wildly destructive worldview, one that can easily fit into the President’s dim and bigoted ideas of power.

So while on paper, and based on his heroic history, McMasters is a great pick (as was Mattis), the worry is that having a team of very specific geniuses might serve to magnify the dangerous problems inherent in the Administration. Right now, Mattis, and even Tillerson, are spending most of their time assuring allies that the President doesn’t mean what he is saying and that the post-War order will hold. We’ll see if McMasters has enough influence and bureaucratic savvy to make him say something different.

7 thoughts on “General Knowledge: Clint Watts on the Limits of Mattis and McMasters

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