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With a reputation of speaking truth to power, H.R. McMaster became President Trump’s second National Security Adviser, this week on ‘Firing Line.’
He’s a man of tremendous talent and tremendous experience.
A warrior, a scholar, and a three-star general, H.R. McMaster arrived at The White House after a storied career in the Army, commanding troops on the battlefield in both Iraq wars.
He authored a book about what went wrong during the Vietnam War, including that civilian and military leaders told lies based on politics.
These were men who not only should have known better but who did know better and who made these decisions anyway.
At The White House, McMaster convinced the president to send more troops to Afghanistan.
But he also found himself at odds with his boss over other geopolitical threats.
I’m surprised there were any Russian cyber experts available… [ Chuckles ] …based on how active most of them have been in undermining our democracies in the West.
It has been one year since he left The White House.
What does H.R. McMaster say now?
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Welcome back to ‘Firing Line,’ General H.R. McMaster.
It’s great to be here with you.
You are a three-star general, retired now from the Army.
You are a best-selling author, a PhD in history from UNC Chapel Hill, and you were President Trump’s National Security Adviser.
Now you’re a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution…
…where I am also affiliated.
I want to take you back to that moment 24 days into the Trump administration, when General Flynn loses his job as National Security Adviser and somebody reaches out to you and asks you to consider coming to work for President Trump for a position that you exhaustively researched in your writing.
Where were you?
What were you thinking when you were contacted?
Well, I was walking in my hometown of Philadelphia to a think tank called the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
And I was reporting out on a study I had commissioned about Russia’s systematic subversion of the West, as well as the combination of new military capabilities that we had seen in the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine.
And my phone rang, and it was a 202 number and it was the Deputy Chief of Staff of The White House saying, ‘Can you go to Mar-a-Lago tomorrow to interview?’
Is that a little ironic?
[ Laughs ] It is.
I mean, of course, it was a complete surprise to me to be considered for the job even, but, of course, I was grateful for the opportunity, having studied the importance of that position and having, at least from a historical perspective, an understanding of how a National Security Adviser and the National Security Council staff should support a president and an administration.
You are an Army general.
You retired as a three-star.
But for three decades, you served in the Army.
You also went to Valley Forge Military Academy and also West Point.
Where was it in your early childhood or development that inspired you to serve in the Army and have a career in the Army?
From my earliest memory, I wanted to serve in the Army.
And I think I was exposed to military service because my father was an officer in the Army Reserve.
He was a first sergeant and then became a captain and a company commander later.
Going back to age 3, I just thought I wanted to lead soldiers and serve in our Army.
When you were 28 years old, when you served in the first Iraq War, you led what many have called one of the last great tank battles of the 20th century, the Battle of 73 Easting.
Tell us what that battle was and why it was noteworthy.
As a cavalry regiment, our mission was to find the enemy, to find out where the enemy’s strong, where the enemy’s weak, and help pull in the heavy divisions into positions of advantage.
Well, what happened is — it was raining really hard.
For a desert, it was really wet.
And then there was fog that morning, and that was replaced by a sandstorm.
And then we made contact with — It was called the Tawakalna Division of the Republican Guard.
And we assaulted their defensive positions —
And you were outnumbered, in terms of cavalry and —
We were outnumbered significantly.
And, you know, really, the outcome was a lopsided victory.
Thankfully, in our cavalry troop, we suffered no casualties.
We had trained really hard and built up that confidence in our ability to fight together as a team.
But there’s a story about you finally graduating from West Point, serving in the Army, and the end of the Cold War coming — And a story that your wife quipped, ‘You’re just bitter the Cold War’s over because you’re not actually gonna see real combat.’
[ Laughs ] Well, I think it was kind of a triumphant period, right?
We had, you know, the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Our cavalry regiment actually was a border cavalry regiment, so the troopers in my cavalry troop had been on the border that day that East Germany lifted travel restrictions to the West.
And from one moment, they were staring down East German border guards.
The next moment, they were swamped with East Germans with bouquets of flowers and bottles of wine.
And so we saw this dramatic end to the Cold War, and then, shortly thereafter, we had this lopsided victory in Desert Storm.
And so I think the ’90s became a period of tremendous confidence, confidence in our power.
And, of course, now we know that geopolitics, competition with authoritarian and closed systems is back.
And we have to re-enter arenas of competition, I think, that we largely vacated in that very over-optimistic period in the 1990s.
After the Gulf War, you went to UNC Chapel Hill and got a doctorate in history, and your dissertation, your doctoral dissertation ended up becoming a widely reviewed, well-critiqued book about the Johnson administration’s civil and military leaders during the Vietnam War and what went wrong.
And it brought you to this program, ‘Firing Line,’ in 1998.
I’d like to have us take a look of a younger H.R. McMaster with William F. Buckley Jr.
