H.R. McMaster was US National Security Adviser under President Donald Trump for 14 months. He succeeded Michael Flynn, who resigned after 24 days in office. Flynn, a retired army officer, was discovered to have lied to US Vice President Michael Pence. Flynn pled guilty to making false statements to the FBI in relation to the Special Counsel's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
McMaster is a level-headed man, regarded in the US army as a thinker. In addition to having been a general, he is also an author and speaker. When he was asked to take the national security job, he was still in uniform, and regarded it as his final position in the army, which proved to be the case. Instead of serving the president from 2017 to 2021, however, McMaster had his job terminated within 14 months.
In the turbulent Trump administration, there is never a dull moment. McMaster was replaced by John Bolton, US Ambassador to the UN in the George W Bush administration, a neoconservative proponent of the Iraq war, who was himself later replaced by Robert O'Brien, a military lawyer who has already managed to hold on to his office for four and a half months.
McMaster has not been interviewed in the US media, either in the US or outside of it, since he left the White House in April 2018. He is not the type to be interviewed, and is certainly not a television personality. Since his resignation, he has worked at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University. When he came to be interviewed in Tel Aviv, clips of his replacement, John Bolton, were being shown on the screen next to us, in which Bolton related how Trump told him that he planned to freeze $400 million in foreign aid to Ukraine until the Ukrainian president announced the opening of an investigation against Hunter Biden, son of former US Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joseph Biden. Bolton's juicy story was leaked to the press at a critical time, when the Senate was considering whether to summon Bolton to testify.
"Globes": As you were coming in here, we saw Bolton appearing on television with his new book. You were the national security adviser before him. Do you plan to publish a book about your term in the job?
McMaster: "I have a book that will be published soon, but my book is different than Bolton's. He writes about the big challenges to UN national security and makes recommendations for the future. The name of my book is 'Battlefields - The Struggle to Defend the Free World,' and the theme is the need to act more effectively in competitive theaters. The book will examine the influence of Russia and China as revisionist powers trying to change the system. The book will also deal with transnational threats, such as global Jihad and the embroiled factions in the Middle East, and Iran's influence on them."
Your previous book, the one about Vietnam, was published when you were an officer on active duty. Although you wrote against people in the administration, you weren't afraid to express severe criticism of the US high military command, the army commander, and the advice he gave to decision-makers, the president, and the secretary of defense during the Vietnam War. Is your current book also critical of the current administration and its predecessors?
"That is my intention. The book will examine US foreign policy and national security policy from a critical perspective, and will touch on the erroneous assumptions on which that policy is based. In the book, I argue that there is an emotional impedance behind our foreign policy, but that it has changed from unrealistic optimism about the ability of the US to promote and develop its interests in cooperation with its allies to a more pessimistic concept and understanding that the problems are unchangeable and unsolvable. We therefore have to assess these challenges from within this prism, understand the issues on their own right, and view everything in its relation to the history of the modern era."
Tell us - what went on there? Everyone is very curious about the Trump administration's actions, the rapid turnover in national security advisers, how policy is set when people are constantly being replaced, such as the targeted killing of Soleimani.
"I can't reveal the personal stories from the book yet. But I can say that what we did in the first year was to lay the foundations in policy concerning the changes taking place in China and Russia. Many of those changes were inevitable, and I'm inclined to believe that these foundations will also be used in the coming administrations. It's clear that in 2003, with the invasion of Iraq, many in the Bush administration underestimated the difficulty that would be created with the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime and the need to stabilize Iraq. Leaving Iraq in 2011 was a bad decision, because it had bad consequences in the region. In the Trump administration's first year, we therefore authored a policy document that can be maintained for the sake of the interests of the US and its allies. This could be seen in the defeat of ISIS and the long-term policy on Syria, although not everything was applied precisely or consistently. This document was entitled "The National Security Strategy of the US in 2017, National Security Council."
"In this document, we described, for example, the dramatic change with respect to China. We switched from a policy of cooperation with China to regarding it as a competitor. This document recognizes for the first time, especially with President Xi Jinping, that the Chinese Communist Party does not intend to promote economic freedom and a transition from an autocratic state towards a market economy.
"In the Middle East, we included a strategic policy whose goals were to break out of the cycle of violence between factions and prevent Iran from achieving its goals, meaning preventing them from putting a proxy army on the border with Israel, you can see that with the reinforcement of Hezbollah and its weapons capabilities and more and more of those weapons. Their support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza as well and reinforcing them with weapons to threaten Israel. The new element is this proxy army Iran has built across the region through to Afghanistan and positioning them in a way that threatens Israel directly."
"Sadly, Israel is unwittingly helping Iran accomplish this because they haven't done anything to impose any costs on Russia. Putin can go to Yad Vashem and pose as a sympathetic friend of Israel, while he's undermining Israel's security every day by enabling Iran."
Why is Israel cooperating in technology, R&D, cybersecurity, and business initiatives with a country that poses the biggest cybersecurity threat to Israel?"
