McMaster deals with Trump’s strate­gic con­cerns

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Greg Jaffe and Philip Rucker Alex Wong, Getty Im­ages

In meet­ing af­ter meet­ing with his na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, H.R. McMaster, this spring and sum­mer, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump an­grily ham­mered home two ques­tions:

He wanted to know why the U.S. mil­i­tary wasn’t win­ning in Afghanistan, and he asked, re­peat­edly, why, af­ter more than 16 years of war, the United States was still stuck there.

The pres­i­dent’s two ques­tions have de­fined a con­tentious de­bate over whether to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan to halt two years of Tal­iban gains. And they have ex­posed a po­ten­tially deep philo­soph­i­cal rift with McMaster, a three-star gen­eral.

“H.R. heard the first ques­tion and seized on it,” said a se­nior White House of­fi­cial who is close to McMaster. “But he never heard, or didn’t want to hear, the pres­i­dent’s sec­ond ques­tion.”

The de­bate over Afghanistan strat­egy, which McMaster had ini­tially hoped to have re­solved by May, con­tin­ued Thurs­day when the pres­i­dent and his na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser met in the Oval Of­fice. Trump’s re­luc­tance to com­mit to a new strat­egy re­flects the paucity of good op­tions in Afghanistan and the dim prospects for peace.

It also high­lights a con­tra­dic­tion at the core of Trump’s for­eign pol­icy. On the cam­paign trail and in con­ver­sa­tions with ad­vis­ers, Trump has said he wants to win and project strength. But he also has called for end­ing costly com­mit­ments in places such as Afghanistan and the Mid­dle East.

The charge for McMaster is to craft a strat­egy that ad­dresses th­ese con­tra­dic­tory impulses - a de­sire to si­mul­ta­ne­ously do more and less in the world - and de­fine the pres­i­dent’s “Amer­ica first” vi­sion.

McMaster’s chal­lenge is made more dif­fi­cult by the stylis­tic dif­fer­ences that sep­a­rate the two men. McMaster ar­rived at the White House in Fe­bru­ary de­ter­mined to run an apo­lit­i­cal process that would sur­face the best na­tional se­cu­rity ideas from the vast fed­eral bu­reau­cracy and present op­tions to the pres­i­dent.

But Trump has shown lit­tle in­ter­est in a me­thod­i­cal and con­sen­sus-ori­ented ap­proach. Im­pa­tient and de­ter­mined to shake up U.S. for­eign pol­icy, Trump so­lic­its in­put not only from McMaster but also from friends, fam­ily mem­bers, Cab­i­net sec­re­taries and other coun­selors.

In a dis­or­derly West Wing in which de­ci­sions are eval­u­ated not by ide­ol­ogy but by their im­pact on the Trump brand and their fealty to the pres­i­dent’s cam­paign-trail prom­ises, McMaster has strug­gled to be­come a dom­i­nant for­eign pol­icy force.

McMaster’s big­gest as­set is the re­spect he com­mands from a Wash­ing­ton for­eign pol­icy es­tab­lish­ment that has grave doubts about Trump. “Se­na­tors and the peo­ple the pres­i­dent talks to say, ‘We love H.R.,’ “said a se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial in de­scrib­ing the dy­namic be­tween the two men. “The pres­i­dent is very proud of him.”

But McMaster’s ap­proach has also spawned a fierce riof valry with key play­ers from Trump’s cam­paign, led by chief strate­gist Stephen Ban­non, who views Trump as a rev­o­lu­tion­ary fig­ure on the world stage.

McMaster’s al­lies have ac­cused Ban­non and his pro­tege Se­bas­tian Gorka, a ca­ble-news main­stay, of wag­ing a con­certed cam­paign to min­i­mize the na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser’s in­flu­ence. Ban­non and Gorka have re­cently be­come a more reg­u­lar and out­spo­ken pres­ence at meet­ings led by McMaster and his team on Afghanistan, the Mid­dle East and the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s na­tional se­cu­rity strat­egy.

McMaster, mean­while, has in the past two weeks dis­missed three Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil of­fi­cials who were viewed as dis­rup­tive forces and were seen as close to Ban­non.

“Some­times you have very force­ful dif­fer­ences of opin­ion among the pres­i­dent’s se­nior ad­vis­ers,” said Sen. Tom Cot­ton , R-Ark., who is close to McMaster and Ban­non. “H.R. is in­dis­pens­able in help­ing the pres­i­dent hear all those view­points and have the in­for­ma­tion he needs.”

For now, though, those con­flict­ing view­points have pro­duced as much chaos as con­sen­sus, frus­trat­ing the pres­i­dent and fu­el­ing spec­u­la­tion about McMaster’s job se­cu­rity. Trump in­sid­ers see re­tired Ma­rine gen­eral John Kelly, the pres­i­dent’s new chief of staff, as a nat­u­ral McMaster ally who is seek­ing to tame the White House’s in­ternecine fights and force the pres­i­dent to stick to a sched­ule.

McMaster’s friends and col­leagues are sym­pa­thetic to his chal­lenges.

“He had not worked in D.C. be­fore, so this was cer­tainly a new en­vi­ron­ment for him, but I have al­ways seen him lead,” said Nikki Ha­ley, the U.S. am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions. “He sets very clear goals . . . . When we’re in those meet­ings, he’s all about get­ting op­tions on the ta­ble for the pres­i­dent.”

This por­trait of the McMaster-Trump re­la­tion­ship is based on in­ter­views with more than 20 se­nior Trump ad­vis­ers, NSC of­fi­cials and friends of both men. Most spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to of­fer frank ap­praisals.

McMaster ar­rived at the White House af­ter the ouster of his pre­de­ces­sor, Michael Flynn, and with few ties to the pres­i­dent or the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. Cot­ton, who rec­og­nized Trump’s affin­ity for gen­er­als, brought him to the pres­i­dent’s at­ten­tion.

“There aren’t that many peo­ple who earn dec­o­ra­tions for valor who also have best-sell­ing PhD dis­ser­ta­tions,” the se­na­tor said McMaster, re­fer­ring to the gen­eral’s book, “Dere­lic­tion of Duty: John­son, McNa­mara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Viet­nam.”

Dina Pow­ell, the deputy na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, helped him forge re­la­tion­ships with other Cab­i­net mem­bers and coun­seled him on how to con­nect with Trump, ac­cord­ing to other ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials.

McMaster’s first big task, though, was not win­ning over his boss but earn­ing the trust of his staffers — many of whom were on loanto the NSC from other fed­eral agen­cies and had been dis­par­aged by some Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials as “Obama holdovers.”

McMaster tried to ban the term. In his first staff town hall meet­ing, he em­pha­sized that as a non­par­ti­san Army of­fi­cer he did not vote — a mes­sage he de­liv­ered re­peat­edly dur­ing his first months. McMaster wanted the NSC’s pro­fes­sional staff to know that he val­ued its in­put. He was also send­ing a mes­sage, per­haps un­wit­tingly, to the pres­i­dent, who de­mands loy­alty from his staff.

The fight over the Afghanistan strat­egy points to a larger prob­lem with the re­la­tion­ship be­tween McMaster’s NSC and the West Wing. Dur­ing his six months on the job, McMaster has put in place a rig­or­ous and struc­tured process that in­te­grates the views of agen­cies across the gov­ern­ment.

Less clear is whether any of that work is re­sult­ing in new poli­cies. A Pen­tagon strat­egy aimed at de­feat­ing the Is­lamic State was com­pleted in early March but still has not been ap­proved by the pres­i­dent.

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