Well, no, I think what they should have done is told the truth, and they were given opportunities to do so.
What is the major lesson?
I think there are a number of important lessons from the Vietnam War that I brought with me to my duties and responsibilities in The White House.
And the first of those was really the need to ensure that you clearly define what you’re trying to achieve in war.
I think what was striking about how and why we went to war in Vietnam and how those decisions were made is that there was really a deliberate effort not to establish an objective.
The president’s objectives were actually his short-term political goals, at the expense of a national-security strategy.
Exactly. And he was so focused on his domestic priorities that he saw Vietnam really almost exclusively as a danger to those domestic goals.
And what he wanted to do was forestall any kind of debate about what to do in Vietnam.
And what’s ironic about this is — Lyndon Johnson didn’t want to go to war in Vietnam, I don’t think, but every decision he made led, what seems to be in retrospect, inexorably toward that end.
One of the things you’re most noted for in your tenure as National Security Adviser to President Trump was putting together a national-security strategy that was comprehensive within the administration.
It included our economic strategy.
It included all elements of our defense strategy.
Was that a lesson you drew directly from your research and your writings about Vietnam?
I do think it was, in large measure, based on the research I had done on Vietnam but, really, the research I had done across the Cold War period as a historian and then the experience I had in the ’90s.
And then, I think, in the early 2000s, the experience associated with precipitous withdrawal from Iraq and the unenforced redline in Syria, I think we actually swung from over-optimism in the ’90s to almost, you know, pessimism or defeatism, even, in the 2000s and the belief that our disengagement from these complex problems overseas was an unmitigated good.
And so I thought that what we really needed to do was restore our strategic competence as a nation.
It strikes me that the other lesson that you’ve taken was the imperative of civilian and military leaders to tell the truth.
What was your experience as National Security Adviser?
It seems to me that telling the truth in this White House wasn’t always rewarded.
Well, I think telling the truth is always rewarded in the long run, right?
And, so, I think those who sometimes feel conflicted — You know, ‘Should I tell the boss what the boss doesn’t want to hear?’
It’s maybe an opportunity to examine what their base motivations are, right?
So I think what was liberating for me, in large measure, is — I mean, I wasn’t angling for another job, right?
And I just knew that I could best serve the president by giving the president not my point of view as a National Security Adviser, but the best advice from coordinating and integrating across all the departments and agencies.
You were National Security Adviser for a year.
Right. 13 months.
[ Laughs ]
For a little more than a year.
I mean, is that partly because of the lessons you learned about character and truth-telling from reviewing history?
Well, you know, I wasn’t really concerned about, you know, how long I was gonna —
I know you’re not concerned about it, but that wasn’t my question.
Well, sometimes, in these kind of jobs, especially in a contentious political environment that — You know, really, this was my first assignment in Washington, right?
And I knew that, you know, I had a shelf life, you know, and it was gonna use me up, as it would probably anybody in that role.
But I didn’t want to give the president the disservice of telling the president what I thought he wanted to hear.
And hopefully those who are there today are doing the same thing, and many of my colleagues across the cabinet were doing it.
And I think the president appreciated it.
And then there’s a group who think that they’re there to save, you know, the country, the world, you know, from the president, you know, like op-ed author, whoever that is.
I think that’s a tremendous disservice —
I think you’re saying it wasn’t H.R. McMaster?
No, of course it wasn’t.
But I think that’s a circumvention of the Constitution.
Nobody elects, you know, generals or intelligence professionals or foreign-service officers to make policy.
Our government places sovereignty with the people.
The people exercise that sovereignty through elections.
And unelected officials shouldn’t be making policy.
They should be helping to, you know, try to execute policy.
When you told him the truth, was that valued?
I think it was valued, certainly, and, really, without exception.
And I think that the president recognized that what we’re trying to do is to help him make the best decision for the American people, which was what he wanted to do, and then to assist with the implementation of his policies and decisions.
I think one example of many is the development of the South Asia Strategy.
Now, there’s been some shifting in terms of our approach to South Asia, but, remember, the president wrote into the speech that he delivered in August of —
2017. I’m actually gonna show a clip of that, actually, if you don’t mind, because the president ran on drawing down and having a lighter footprint in Afghanistan, and, ultimately, what ended up happening was — he sent more troops to Afghanistan.
So, here is the president in 2017.
All my life, I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.
In other words, when you’re President of the United States.
Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on.
America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out.
What was the argument or the series of arguments that were made to the president that helped him change his thinking about Afghanistan and our engagement there?
What we were able, I think, to present to the president is a way for us to really achieve a sustainable outcome in Afghanistan, a country that is really fundamentally transformed from what it was in 2001, and to prevent what we all, you know, don’t want to have happen or see happen, which was to see a terrorist organization gain control of territory, populations, and resources that allow them to generate, you know, the resources they need and plan, prepare, and execute attacks.
