H.R. McMaster and the Foolish Trust in Trump’s “Generals”

McMaster’s services to Trump include not just protecting the president from scandal but providing an intellectual sheen for his foreign policy. In The Wall Street Journal this week, McMaster and Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, published an op-ed making the case for an “America First” foreign policy:

The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a “global community” but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage. We bring to this forum unmatched military, political, economic, cultural, and moral strength. Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.

As The Atlantic’s David Frum noted, the op-ed amounted to a wholesale acceptance of Trump’s foreign policy vision: that America is a lone-wolf nation that eschews international order in favor of zero-sum combat. Frum wrote that “perhaps the most terrifying thing about the Trump presidency is the way even its most worldly figures, in words composed for them by its deepest thinkers, have reimagined the United States in the image of their own chief: selfish, isolated, brutish, domineering, and driven by immediate appetites rather than ideals or even longer-term interests.”

There’s no mystery why Trump wanted to recruit a figure like McMaster, along with other military men like Defense Secretary James Mattis and Homeland Security of Homeland Security John F. Kelly, both retired generals. While Trump is a polarizing president, the military is one of the most trusted institutions in America. In fact, many of the virtues commonly associated with the military—discipline, self-sacrifice, an honor-based moral code—are all qualities that Trump notably lacks.

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The esteem for the military led many conservatives to place their hopes for Trump’s presidency in the appointment of figures like McMaster. “Thank God for the generals,” Eric Fehrnstrom wrote in the Boston Globe in early April. “No one thought they would turn out to be the moderates in the Trump White House. In an administration riven by staff bickering and internal disputes, President Trump’s senior military appointees are taking a leading role and acting as a restraining influence.”

The swift decline in McMaster’s reputation, from a widely admired figure to Trump’s lackey apologist, shows how foolish it was to put so much faith in military appointments. The truth is that to keep Trump’s confidence, McMaster and the other generals have to meet Trump more than halfway. They have to constantly cover for his erratic behavior and justify his policy chaos. As Ricks notes, “Mature national security specialists seasoned in the ways of Washington simply lend an air of occasional competence to an otherwise shambolic White House. By appearing before the cameras, looking serious and speaking rationally, they add a veneer of normality to this administration. In the process, they tarnish their own good names.” And in the case of McMaster, as the Beast report suggests, he’s tarnishing the military, too.