US President 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 honoured to have him,” Trump told reporters in West Palm Beach where he spent the weekend. “He’s a man of tremendous talent and tremendous experience.”
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 21, 2017
One subject on which Trump and McMaster could soon differ is Russia. McMaster shares the consensus view among the US national security establishment that Russia is a threat and an antagonist to the United States, while the man whom McMaster is replacing, retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, appeared to view it more as a potential geopolitical partner.
Trump in the past has expressed a willingness to engage with Russia more than his predecessor, Barack Obama.
Flynn was fired as national security adviser on 13 February after reports emerged he had misled Vice President Mike Pence about speaking to Russia’s ambassador to the United States about US sanctions before Trump’s inauguration.
The ouster, coming so early in Trump’s administration, was another upset for a White House that has been hit by miscues, including the controversial rollout of a travel ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries, since the Republican president took office on 20 January.
The national security adviser is an independent aide to the president and does not require confirmation by the US Senate. The role has varied from administration to administration, but the adviser attends National Security Council meetings along with the heads of the State Department, the Department of Defense and key security agencies.
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 Daesh after he was killed.
McMaster’s preparation of the regiment is legendary: He trained his soldiers in Iraqi culture, the differences among Sunnis, Shiites 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 and helped delay his promotion to brigadier general.
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 Daesh.