And, you know, of course, this isn’t a theoretical scenario.
It was that condition that led to the mass-murder attacks against our nation on September 11, 2001.
I know you’ve thought a lot about the military history, but what about the political history?
What do you think it takes for political actors to persuade the American people to have the will to stay?
Right. Why does this conflict and achieving a favorable outcome there matter to Americans?
I think it matters to our security.
But what is the strategy that will deliver the desired outcome at a cost acceptable to the American public?
And their true test of strategy, I think, is — as a lieutenant in our Army, can you explain to your platoon how the risk that your soldiers are gonna take, how the sacrifices they may be called on to make will achieve an outcome worthy of those risks and worthy of those sacrifices?
But do you think our political leaders are doing that now with the American people?
I don’t think we’re doing it enough.
No, I don’t.
The president has recently just done a victory lap on ISIS.
He said, ‘We’ve defeated ISIS.’
Have we defeated ISIS?
No, we’ve not defeated ISIS or groups that can emerge next.
So, let me play a clip from the president about ISIS being defeated.
We just took over.
You know, you kept hearing it was 90%, 92%, the caliphate in Syria.
Now it’s 100%. We just took over.
That means the area, the land, we just have 100%.
Why is he saying that if it’s not true?
Well, I think it’s true maybe militarily, but what’s not true about it is — it’s not true that they’re 100% defeated, because what these groups do — and we’ve seen the pattern so many times — is they’ll shift their tactics.
They’ll stay alive.
And so how do you break that cycle of violence in the long term?
There’s a political element of it, but, certainly, there’s a social and economic.
We need sensible strategies in place that allow us to galvanize efforts of others.
I want to get to the National Security Strategy that you outlined and the three pillars of it you have, the revisionist powers, rogue regimes, and transnational terrorist organizations.
China and Russia are sort of these two ascendant revisionist powers that you talk about a lot.
How do you think about engaging China and U.S. military strategy vis-à-vis China?
Well, I think our approach to China — and our approach to Russia, by the way — was, I think, affected by what we might call strategic narcissism, right?
This is this idea that whatever we do is gonna be decisive.
And we tended, I think, to define the world as we’d like it to be.
What we did in the National Security Strategy is take a really hard look at, ‘What are the emotions and aspirations that drive and constrain the policies of the Chinese Communist Party?’
The Chinese Communist Party, today, has maybe a million and a half people in concentration camps, re-education camps.
They’re establishing a surveillance state that goes beyond George Orwell’s dystopian vision in the novel ‘1984.’
Why are they doing that?
They’re doing that because the Chinese Communist Party is obsessed with maintaining exclusive control, and they fear fragmentation or a loss of control.
That means they also have to meet the expectations of their population.
There’s no longer a Maoist Communist ideology.
There’s a Communist-light ideology now.
And, so, the Chinese Communist Party believes that it has to grow the economy at very high rates.
To do that, they’re employing a broad range of unfair trade and economic practices that threaten our interests, but, also, it’s driving them to a very aggressive foreign policy, because part of keeping the Chinese people loyal to this exclusive control of the Chinese Communist Party, they have this narrative of national rejuvenation, the return of China to greatness.
Back to the other revisionist power that you mentioned initially that you were working on at the time that you got the call to become the National Security Adviser.
How much are Russians interfering with our elections and the democracies of our European NATO allies?
Right. They’re operating against the United States and our European allies every day.
This is a sustained campaign of subversion by the Russians.
It is, I think, a new form of warfare.
In particular, it’s this cyber-enabled information warfare.
And I believe what Russia’s trying to do, primarily, is polarize our polity and pit us against each other.
And so that’s why you see the support for these, you know, crazy Right Wing sites and crazy Left Wing sites.
And if you look at about the percentage of the traffic, the percentage of Russian bot and troll messaging, about 80% of it was around race and trying to divide Americans over issues of race.
They also used other hot-button topics, right?
Gun control, immigration.
And they selected these issues because they thought they were most polarizing.
And, so, what’s sad to me is that we’ve played into Russia’s hands by the vitriolic — you know, the polarized, partisan narrative.
I mean, I think that it’s time now for us to have non-partisan discussions about the greatest challenges to our country.
One of the things you did when you were a National Security Adviser was that you went to the Munich Security Conference and you called out the Russians.
You said, ‘The Russians had intervened our elections, and that fact was incontrovertible.’
But it wasn’t what your boss was saying at the time.
Well, you know, I think there’s a tendency, maybe on the part of the president, but on many people, to conflate, really, three separate issues.
One is — did Russia meddle in the election?
Heck yes, they did.
And they did it with a purpose of really undermining our confidence, as I mentioned, in who we are, but also to undermine our confidence in our democratic institutions and processes.
