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Donald Trump’s new NSA’s lessons from Vietnam War

LiveMint logoLiveMint 05-03-2017 Srinath Raghavan

The appointment of lieutenant general H.R. McMaster as national security adviser (NSA) to Donald Trump has been widely welcomed. In the wake of Michael Flynn’s resignation, McMaster is seen as an ideal candidate to introduce a modicum of order and structure in Trump’s national security council (NSC). He is not the first serving military officer to be inducted as NSA for these purposes. Few seem to recall the deeply dysfunctional NSC under Ronald Reagan. No fewer than six NSAs passed through the White House during Reagan’s eight years in office. The most notorious of these was the first serving officer to be appointed as NSA: rear admiral John Poindexter.

Poindexter not only oversaw the notorious “Iran-Contra” affair, whereby the Reagan administration illegally channelled funds and arms to Iran for the release of American hostages in Lebanon, but also sought to cover it up and lied to Congress. After his ignominious departure, Reagan’s NSC continued on its chaotic course until lieutenant general Colin Powell was brought in to stabilize the ship. Unlike Poindexter, Powell acquitted himself well and rose to become the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff (JCS). It is perhaps not surprising that McMaster wants to remain in service during his stint as NSA.

Much has been written in recent days about McMaster’s stint in Iraq—most of it in the boosterish mode. Rather more pertinent to his new role is a book that he wrote 20 years ago. Dereliction Of Duty is a historical account of the US’ escalating involvement in the Vietnam War under Lyndon Johnson in 1964-65.

In a typically misleading mention of the book, The New York Times wrote that the book “critiqued the Joint Chiefs for not standing up to President Lyndon B. Johnson”. This was, in fact, the way the book came to be read, especially in the US military. But its historical message was subtler.

When McMaster was commissioned into the US army in 1984, the disastrous experience of the Vietnam War was a haunting, if unspoken, presence. The most popular analysis in the military was the one offered by colonel Harry Summers in his book, On Strategy: A Critical Analysis Of The Vietnam War. Contrary to its subtitle, the book was an attempt at soothing the nerves of the military. Summers implausibly argued that the US had been fighting the wrong war: They were waging a counter-insurgency campaign in South Vietnam instead of fighting a conventional war against the North.

The Gulf War of 1991, in which McMaster led an armoured cavalry troop, appeared to change everything. None other than President George H.W. Bush proclaimed after the war: “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all”. McMaster, too, felt that the clarity of American strategic objectives in the Gulf war and the ease with which military means were deployed to achieve them was a striking contrast to the experience in Vietnam. It was to examine what had gone wrong that McMaster chose to write a doctoral dissertation on the Vietnam War.

In the book that came out with his dissertation, McMaster was certainly critical of the joint chiefs for not having performed their duty as the country’s “principal military advisers”. This reading was congenial to the US military in as much as it pinned the blame on individuals and left the organization out of the picture. And it accounts for the wide readership that the book found among American officers. Yet McMaster’s own treatment was more nuanced.

The JCS, he wrote, disagreed with the strategy of graduated escalation advocated by defence secretary Robert McNamara and embraced by President Johnson. But the chiefs, he also observed, were “unable to articulate effectively either their objectives or alternatives”. McMaster’s detailed historical account makes it clear that this problem stemmed fundamentally from the joint chiefs’ inability to think strategically—a shortcoming that was evidently shared by commanders on the ground.

Put differently, the US military as a whole was lacking in professionalism. McMaster was too tactful a junior officer to state this explicitly.

It is interesting to read the book again in the current context. Part of the chiefs’ problem, he writes, was the absence of any “meaningful structure” through which to voice their views. “NSC meetings were strictly pro forma affairs in which the president endeavoured to build consensus for decisions already made.” Indeed, Johnson made these over Tuesday lunch meetings with his NSA and secretaries of state and defence.

The chiefs also kept mum about their disagreements when testifying before Congress. Given that Johnson was actively deceiving Congress about the war, the JCS were effectively his accomplices. Why did the chiefs go along with the president? McMaster identifies the “professional code” of military officers that prevents them from politicking: “The chiefs felt their loyalty to their commander in chief.” But in so doing, they neglected their oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States”. Although Johnson should not have placed them in this invidious position, “the flag officers should not have tolerated it when he had”. The unstated implication is that they should have resigned.

It will be interesting to see how McMaster gets on with a president whose standards of probity make Johnson look like a paragon of virtue. As NSA, his loyalty will be solely to the president. Hopefully, the values affirmed by the young major will not entirely be forgotten.

Srinath Raghavan is senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

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