Foreign Policy: This is what I heard from Gen. McMaster

  • McMaster

Foreign Policy
Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Early in 2006 I did a reporting trip to see then-Col. H.R. McMaster and the regiment he commanded in far northwest Iraq, outside the town of Tal Afar. Following the visit, I wrote an article portraying the success his 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment had enjoyed in that town, largely because of the intelligent, thoughtful approach he took.

I mention this because after the article ran, McMaster, who is now the president’s national security advisor, went a bit bat----.

After I left his base, I fell sick from some stomach bug, so I went to ground at the big U.S. base at Balad, a good place to do some quiet writing and recover. My rest there was interrupted by McMaster. He got ahold of me, quite angry. He wasn’t upset by the 95 percent of the article that described how he and his troops subdued al-Qaida in Tal Afar. Rather, he was hopping mad over the beginning of the story, that contrasted his regiment’s impressive success in Iraq with the hamfisted, abusive way it had performed on its first tour of duty in the country before he commanded it.

“The last time the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment served in Iraq, in 2003-04,” my article began, “its performance was judged mediocre, with a series of abuse cases growing out of its tour of duty in Anbar province.”

By contrast, I continued, the 3rd ACR’s performance in northern Iraq in 2005-06 under McMaster was striking. I quoted Terry Daly, a respected counterinsurgency veteran, as concluding that its operations “will serve as a case study in classic counterinsurgency, the way it is supposed to be done.”

As I recall, my discussions with McMaster continued over the course of a day or two. He didn’t dispute the basic approach of my article. He was just unhappy with the way I had presented it, because it had made his life more difficult.

I mention this because when I saw him on television on Monday evening, I heard exactly the same low-key, aggrieved tone. In a brief appearance outside the White House, he denounced the Washington Post’s story about President Donald Trump boasting to Russians about the top secret, highly classified intelligence he had about terrorism operations and the Middle East. As McMaster spoke, I recognized that weary, dutiful voice. He was being a good soldier.

That’s not a good sign. When he was a colonel in Iraq, it was one thing for him to defend the honor of his regiment. But in his current position, he can’t just be a good soldier.

The worrisome thing is, he knows this. He even wrote a terrific book about the need for senior military officers to hew to the truth, even when it is politically unwelcome.

But if he goes down the road he took Monday night, he will wind up like former National Security Adviser Colin Powell, whose strong sense of loyalty was manipulated by the Bush administration to the point of him giving a speech at the United Nations on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that we now know to have been almost entirely false.

McMaster and Powell are both Army generals, but there are two big differences between them. First, McMaster is less politically astute than Powell. Second, he is better educated.

McMaster also knows Greg Jaffe, one of the Post reporters on the story. I also know Jaffe well. He succeeded me on the Pentagon beat at two newspapers – first the Wall Street Journal and then the Post. McMaster surely know that Jaffe is a careful, studious, even cautious reporter. What he writes, you can take to the bank.

So my guess is that when McMaster was trotted out before the cameras last night, he gave up a little piece of his soul. Eliot Cohen, himself a veteran of high office, warns of “the moment when these high officials can no longer recognize their own characters for what they once were.” My gut feeling is that McMaster won’t agree to keep on doing that for very long.