The second question is — were they trying to bias the results in favor of one candidate or another?
I think that’s still debatable.
Most of the intelligence community has said they did favor President Trump, based on the negative — you know, the negative campaign against Hillary Clinton.
But I’m not 100% convinced of that.
I mean, there’s a good reason Vladimir Putin didn’t like Hillary Clinton.
I mean, she was strongly against his presidency, as well.
Well, I guess just quickly, I’ll say the third issue is — did it change the result?
And I think the president and some others — you know, they see the legitimacy of the presidency wrapped up in all of this.
So, I think what we can all agree is — yes, of course, they meddled.
Yes, they wanted to polarize us.
Think about, you know, really how the Russians played all sides in a brilliant way.
Would he view this as an indictment on the legitimacy of his election?
So, do you think he sees that as a threat?
Do you think he sees the Russian meddling in the American elections as a threat?
Well, I mean, I hope that the president does and all the American people do.
And I think we need to have a discussion about, ‘Okay, what do we do about it now?’
But I think whenever we presented options to the president on what to do to confront Russia’s destabilizing behavior, he took very strong action.
I think, in that first year, we sanctioned over 200 Russian entities that were associated with this activity but also with the ongoing Russian aggression in Ukraine and Syria.
One of the messages I tried to deliver to my Russian counterpart at one point was that, ‘Hey, the only thing that the U.S. Congress can agree on is to sanction Russia.
So if you think that by attacking our democratic systems and our processes and trying to polarize American society is weakening our resolve to confront Russian aggression, it’s having the opposite effect.
Let me just ask you real quick about the defense budget — over $700 billion.
We are the most expensive military in the world.
We are well-resourced, thankfully.
But are those resources, in your view, being directed, effectively, towards developing the capabilities that we’ll need to challenge and to tackle the threats that you’ve outlined in our National Security Strategy document?
Well, I think we have to work every day to establish a stronger logic trail between what we see as —
A logic trail?
A logic trail from what we see as the problems of future armed conflict, future threats to us, which, of course, now are not just conventional threats but also unconventional threats and the efforts by China, Russia, others to achieve objectives below the threshold of armed conflict and, as we understand those threats, based on a grounded projection into the future, develop solutions to those capabilities.
In the ’90s, you know, when we had this — you know, this tremendous overconfidence — right? — the language in defense strategies was really dominance.
Everything was dominant.
We were gonna have full-spectrum dominance over every enemy in the future.
And the phrase that became popular in this period of time is, ‘We’ll have a capabilities-based approach.
We’ll just envision the capabilities we want in the future, way out there, and those capabilities will be dominant in future war.’
Well, guess what.
I mean, we’re continuously interacting with adversaries.
And there’s never, you know, a future solution that you can predict today.
I mean, you have, you know, the submarine, the sonar.
The bomber, the radar.
The tank, the anti-tank missile.
And so there’s always gonna be this continuous interaction.
And we have to recognize what our adversaries are doing and then build the range of capabilities to, first of all, convince them that they can’t accomplish their objectives through the threat of force, but also that if we do engage in armed conflict, that we have the range of capabilities that we need.
Are we getting it, though?
That’s the question.
Are we directing that $700 billion in an effective and efficient way to actually address those challenges?
Well, I think, in an effective way, yes, because we’re beginning to address the bow wave of deferred modernization.
In this period of overconfidence, we weren’t investing in future capabilities.
So, are we starting to now?
We’re starting to now.
But only starting.
We’re only starting now, really.
I mean, I think we were on a path to degraded capabilities in the ’90s and the early 2000s, based on some fundamentally flawed assumptions about the nature of future armed conflict.
And, you know, we create these myths about future war and we delude ourselves to think, ‘Well, gosh, really, really, the next war will be fundamentally different from all that have gone before it.
Your high school is Valley Forge Military Academy, and they’ve recently named a securities-studies center in your honor.
For those cadets at the H.R. McMaster Center for Security Studies, what should they be preparing for?
It’s a tremendous honor to have Valley Forge name the center after me.
And I had a great experience there, and hopefully the cadets will benefit from the curriculum associated with that center.
It’s also kind of a cutting-edge center, in that it’s really putting new domains of competition, especially in cyberspace at the center of it, and it’s offering certifications for those who were gonna be those who are gonna help defend us — right? — against these kind of pernicious threats that we see — Russia, China, but many others.
I mean, North Korea is very active in offensive cybercrime and capabilities, as we know.
The tax on Hollywood studios as an example.
But the theft of — you know, and emptying of bank accounts.
Iran is becoming more effective.
This is really, you know, the democratization of a very dangerous capability we’re seeing globally.
H.R. McMaster, thank you for returning to ‘Firing Line.’
Thank you, Margaret.
Thanks for having me.
It’s been a real pleasure.
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