Magazine article The Spectator

The McMaster Plan

Magazine article The Spectator

The McMaster Plan

Article excerpt

Is Trump's new security chief still the thinking man's general?

When Lt Gen H.R. McMaster was appointed by Donald Trump to the post of national security adviser, newspaper reports hailed him as a military strategist. It's not fully clear what the phrase means: not, presumably, that he originated a big idea akin to Alfred Thayer Mahan's theory of seapower or Billy Mitchell's conception of strategic bombing. More likely it is supposed to mean 'a soldier who thinks'. Or more crudely, 'not a knuckle-dragger'. Or 'preferable to the cretin who Trump just fired'.

Of course, the responsibilities of the position to which McMaster now ascends extend well beyond mere military matters. The national security adviser operates (or should operate) in the realm of 'grand strategy'. In this rarified atmosphere, preparing for and conducting war coexist with, and arguably should even take a back seat to, other considerations. To advance the interests of the state, the successful grand strategist orchestrates all the various elements of power. While not shrinking from the use of armed force, he or she sees war as a last resort, to be undertaken only after having exhausted all other alternatives.

This distinction between military strategy and grand strategy is more than semantic. Maintaining it is crucial to successful statecraft. Consider the case of 19th-century Germany. Von Moltke the Elder was a gifted military strategist. Bismarck was a master of grand strategy. Their collaboration, with the Iron Chancellor as senior partner, created the modern German state. Once Wilhelm II handed Bismarck his walking papers in 1890, however, the distinction between military and grand strategy was gradually lost. The results became apparent after 1914. In the person of Erich Ludendorff, war absorbed statecraft, with the fall of the House of Hohenzollern the least among the catastrophes that ensued.

US national security policy in the present century bears more than passing resemblance to that of Germany a century ago. Our various armed conflicts, campaigns, interventions, and punitive expeditions occur on a blessedly smaller scale. But the clarity of political purpose informing our military endeavours in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 has eroded with the passage of time. Today it has been largely lost. Our militarists fight on because they lack the capacity to imagine an alternative. In policymaking circles, war has become a habit.

The question is whether H.R. McMaster can play a role in breaking that habit, as President Trump (in his weird, inconsistent way) has suggested he intends to do. To put it another way: can General McMaster restore the distinction between grand strategy and military strategy and re-subordinate the latter to the former?

Little reason exists to suggest that he will do so -- or indeed that he is inclined to make the effort. For the past two years, McMaster has devoted himself to contemplations on the future of the United States Army, not the future of the international order. On Russia, he appears to be a neo-Cold Warrior, favouring the recommitment of US ground forces to Europe, a prospect welcomed by an army that today finds itself searching for a raison d'être. On matters ranging from East Asian stability, Israel-Palestine, Iran, nuclear weapons, climate change and cyber-challenges, his views are less clear. …

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