The Washington think tank community remains focused on the Trump Administration, especially the recent resignation of Flynn and the search for a new National Security Advisor.
In the Monitor analysis, we look at the new National Security Advisor General McMaster. We look at his career, his writings, and speeches; and see how his background will impact how he views the Middle East and Russia.
Think Tanks Activity Summary
The CSIS has a transcript of a speech made by General McMaster last year at the CSIS on Future War and the Implications for the Army. As the new National Security Advisor, it gives some insight into his thinking.
The CSIS looks at US options in Syria. They conclude, “The choice facing the Trump administration is really between two undesirable outcomes. One is abandoning Syria to Assad and his allies, working to cordon off the conflict more completely than has been done before. The human cost will be immense, and some radicals will slip out to attack Western targets, but over time, much of the conflict will burn itself out. The other option is to find ways to enhance U.S. leverage in Syria, presumably through increasing military activity to threaten not just the ISG, but also those carrying out atrocities against civilian populations. Doing so would take a larger military effort and commit the United States to a more enduring diplomatic role in the country. It would risk greater conflict with Russia, but it would give the United States greater say in Syria’s future and enhance U.S. influence in the Middle East. This is no longer a war the United States can half-fight. Neither option is good, but the United States must choose one.
The Washington Institute looks at ways to stabilize Jordan against the violence in Syria. They note, “Jordan today is Washington’s most reliable Arab security partner. The kingdom plays an increasingly important role in the U.S.-led coalition campaign against IS. While intelligence sharing and security cooperation between Washington and Amman is already exceptionally strong, some incremental tweaks can be made to strengthen the relationship and improve Jordan’s capabilities. In 2016, Washington provided the kingdom with over $800 million in security assistance and counterterrorism funding. No additional U.S. aid is required, but to improve Jordan’s intelligence-gathering capabilities over southern Syria, the Trump administration should provide the kingdom with an advanced armed- and surveillance-drone capability. This would help Jordan better defend its border and protect the de facto humanitarian zone it is working to preserve along the frontier in southwestern Syria.”
The Foreign Policy Research Institute looks at stabilization in Iraq after the current conflict with ISIS. They offer three suggestions: First, military and economic support should be conditioned on the establishment of a cohesive and multi-sectarian force, the development of an institutionalized National Guard that incorporates Sunni forces, and illegalization of unauthorized or independent militia groups. Second, as Congressman Seth Moulton, a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom in Iraq, stated at the U.S. Institute for Peace: “Iraq is dependent on American weapons to fight ISIS, and that leverage should be used to demand political reform as a stepping-stone to long-term stability.” Political influence could include strengthening the current government; supporting critical political and institutional reforms; promoting the reintegration of Sunnis into Iraq’s political system (pressure could even be applied to the goal of reinstating exiled leaders); and resisting and counterbalancing Iranian influence in Iraq. Finally, the United States should include post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction in its lines of efforts. Through this mechanism, the U.S. and its Coalition partners should work with the government of Iraq to resolve issues of decentralization, governance, security, and territorial control and establish a comprehensive economic and reconstruction plan.
The American Enterprise Institute looks at the American aircraft carrier gap and the nation’s inability to cover vital areas like the Middle East. Although accelerated carrier construction is needed, they do offer some short term solutions. “Lastly, the Navy could change how it bases and uses carriers, both of which should be explored, despite their inherent difficulties. It could pursue a long-term expansion of basing carriers overseas, including in Japan or Australia. Such a plan mitigates carrier gaps, but requires extensive political and financial negotiations, plus placing a second carrier within range of long-range Chinese missiles (in the case of Japan). The Navy could also change the way it employs carriers by removing the current carrier presence requirement in favor of holding carriers back and deploying them in larger groups when their combat power is truly needed. Yet the presence mission has underpinned the nuclear aircraft carrier force since the Cold War, and changing that would require overcoming both service culture and the expectation among senior decision-makers that carriers will be immediately available to signal American resolve.”
The Heritage Foundation looks at US-Israeli relations at the Trump-Netanyahu summit. On the controversial issue of moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, they note, “To mitigate the risks of the move, Trump should consult with Netanyahu on the timing; pick a site in West Jerusalem, which has been controlled by Israel since 1948; and explain that the move does not change other aspects of U.S. policy. The U.S. should make it clear that the borders and final status of Jerusalem should be determined through negotiations; that the embassy move would not preclude a Palestinian state; that the U.S. consulate-general in Jerusalem would continue to function as the U.S. representative to the Palestinian Authority; and that no changes would be made in the status of Muslim holy sites, which would continue to be administered by Jordan.”
The Cato Institute argues that improving US military readiness doesn’t require spending more money. To improve readiness, they have three suggestions: “The first and best option is to ask less of the military. A defense strategy that prioritized among dangers, rather than trying to stabilize most corners of the earth, would leave the force less strained and allow cuts to force structure. The savings could fund the operational accounts that pay for the readiness of the force. Second, even without a strategic shift, Congress could cancel complex platforms, like the Littoral Combat Ship or F-35, which suck up operational funding, and replace them with simpler alternatives — or do with less in some areas. A third solution is to eventually free up funds for operational accounts by cutting spending on excess bases and by slowing the growth in personnel costs.”
