Op-Ed: McMaster Was the Right Choice
by Richard Immerman
I shook hands with H.R. McMaster when he came to Temple to speak at our "21st Century Challenges Demand 21st Century Liberal Arts" symposiumin in fall 2015. Immediately, he was just what I expected. Standing ramrod straight with his shaven head and firm handshake, he was impressive. But he also had a warm smile and comfortable way of engaging in conversation. I knew he was the right choice as a speaker.
I had invited him based primarily on his reputation as the “thinking man’s” general and a real straight shooter. He was extremely gracious in accepting my invitation.
I’d not actually met him until he came to Temple, but we had corresponded a bit after his book, Dereliction of Duty, came out. I was teaching a course on the Vietnam War and had some questions. But more importantly, I knew him by reputation, and at the Army War College, where I held the chair, he was spoken about with awe. Consequently, when the Department of History was asked if we had any ideas as to whom might speak at the conference on the value of the liberal arts, both myself and our chair, Jay Lockenour, thought of him. He was extremely gracious and enthusiastic in responding to my invitation.
Now, he’s our president’s national security advisor. And that’s a good thing.
H.R. McMaster is exceptionally capable. As a PhD in history, he is — in my opinion — the most intellectually sophisticated of those contemporary Army officers whom the military selected to receive advanced degrees.
Dereliction of Duty is on almost everyone’s reading list for understanding the Vietnam War. It is well informed and cogently argued. He brought these critical thinking skills to the battlefield, particularly in Iraq, where he was a pioneer in the application of counterinsurgency tactics. Regardless of one’s judgments about the war (and I am on record as a critic), from the standpoint of innovative and strategic thinking, McMaster was one of — if not the brightest —light.
However, how those skills will translate to his performance as national security advisor is, in my opinion, an open question. He’s smart and proven leader. And his commitment to serve the national interest, putting it above all other considerations, is unquestionable. My sense is that in contrast to Michael Flynn, for example, he is a problem-solver, a skilled leader, and sensitive to his own preconceptions. He’ll be respected. But these very qualities, along with his reputation for independence, may well clash with the culture of the administration
As it is now, his potential for being frozen out of key decisions is quite high. Further, a military man all his life and now swimming in a sea in which the military is overrepresented, he may well have difficulty identifying and recruiting civilians with expertise and the requisite experience on national security issues. Given that the NSC is now virtually an empty shell — it’s not at all clear to me that it’s yet had one meeting — McMaster is going to confront major difficulties not only bringing it up to speed, but also transforming it into an influential and, therefore, valuable advisory organ. And this administration desperately needs it to be both.
Professor Richard Immerman is the Edward J. Buthusiem Family Distinguished Faculty Fellow in History, and the Marvin Wachman Director of the Center for the Study of Force and Diplomacy.