Maybe because the US is absent from the region and is impotent there.
"It's amazing that there's a narrative that the US has left the region, when there's no evidence of it. It's incorrect and it's not happening. No country has a solution to Iran's aggression. It's one thing for the allies of the US to do more. But it is another thing to ask for help while simultaneously aiding and abetting our enemies, I think it's unreasonable."
American policy is full of contradictions. One position by the Trump administration says, ' Let's bring Iran to its knees with paralyzing sanctions.' Another policy calls on Rouhani to negotiate when Trump and he are in New York at the same time. A third position is Pompeo's long documents of demands, a fourth stance is a withdrawal from Syria, a withdrawal from Iraq that enables Iran to build a long land-based bridge. What is US policy? Who knows? Israel is getting confusing messages, and in the end has to take care of itself.
"Is aiding and abetting Putin accomplishing this? This is a strategy? I understand that Israel wants to hedge itself against a complete American disengagement from the region from the region, but that's not happening , and it didn't even happen in the Obama administration. This hedging strategy of Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and others is based on an unrealistic fear that the US will completely disengage. But if you look atIran's strategy it's very consistent. Now for the first time since 1979, a US administration is forcing Iran to choose whether it wants to be treated as a normal nation state, or it wants to be a terrorist state."
"It isn't just Obama every administration Carter, Reagan, Bush Senior, and Clinton had false hopes about Iran. Each of them in turn thought that it would send emissaries to moderate Iran, make weapons deals with them, so that they would become more moderate, because they would be dependent on arms deals and see the advantage of good relations with the US, but relations with Iran just got worse. Every time, a new administration comes and thinks that there are reformers, nice aspects of the administration in Iran, like Minister of Foreign Affairs Zarif.
"The nuclear agreement with the US and the European powers, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is based on the same assumptions. Rouhani and Zarif have no authority there. The mistaken assumption about Iran is that they have internal tension within the administration between the forces of the revolution and more moderate forces. We're adopting an attitude of appeasement towards the moderates, the modern factions, the reformers, and hoping that they'll accumulate power at the expense of the forces of the revolution. The revolutionists always win and lead, however, and the others are in a prison, or are thrown out of the country."
So how do you explain Trump's attitude - the desire to meet and give then a gift like that?
"A meeting with the Iranians isn't a gift; it's something that puts them in a defensive position. It portrays them as weak to their own people and portrays them as weak to the Europeans. What the US should do, together with Israel and Europe, and together with the Arab kingdoms, is to expose the Iranian behavior to the world - to show them how the world is working together to prevent Iran from attacking people throughout the Middle East. Instead, what we're doing is to blame ourselves: 'Maybe it's our fault because we abandoned the nuclear deal.' No, it's not our fault that Iran is blowing up tankers in the Persian Gulf, firing missiles at the Persian Gulf countries, attacking our bases, and the oil fields. It's Iran's fault. The narrative is completely backwards, and what President Trump offered was to talk with them in order to show who they really are. It was in order to present them with an option: behave like a country, or the world will treat them like a terrorist state."
Were you the one who proposed the targeted killing of Soleimani in 2017?
"I can't talk about this. Where did you get this from?
I read in reports that you presented this step to President Trump already in 2017, and he answered you that such a thing should not be done unless the Iranians kill an US citizen.
"Where did you read that? Did someone tell you that? There are no secrets anymore; it's crazy already. I'm not willing to talk about it, but I will tell you that in my work as national security adviser I had excellent relations with Meir Ben-Shabbat, the head of your National Security Council. He's a wonderful professional. I really liked working with him. My job was to give the President options and once he takes decision to help in the implementation of them. Some of my conclusions based on the research I did about Vietnam when I was young were that a lack of options presented to the president led to a series of really bad decisions. The advisers gave the president exactly what he wanted. In my term, I insisted on providing the president with multiple options. I put in place a process that expanded the options for the president, and we developed a strategy for our greatest challenges.
What we decided about Iran was that it had become a country that was undeterred. They were undeterred because the US had not imposed a cost on Iran higher than it factored into its decisions on its 40-year long proxy war against us. When I read some of the op-eds following the killing of Soleimani, they accused us of having escalated the situation. No, it was actually the other way around. Killing Soleimani was the first step in de-escalating a war that has been escalating unchecked since 1979. This man and his proxies killed over 600 of our soldiers in Iraq. He had it coming. It was overdue in my view."
We are shocked by the way people are replaced in the current administration: the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, the White House chief of staff, the chief spokesperson, and four national security advisers. Israelis are asking themselves whether the people in Washington making difficult decisions are responsible and trustworthy. Israelis like Trump a lot, but what is going on with his senior staff?