McMaster becomes National Security Advisor
After a longer than expected search, President Trump picked Army Lieutenant General Herbert McMaster for his National Security Advisor. The pick was praised on both sides of the aisle, including several Trump critics like Senator John McCain.
McMaster has a reputation as a “warrior scholar” like SecDef Mattis and a strategic and tactical innovator. He isn’t in the mold of Flynn, who gained a reputation for “bucking” his superiors. This should mean a smoother relationship between the White House, the National Security Council (NSC), and the Pentagon.
If he has a weakness, it’s that he has lived his whole live in a military environment and has no civilian experience. While most career officers at least graduated from a civilian high school and many attended a civilian college, McMasters attended the prestigious Valley Forge Military Academy for high school before attending West Point. Therefore, he has no real experience of dealing in a largely civilian environment like the NSC. He may find that there is a difference in military leadership and civilian leadership.
Although McMaster has been successful on the battlefield, he is known as a academic soldier. He has a doctorate in American history from the University of North Carolina. His doctoral disertation, which was critical of American strategy in Vietnam was published under the title, “Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam.” The book is widely read in Pentagon circles and is on the official reading list of the Marine Corps.
McMaster is also familiar with the think tank community. In 2003 he completed an Army War College research fellowship at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution – the same think tank that would later bring in Mattis as a fellow. In 2006 he joined the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, as a Senior Research Associate with a mandate described as “conducting research to identify opportunities for improved multi-national cooperation and political-military integration in the areas of counterinsurgency, counter-terrorism, and state building”, and to devise “better tactics to battle terrorism.” He has also made presentations at Washington think tanks like the CSIS.
From his doctorate to his time in the Middle East, McMaster has developed a reputation as an expert in counter insurgency warfare. However, he began his military career as a junior officer in the 66th Armored Regiment of the 2nd Armored Division, who was later transferred to the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Germany. Consequently, he is familiar with conventional armored warfare in a European setting and is well aware of Russian military doctrine. And, that showed when Russia invaded the Ukraine.
McMaster pushed for a change in thinking after the Ukraine invasion. He argued that it was time for the US to rethink its Russian military strategy because the old concepts were outdated.
What he saw in the Ukraine was a well supplied, fast moving Russian supported rebel army. In addition to the conventional arms like tanks, artillery, and anti-tank weapons, he saw a heavy use of aerial drones, cyber warfare, and sophisticated electronic warfare. This left Ukrainian commanders without communications and even GPS.
It was clear that while the US was fighting in the Middle East, Russia had studied US military doctrine and vulnerabilities and had modernized its military. He warned that the light armored vehicles the US relied upon were too vulnerable to Russian anti-tank weapons and that Russian tanks, once thought to be obsolete are now immune to many anti-tank weapons and could be decisive in a battle.
Last year, McMaster told the CSIS, “we see our enemies have caught up to us. They’ve invested in combat vehicles. They’ve invested in advanced protective systems – active protective systems. They’ve advanced in improved lethality, robotic and autonomy-enabled systems that are – so these are areas that we’ve got to get – we’ve got to get back ahead on combat vehicle development.”
McMaster also noted that Russian artillery now in many cases outranged US artillery systems and had more lethal munitions. He also mentioned the successful deployment of Russian forces in Syria.
McMaster is clearly worried about Cyber warfare and its impact on the US military. He has said, “We’ve developed systems that are exquisite and that could be prone to catastrophic failure…some of these – some of these systems actually – even without enemy action – are pretty hard to keep operational.”
In a talk to the CSIS last year, McMaster said Russia’s goal is, “to collapse the post-World War II, certainly the post-Cold War, security, economic, and political order in Europe, and replace that order with something that is more sympathetic to Russian interests.”
Although McMaster began his career looking at the Russians, he has spent most of his career in the Middle East. But his first combat was in a traditional armored engagement.
During the Gulf War in 1991 he was a captain commanding Eagle Troop of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment at the Battle of 73 Easting.
This battle began McMaster’s climb. McMaster was awarded the Silver Star. The battle features in several books about Desert Storm and is widely referred to in US Army training exercises. It also received coverage in Tom Clancy’s 1994 popular non-fiction book Armored Cav. McMaster served as a military history professor at West Point from 1994 to 1996, teaching among other things the battles in which he fought.
When McMaster returned to the Middle East, he found a different type of war – insurgency rather than conventional tank warfare.
After he left the Hoover Institution in 2003, he commanded the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment and was assigned the mission of securing the city of Tal Afar. What he saw was an insurgency that was evolving from nationalism into Salafi jihadism, and he knew that the U.S. Army’s “kinetic” (i.e., violence-centric) focused strategy was making things worse.
