President Trump's new National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster is a smart choice and a step in the right direction for an embattled administration, says security expert Frank Cilluffo of The George Washington University.
DW: What distinguishes the new National Security Advisor, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, from his controversial predecessor, Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign last week?
Frank Cilluffo: General McMaster is a soldier-scholar, and that is a package that you don't get very often. He has extensive battlefield experience, but he has also pursued his PhD. He is not only a strategist, but also a bit of an iconoclast: He has been known for pushing back on popular or conventional views. But most significantly, he has led the army to pursue studies that recognize the hybrid threat that Russia poses to the United States. So I think he is just what the doctor ordered: He will run the National Security Council in a collegial kind of way, and he will speak truth to power. So I think he's a strong and smart choice. The job of the National Security Advisor is a very critical job, and you need to have someone with the right background and the right mindset in this position.
And General Michael Flynn didn't have the right mindset?
I certainly don't agree with General Flynn's assessment of who is a threat and who is not.
So is that why President Donald Trump chose him? Because he's so different from Flynn, not as controversial as Flynn?
Well, I hope he chose him purely for the fact that he is the right person for the job. The National Security Council at the end of the day is coordinating the various US national security and foreign policy objectives. And General McMaster has the right skill-set, the right character to get the job done. I'm quite confident that he will work well with Defense Secretary James Mattis, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, the State Department and the intelligence community.
Flynn was let go after it was revealed he misled Trump administration officials over calls with Russia's ambassador to the US
And how will McMaster get along with Stephen Bannon, the powerful chief strategist and chief ideologue of President Trump?
That will be an interesting litmus test - how he engages with those entities. McMaster has been in a tough environment in the past. But he is not a Washington insider, he's not a politician, so there may be a couple of tests early on. Washington can be a tough place.
Stephen Bannon and Michael Flynn had a very similar worldview in the way they saw radical Islam as the most existential threat to the US, they were united in their approach towards Iran, they both advocated rapprochement with Russia. Will the ideological mindset or the chemistry of the White House now change when McMaster comes on board?
Clearly it will change the chemistry and the day-to-day battle rhythm of the White House. There is no doubt about that. But I believe General McMaster will come in the way he has pursued other challenges. And one thing a lot of people respect about him is that even as a lieutenant general, he always invited the best ideas to be voiced. And to me, that is an excellent way to run an enterprise: Have the best ideas voiced and then make a decision.
McMaster is a graduate of West Point, and served in Afghanistan and Iraq, but is relatively unknown to an international audience. You said he's something of an iconoclast - he has in fact gone by the nickname the "Iconoclast General." That’s quite unusual for a military type. But he certainly earned that name among other things for his critical review of American strategy in the Vietnam War, which is also detailed in his 1997 book, "Dereliction of Duty". What kind of new thinking and critical approach to national security can we expect from him?
We have seen in the past that he has taken unconventional positions: He influenced both General David Petraeus' thinking and General Stanley McCrystal's thinking in terms of counter-insurgency planning in Afghanistan and Iraq - not only with regard to battlefield application, but also with regard to the idea of winning hearts and minds and other unconventional approaches in such an asymmetrical conflict. That kind of thinking is what we also need today. Looking, for instance, at Russia, I believe General McMaster will be an honest arbiter of Russia's intentions and capabilities. He will point out that while there may be various areas where we can work with Moscow, we need to recognize the facts and recognize that Russia's intentions are far from pure.
McMaster has a reputation for not only questioning conventional military thinking, but also his superiors. He will, however, remain on active duty, which means as a soldier, he has to obey the commander-in-chief. Will he really stand up to President Trump when he thinks he should - for instance when dealing with Russia?
Based on previous experience, I am sure he will. In the past, he has gone against the grain even at his own peril. That is quite unusual in the military, which has a very focused chain of command. I know of at least one incident when he spoke up against the grain on a major strategic approach in Iraq. So will he push back? It is hard to know how exactly things will play out. But given his previous track record, when he thought it is necessary to push different perspectives than the mainstream he did. So I certainly think his appointment is a move in the right direction.
Frank J. Cilluffo is an Associate Vice President at The George Washington University in Washington, DC where he leads the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. Under President George W. Bush, he was named "Special Assistant to the President for Homeland Security" and directed the president's Homeland Security Advisory Council. Cilluffo is routinely called upon to advise the executive branch, military and state and local governments.
The interview was conducted by Carsten von Nahmen.