When Lieutenant General HR McMaster walks into his office in the West Wing of the White House as the new US national security adviser, the widely respected soldier and military historian will face one of the biggest challenges of his decorated career.
President Donald Trump named Lt Gen McMaster — a three-star army general who commanded troops in Iraq and served in Afghanistan — to succeed Michael Flynn, who was fired after 24 days. Mr Trump had asked Robert Harward, a retired admiral, to take the role, but offered the position to Lt Gen McMaster after Mr Harward turned him down over concerns about lines of authority and staffing inside the White House.
Lt Gen McMaster is highly regarded inside the military. During the 1991 first Gulf war, his troops destroyed a large number of Iraqi tanks in an early battle that developed his reputation as a smart tactician. Over the past two decades, his peers have come to see him as a brilliant strategist — a reputation that was only cemented by his role creating and implementing counter-insurgency operations during the second Iraq war.
In announcing that Lt Gen McMaster would run the National Security Council, Mr Trump called him a “tremendous talent”. But the key question is how he will tackle competing factions inside the White House, and particularly Steve Bannon, the influential aide who in a rare move has been given a formal role in the national security apparatus.
David Petraeus, the retired four-star general who worked closely with Lt Gen McMaster during the 2007 surge in Iraq, said his former subordinate was a “seriously high-quality guy” who had the ability to navigate competing personalities and power centres inside the White House.
“He is an exceptional strategic thinker and is a great team builder. He has superb organisational skills and has a wonderful enthusiastic attitude,” said Mr Petraeus, who was approached for the national security adviser role, but balked over concerns about potential parallel security structures in the White House. “Obviously he knows what it is like to be on the ground and command soldiers in battle as a captain and a colonel. He knows when to keep his head down, but will not shrink from offering his forthright and well-considered assessments and recommendations.”
Supporters say Lt Gen McMaster has demonstrated an independent streak that bodes well for his ability to operate in the White House. During his time in command in Tal Afar in Iraq, he went above the heads of his immediate superiors when they denied a request for troops. While the approach was vindicated, it was one reason he was twice passed over for promotion to brigadier general, a one-star flag officer. He was later promoted after Robert Gates, then defence secretary, deliberately brought Mr Petraeus back from Iraq while overseeing the war to run the promotions process.
James Stavridis, a retired admiral who was Supreme Allied Commander of Nato and US forces in Europe, also said Lt Gen McMaster was a strong choice. “He is a superb blend of detail-oriented planner and highly creative thinker — an unbelievably rare combination in a senior military officer. He worked for me in Afghanistan and I found him terrific,” said Mr Stavridis who is now dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University.
Lt Gen McMaster is the first active duty military officer to serve as national security adviser since Colin Powell in the Reagan administration. Some experts believe this could impact his ability to do the job, particularly given the infighting inside the White House and an unclear chain of command. “As an active duty military officer, he has zero leverage in terms of selecting his own team,” added Mr Stavridis. “That will be his biggest challenge.”
Lt Gen McMaster is seen in a similar light to Mr Petraeus, Mr Stavridis and defence secretary James Mattis, a class of military officers who are viewed as warrior-intellectuals. He converted his PhD thesis into a book called Dereliction of Duty which argued that during the Vietnam war the joint chiefs of staff supported White House policies that they privately believed would not work. Fans of Lt Gen McMaster say he will not forget these lessons as he attempts to provide unvarnished advice to a president who has shown that he does not like criticism.
He is an unusual combination of muddy boots war fighter and intellectual
David Barno, a retired general who commanded US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, says Lt Gen McMaster brings an “out of the box” approach that has been informed by experience in war zones. “He is an unusual combination of muddy boots war fighter and intellectual,” said Mr Barno, adding that one former chairman of the joint chiefs made Dereliction of Duty mandatory reading for his top brass.
Peter Mansoor, a retired army officer who served with Lt Gen McMaster in Iraq, said his friend would remain “outspoken in his convictions”. He rejected claims that the fact that Lt Gen McMaster was an active duty officer would curtail his ability to provide honest advice, but he said his uniformed status might make him more willing to “salute and executive forcefully” once a decision was made.
John Allen, a retired Marine general who commanded US and Nato forces in Afghanistan and was deputy commander of US Central Command, described Lt Gen McMaster as a “very accomplished planner”. He added that it was important that Lt Gen McMaster had the ability to bring in his own people but argued that the White House was increasingly in a position where it could not afford to antagonise serious people.
Trump can’t afford to have a highly qualified person the likes of HR McMaster walk out of the White House because of confused or tortuous lines of authority
“Steve Bannon has no authority over the national security adviser. Trump knows that and so does McMaster,” said Mr Allen. “I hope that Bannon figures that out quickly before we have a collision. Trump can’t afford to have a highly qualified person the likes of HR McMaster walk out of the White House because of confused or tortuous lines of authority.”
One White House official said Mr Trump had informed Lt Gen McMaster that he would have the ability to hire his own staff — one of the conditions that the White House had not agreed when Mr Petraeus established it as a requirement to consider the role.
Asked if Lt Gen McMaster would face obstacles in terms of hiring staff, Mr Mansoor said it was “unclear” at the moment. “The White House said that he will be able to form his team. We have to take the White House at its word,” said Mr Mansoor. “Whether he will be able to fire someone who is there is the more interesting question.”
Michael O’Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution who knows Lt Gen McMaster, said he was a “brilliant guy and a disrupter” who had a personality that would allow him to work with people in way that would not be threatening. “He challenges people, but without ego or rancour or bitterness.”
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi