Experts say McMaster is the outspoken, 'forceful' national security adviser Trump needs

After the dramatic forced resignation of Mike Flynn last week, Donald Trump tapped a highly respected three-star general to join his team, choosing Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster to take the reigns as the new national security adviser.

Trump introduced his new adviser at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, praising the active-duty officer as "a man of tremendous talent and tremendous experience." At a time of increased complexity in the world, from terrorism and cyber threats, to a dwindling defense budget and big power competition with nations like Russia and China, Trump tapped a man considered to be among the U.S. military's top strategic thinkers.

McMaster will remain an active-duty officer while serving on the national security council, leaving his most recent position as the director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center. Gen. Keith Kellogg, who served as acting national security adviser in the days after Flynn's departure, will be his chief of staff, to make a combination Trump described as a "something very, very special."

Trump credited Vice President Mike Pence as playing a role in selecting McMaster, but Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who served under McMaster in Iraq, also played a role in recommending the general.

On Tuesday, Sen. Cotton said McMaster is a "legendary officer," describing his twenty years of service that spanned the first Gulf War to commanding troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and preparing future military strategy at TRADOC. Cotton told MSNBC, that Trump's decision to appoint McMaster, "reflects great credit on him ... The president has created one of the probably best national security cabinets in modern times."

Cotton continued, "He's an unorthodox thinker, he never marched to the beat of the Army drum, so to speak."

That ability to think outside of the box contributed to one of McMaster's major contributions to modern military strategy, namely pioneering the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy that came to be known as "clear, hold, and build."

Commanding 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in the Iraqi border town of Tal Afar, McMaster implemented the framework for countering the Iraqi insurgency and restoring coalition control to large parts of the country. When he arrived in Tal Afar in Spring 2005, the town was under jihadi control. Rather than waging a massive assault to clear the town, as had been done in Fallujah, McMaster first surrounded the city, established checkpoints to isolate the insurgents from receiving outside support. The troops under his command then engaged the local population, recruited both Sunnis and Shi'ites into a more integrated local security force capable of maintaining order.

Even before he was challenging conventional wisdom in combating the Iraqi insurgency, McMaster gained renown for his dissertation-turned-book, Dereliction of Duty, which became required reading for military officers. In the book he criticizes U.S. military leadership during the Vietnam War for remaining silent in the face of a losing strategy. In the interests of their own individual services, the Joint Chief of Staff abdicated their responsibilities by failing to provide sound advice and stand up to the White House.

Many of those who are now assessing McMaster's new role in the White House see that work and his longstanding dedication to defending his positions as a needed element in advising President Trump.

Retired Army Colonel, Dr. Peter Mansoor worked with McMaster on numerous occasions, including in Iraq where they both served on the Council of Colonels, a high-level advisory group that helped reshape the counterinsurgency strategy. Mansoor is now a distinguished professor and faculty chair of military history at Ohio State University.

"I think its a brilliant choice by the president," he said of McMaster's appointment. "He is a gifted combat leader, a genuine war heroearned the Silver Star in Operation Desert Storm. He is also a gifted intellectual and a forceful advocate for positions he believes in. And in this regard, I think he will be the tonic that this administration needs."

Given his record, Mansoor believes McMaster will not only provide advice in the best interests of the country, but he will be a strong advocate and will not back down. "He is not a 'yes-man,' and not an ideologue either. He approaches things from a sound historical standpoint, rather than trying to advance some ideological agenda."

Still, as a military officer, he can be expected to execute the president's policy "with vigor," the retired colonel added, "provided that policy is moral and ethically sound."

Defense hawks on Capitol Hill have applauded Trump's decision to add another top general to his cabinet, with Senate Armed Services chairman John McCain describing the new national security adviser as a man who "knows how to succeed."

McCain, a regular critic of Donald Trump, gave a rare endorsement stating, "I could not imagine a better, more capable national security team than the one we have right now.”

Even Democrats on the Hill have softened to the latest Trump pick. Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) who serves as the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee praised the new national security adviser, especially after the departure of Mike Flynn who had been a lightning rod for Democrats' criticism.

"To say he is an improvement over Mike Flynn is an incredible understatement," Smith said in a Monday interview.

Smith still has concerns about whether he will be able to effectively shape the National Security Council and sway Trump away from more ideological voices in the room like Steve Bannon. But he commented that both McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis "hopefully can reign in some of the more outlandish ideas of others in the Trump circle."

Many Trump critics have called into question the makeup of the National Security Council after Trump announced during his first week in office that his chief political strategist and controversial former Breitbart News editor, Steve Bannon would be sitting in on the principals meeting.

For those watching the formation of the White House security team, it is still an open question as to whether Trump will accept the influence of his highly praised advisers.

Thomas Wright, director of the Brookings Institution project on international order, expressed his sense that Trump's views on foreign policy and defense policy "are pretty much diametrically opposed" to those of his cabinet.

"That has put an incoherence at the heart of this administration," Wright explained. He continued that it is not likely Trump's cabinet appointments will be able to fundamentally change the president's mind, but they will play an important role internally in the Trump White House, "ensuring on a day to day basis it is a more traditionalist administration."

The Trump White House recently appeared in disarray when top members of the administration, Vice President Pence and Defense Secretary James Mattis went abroad and directly contradicted previous policy pronouncements made by the president on foreign and defense policy issues.

Dr. Mark Moyar, a strategist and director of the Foreign Policy Initiative's Center for Military and Diplomatic History, sees McMaster having an influential role in the Trump administration and shaping the president's outlook in a way that can be noticed publicly.

"There is a widespread misperception that military officers only know the military side of security. Lt. Gen. McMaster’s experiences are so broad that he is fully versed in all aspects of national security," Moyars explained.

Despite his decades of experience, one area of conflict he has not yet seen is the partisan environment inside Washington. McMaster has some experience working between agencies as a strategy advisor, and he has testified before Congress on a handful of occasions, but he does not have deep experience in politics.

Former ambassador and University of Kentucky professor of diplomacy and international commerce, Carey Cavanaugh raised concerns that Donald Trump has filled his national security team with former military officials. "[He] has yet to tap a civilian with deep diplomatic and foreign policy experience to join his team," he said.

While his picks for these positions are impressive, there is still a gap in expertise from those individuals who can help manage the expression of U.S. power in terms of diplomacy, economic power, and information, not just military strength.

"An individual with this skill set, perhaps as McMaster’s deputy, would help ensure that the executive office will be presented with the full-panoply of policy options - from diplomatic engagement to military action," Cavanaugh suggested. Trump still has dozens of open positions to fill in his national security structure below the secretarial level.

Despite having high-level positions filled, it is still unclear what the "Trump Doctrine" might be. Like other top defense officials in the administration, McMaster has a tough, no-nonsense position on Russian military aggression and China's provocations in the Asia Pacific. Based on his experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, he is also a strong advocate of cooperating with Muslim allies in the war against terrorism. McMaster is realist, according to his supporters, steeped in both the lessons of combat and the lessons of military history, which are political in as much as they are strategic.

"H.R. is not going to advocate a strategy that sacrifices American blood and treasure without a path to victory," Mansoor emphasized. "He will be, like I said, exactly what his administration needs, a well-spoken, forceful advocate who understands strategy, who understands military history and understands the conflicts we are waging around the world today."

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