"I think that what we're seeing in the administration mirrors the political situation in the US. Polarization is growing. I'm not a social expert, but we're seeing polarization in the US, and it's based on dissatisfaction with the government and how beneficial it is for some of the people. What is driving people to these extremes is global economic changes, a fall in the number of jobs, and all of this is leading to a certain political atmosphere, including within the political parties themselves. We still haven't reached the level of polarization in Israeli politics, though, have we?" McMaster laughs.
Do you think that there is something exceptional and special in Trump's presidency?
"It's a manifestation or result of the political environment in the US. There is increased polarization in the US to a large extent based on discontent with the government. Globalization and the movement of jobs out of the American heartland has led to vitriolic and emotions that have led to divisions. It's a manifestation of the times and you have the character of the President because that's the president that the people elected."
Trump's peace plan is being presented, and the US is again 'missing in action', because the Palestinians cut off contact with the US in December 2017. If the US has an interest in solving the conflict, but one of the parties is not talking, it means that the US has withdrawn from the Middle East. It looks like a political maneuver for Netanyahu, even though Kushner and Greenblatt really worked on it, but the politics around it are wrecking it.
"The Palestinian issue is a long term problem requiring a long term solution, and I think that the options have been diminishing in recent years. The viability of a two-state solution is getting less and less. Some of the reasons are the Palestinian opposition to the Trump administration, but there are other reasons, such as the expansion of settlements and is a Palestinian state still viable. It's not just US relations with the Palestinians, but the weakness of the Palestinians. Is there another party that can agree to and enforce an agreement?"
How does the Palestinian Authority being so weak benefit US interests?
"No, this is not a US interest, because when the Palestinian side is so weak, we get destruction like in the Gaza Strip, and groups will move in to take advantage of that weakness to perpetuate the conflict. These groups profit from organized crime while the people in Gaza suffer. What this proposal does is communicates to the Palestinian people a sense of hope for the future. I hope it galvanizes them to get behind some sort of leadership that will make progress towards peace.
"Trump made difficult and controversial decisions. It doesn't matter whether or not I agree. We presented the options to him, including recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Every president since Carter promised it; no one delivered it. They were all in shock when he did deliver. That's because he's a person who gets things done.
"Another obstacle he faced was perpetuation of the refugee class's suffering. He regarded it as an obstacle to peace, so he took it off the table and attacked UNRWA, the entire organization that perpetuated it. That's the reason that they aren't speaking with him."
The administration's actions towards Ukraine led us to think, perhaps also in Israel, that maybe it's worthwhile accepting Trump's peace plan; otherwise, he will threaten us with the loss of foreign aid.
"The US is a country extremely committed to Israel's security, and that shouldn't be doubted. I think that if the peace proposal works, it won't matter who's in the White House. Everyone will support a process that the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority want. If Israel doesn't want it to go forward, and if the Palestinians don't want it, it won't be practical in any case. The US is playing the role of a mediator and facilitator. The important thing is for both sides to trust the US. I hope that the Palestinians try to see the advantages of the proposal and trust the US."
A last question. You have the reputation of a scholar who writes books about military strategy. Lieut. Gen. Kochavi spoke to IDF officers and told them that they should read more books in order to be good officers. The question is what your literary recommendations are. As a veteran military man, what do you recommend that IDF officers read?
We did not prepare McMaster in advance for this question, but it was obvious that it was the most enjoyable part of the interview for him. Without looking on his mobile phone, he quickly pulled out the names of the books from a list and made the following list for us. He had trouble remembering the authors' names, but Google helped him fill them in.
"I'm reading "Kremlin Winter" now, a book about Putin by Robert Service. Another good book is "All the Kremlin's Men," by Mikhail Zygar. On China, I recommend, "The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom," by John Pomfret. Also on China, I recommend, "The Third Revolution," a book about Xi Jinping by Elizabeth Economy. There's an excellent book on the situation in Syria, in the Middle East field, called " Assad Or We Burn the Country," by Sam Dagher. Another book about the region is "After ISIS," by Seth Frantzman. If you want a book about Iran, I recommend, "The Twilight War," by David Crist. I also recommend the new book by Niall Ferguson, "The Square and the Tower."
McMaster is a guest at the 13th International Conference of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) taking place on January 28-30 at Tel Aviv University. Participants in this year's conference include senior administration and military personnel, decision-makers, opinion-makers, and scholars from overseas and Israel. Guests include General Joseph Votel, former commander of the US Army central command; former US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster; Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Thomas Friedman; Igor Yurgens, a leading figure in Russian public institutions associated with the government there; former CIA Director David Petraeus; and journalist David Ignatius. The INSS conference is discussing the challenges for the coming decade in the international sphere, the Middle East, and for Israel's foreign policy. Leading the conference on behalf of the INSS are INSS chairman Frank Lowy, INSS director Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, INSS managing director and senior research fellow Brig. Gen. (res.) Udi Dekel, deputy director research and analysis Brig. Gen. (res.) Itai Brun, and former US Ambassador to Israel and INSS distinguished visiting fellow Daniel Shapiro.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on January 28, 2020
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