Center for American Progress

McMaster’s Challenge: His Boss Is Already Making America Less Safe

McMaster’s Challenge: His Boss Is Already Making America Less Safe

The new national security advisor needs to start with damage control.

Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster listens as President Donald Trump announces his appointment to national security advisor at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, Monday, February 20, 2017. (AP/Susan Walsh)
Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster listens as President Donald Trump announces his appointment to national security advisor at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, Monday, February 20, 2017. (AP/Susan Walsh)

At a time when the Trump administration continues to spark an immediate and growing national security crises due to mismanagement and reckless policies, the national security community felt great relief at the president’s selection of Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster as the next national security advisor. McMaster will be tasked with resolving a number of serious foreign policy blunders already committed by the new administration. President Trump must ensure that McMaster has the authority and tools to deal with the following seven problems.

  1. Chaotic and dysfunctional management. Even before former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s forced resignation, President Trump’s National Security Council proved disturbingly dysfunctional. For example, U.S. military officials told Reuters that the president “approved his first covert counterterrorism operation without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup preparations.” The operation in Yemen was launched with no normal process and resulted in the death of a Navy SEAL as well as dozens of civilians; it also reportedly ended American access to conduct ground operations in Yemen. Political infighting has left U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with virtually no staff. Worse still, the country lacks a systematic national security decisionmaking process to effectively deal with the inevitable next crisis.
  1. A reckless Iran policy that raises likelihood of another war in the Middle East. President Trump’s aggressive posture towards Iran is not strong; it’s unstable and raises the risk of conflict. Loud rhetoric about putting Iran “on notice” without a strategy to back it up is irresponsible. And reports that the Trump administration considered seizing an Iranian vessel in international waters—an operation called off after a leak—show that some in the administration are looking for ways to lash out at Iran or spark a reaction. As part of a well-managed plan, a tough response to Iran’s misdeeds could be smart policy. But with no plan, no coordination with critical partners, and no national security process in place, such actions are incredibly dangerous. Indeed, unilateral and uncoordinated action with no clear management process risk mistakes and escalation that could lead to war.
  1. A Muslim ban that aids terrorists. President Trump’s executive action banning refugees and travel by nationals of seven majority-Muslim countries to the United States has alienated crucial counterterrorism partners and is already helping terrorists. In particular, the ban caught the Pentagon off guard and harmed relations between U.S. troops and their Iraqi counterparts at a critical moment in the fight against the Islamic State, or IS. The executive order itself reads “as though it was not reviewed by competent counsel at all” and has been rejected by federal courts across the country. IS itself has called it “the Blessed Ban,” claiming it is helping with their recruitment and fundraising. And this is to say nothing of the chaos at airports and border crossings and tragedy for everyone from vetted refugee families to translators that risked everything to help American troops at war.
  1. Questionable ties to Putin that undermine U.S. security. There are serious questions about Trump’s ties to Russia and whether the Trump administration is placing U.S. national security first in its Russia policies. As the nation reacts to allegations that the new administration is pandering to Moscow’s foreign policy strategy, Russia secretly deployed nuclear capable cruise missiles aimed at Europe in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, or INF, Treaty; escalated fighting in Ukraine; continued bombing civilians in Syria; deployed a surveillance ship just off the U.S. coast for days; and buzzed a U.S. Navy ship in the Black Sea. Not a single one of these acts of Russian aggression received any meaningful response from the United States. It is likely that Putin will ramp up efforts to manipulate politics in the United States and Europe as a result of Trump’s weak response to his recent actions.
  1. An erratic China policy that emboldens adversaries. After the election, Trump threatened to undermine the U.S.-China relationship by questioning the longstanding One China policy—only to suddenly reverse himself and say he would honor the policy. This abrupt zig-zag in policy, experts have speculated, occurred to secure a phone call with the Chinese president, or perhaps to get final confirmation that the Trump brand could trademarked in China. This reversal—whatever its cause—signaled to Beijing that the new administration talks tough but can be bullied. China’s leaders won’t forget this lesson when considering assertive actions in the East and South China Seas, or testing U.S. resolve on North Korea.
  1. Blunder and bluster that undermine alliances. President Trump has already managed to alienate or offend key allies and partners. He hung up on his Australian counterpart, Malcolm Turnbull, 25 minutes into what was planned to be an hour-long call. Given that Australia is the only nation that has sent soldiers to fight alongside Americans in every war—no matter how controversial—for the past century, Trump’s behavior on this call is remarkable. In a call with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Trump reportedly threatened to send the U.S. military into Mexico to chase down “bad hombres.”
  1. A flippant and casual attitude will result in real dangers. President Trump and his national security aides conferred over North Korea’s most recent ballistic missile launch “in full view of diners at [his] Mar-a-Lago resort.” The chaotic response suggests that—as with Russia’s anticipated missile deployment—the Trump administration had no response planned for a North Korean missile launch. This level of unpreparedness is especially concerning as experts had for weeks predicted that such a launch would happen early in the Trump administration to test the new president. Trump’s disinterest in and lack of knowledge of foreign policy have led to sloppy statements and poorly implemented decisions that have already increased the risk that our defense institutions will miss clues to pending attacks and damaged to America’s credibility around the world. Adversaries will be emboldened by Trump’s ad hoc and dysfunctional national security system and may seek to test U.S. security commitments.

The national security advisor functions as the central processing unit for the entire U.S. national security system, and the system needs a reboot. McMaster will be tasked with putting in place a steady process and calming the unprecedented turmoil that the Trump administration has already inspired around the globe. Properly resourced and empowered in this role, McMaster should be able to bring order to the chaos of Trump’s first month. He may even turn some of Trump’s bluster into a useful leverage for negotiation on the world stage. To succeed, McMaster will need to be the single national security advisor to the president, not one of many. He will need to run meetings with experts from across the U.S. government that are based on facts and objective analysis, not ideology. Let’s hope Donald Trump gives his new NSA the tools to succeed.

Vikram J. Singh is Vice President for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress. Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst at the Center.

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Vikram Singh

Senior Fellow

Peter Juul

Former Senior Policy Analyst