Donald Trump on Monday named Lieutenant General Herbert Raymond McMaster as his new national security adviser, choosing a military officer known for speaking his mind and challenging his superiors.
McMaster is a highly regarded military tactician and strategic thinker, but his selection surprised some observers who wondered how the officer, whose Army career stalled at times for his questioning of authority, would deal with a White House that has not welcomed criticism.
“He is highly respected by everybody in the military and we’re very honored to have him,” Trump told reporters. “He’s a man of tremendous talent and tremendous experience.”
One subject on which Trump and McMaster could soon differ is Russia. McMaster shares the consensus view among the national security establishment that Russia is a threat and an antagonist to the United States. His predecessor, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, appeared to view Moscow more as a potential geopolitical partner.
Flynn was fired as national security adviser on February 13 after reports emerged that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence about speaking to Russia’s ambassador to Washington about US sanctions before Trump’s inauguration.
The national security adviser is an independent aide to the president and does not require confirmation by the Senate. He has broad influence over foreign policy and attends National Security Council meetings along with the heads of the State Department, the Department of Defense and key security agencies.
McMaster will remain on active military duty, the White House said.
McMaster, 54, is a West Point graduate with a PhD in US history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was listed as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2014, partly because of his willingness to buck the system.
A combat veteran, he gained renown in the first Gulf War — and was awarded a Silver Star — after he commanded a small troop of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment that destroyed a much larger Iraqi Republican Guard force in 1991 in what many consider the biggest tank battle since World War Two.
McMaster’s fame grew after his 1997 book Dereliction of Duty criticized the country’s military and political heads for poor leadership during the Vietnam War.
‘The commanders that I’ve worked for, they want frank assessments, they want criticism and feedback’
“Some people have a misunderstanding about the Army,” McMaster told the Georgia-based Columbus Ledger-Enquirer in 2014. At the time he was base commander of nearby Fort Benning.
“Some people think, hey, you’re in the military and everything is super-hierarchical and you’re in an environment that is intolerable of criticism and people don’t want frank assessments.
“The commanders that I’ve worked for, they want frank assessments, they want criticism and feedback.”
That attitude was not always shared by his superiors, and it led to his being passed over for promotion to brigadier general twice, in 2006 and 2007.
On McMaster’s third and last try, General David Petraeus – who at one point was also on Trump’s candidate list for the post – returned from Iraq to head the promotion board that finally gave McMaster his first general’s star.
Then a colonel, McMaster was commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment that in the spring of 2005 captured, held and began to stabilize Tal Afar on the Iraqi-Syrian border.
The city was held by Sunni extremists, a crossing point between Syria and Iraq for jihadists who started as al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and morphed into Islamic State after he was killed.
McMaster’s preparation of the regiment is legendary: He trained his soldiers in Iraqi culture, the differences among Sunnis, Shi’ites and Turkomen, and had them read books on the history of the region and counterinsurgency strategy.
It was a sharp change from the “kill and capture” tactics the United States had used in Iraq since the invasion in March 2003, and to which the Obama administration returned in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
The strategy was largely a success, although McMaster’s use of it and especially his willingness to acknowledge that Iraqis had some legitimate grievances against one another and the occupying coalition forces, did not endear him to his superiors.
The strategy did not survive the departure of McMaster’s troops, with Tal Afar falling into the hands of Sunni militants. Along with the west part of Mosul, it is now a key objective in the battle to rid Iraq of ISIS.