McMaster changed tactics and adopted the first major counterinsurgency campaign of the Iraq occupation. Prior to McMaster, tactics included staying out of dangerous urban areas except on patrols, with US forces returning to their bases each night. These patrols had little success in turning back the insurgency because local Iraqis who feared retaliation would very rarely assist in identifying them to US forces. McMaster deployed his soldiers into Tal Afar on a permanent basis, and once the local population grew confident that they weren’t going to withdraw nightly, the citizens began providing information on the insurgents, enabling US forces to target them.
McMaster had become the expert in counter insurgency. After leaving the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in 2006 he returned to the think tank community and joined the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London,, where he specialized in counter insurgency and counter terrorism tactics.
Since then, McMaster has held several positions in Army commands that have focused on developing doctrine. In April 2014, McMaster made Time magazine’s list of 100 most influential people in the world. He is hailed as “the architect of the future U.S. Army” in the accompanying piece written by retired Lt. Gen. Dave Barno, who commanded U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005.
“Major General Herbert Raymond McMaster might be the 21st century Army’s pre-eminent warrior-thinker,” Barno wrote. “Recently tapped for his third star, H.R. is also the rarest of soldiers—one who has repeatedly bucked the system and survived to join its senior ranks.”
What to Expect from McMaster
McMaster’s strength that he brings to the NSC is his innovative military thinking. His tank experience as a junior officer and his stationing in Europe means he is familiar with NATO and its role. He will be an advocate for NATO, but will know its weaknesses, especially its failure to modernize its doctrine against a reinvigorated Russia.
While McMaster will encourage Trump to be more pro-NATO, he will also agree with Trump that NATO needs to modernize to meet current threats. By sending a general who has warned about Putin and Russian threats, he can help build confidence with NATO allies who are concerned about Trump. He has said, “Allies are pretty darn important, right, especially at these far reaches of American power, especially when hoping to deter these revisionist powers. And so really what we want to do is prevent conflict, and our allies are essential to doing that.”
Currently the US and other NATO countries are moving armored units forward towards Russia. While this bolsters the front line nations like the Baltic States and Poland, these units are small, and working under outmoded military doctrine. McMaster can help make these deployments more useful in terms of countering Russian military moves.
We can also expect McMaster to push for a rethinking of NATO conventional warfare thinking. In this regard, he will probably work well with Mattis to push both NATO and the Department of Defense forward into the future.
McMaster will also help in the evolving battle for Mosul, because as Iraqi forces make progress there, McMaster’s old battleground Tal Afar becomes a strategic city. As Thomas Ricks recalls in his book “The Gamble,” McMaster, back in 2005 in Tal Afar, told his soldiers: ‘‘Every time you treat an Iraqi disrespectfully, you are working for the enemy.’’ McMaster’s past experience may help defeat ISIS.
In the long run, McMaster’s experience in counter insurgency should change US policy in the region and help restore some balance. He has a jaundiced view of Iran and told the CSIS last year, “I think what we can see Iran doing is applying the Hezbollah model broadly to the region, a model in which they have weak governments in power that are reliant on Iran for support, while they create militias and other groups outside of that government’s control that can be turned against that government if that government takes action against Iranian interests.”
McMaster will also help the White House push for modernization in the US military. He sees a need for “forces that can deploy rapidly, but then transition quickly into operations…But, you know, you don’t send a lean and nimble force to go fight somebody. So you need combined arms capabilities.”
But, McMaster does not think the challenges for the US will be easy to solve. In a piece written for the New York Times in 2013, he wrote, “Our record of learning from previous experience is poor; one reason is that we apply history simplistically, or ignore it altogether, as a result of wishful thinking that makes the future appear easier and fundamentally different from the past.”
“We engaged in such thinking in the years before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; many accepted the conceit that lightning victories could be achieved by small numbers of technologically sophisticated American forces capable of launching precision strikes against enemy targets from safe distances…they clouded our understanding of the conflicts and delayed the development of effective strategies.”
If McMaster can carry that thinking to the NSC and White House, he might accomplish more than other recent NSC advisors.
Rebuilding U.S.–Israel Ties at the Trump–Netanyahu Summit
By James Phillips
February 13, 2017
When President Donald Trump meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on February 15, he will have an opportunity to rebuild bilateral ties with America’s foremost ally in the Middle East. The two leaders, meeting for the first time since Trump’s election, will exchange views on a number of common threats and how to cooperate to defeat those threats.
Fixing Readiness Doesn’t Require a Spending Boost
By Benjamin H. Friedman
February 14, 2017
A readiness crisis” afflicts the U.S. military, according to congressional hawks eager to boost military spending. President Trump promises to reverse what he labeled the military’s “depletion” in his dystopian inaugural address. That’s an improvement over his campaign rhetoric, which labeled it a “disaster” in “shambles.” In reality, there’s no depletion or readiness crisis, unless it’s a crisis that the U.S. military can’t be everything that hawks want. The military does have readiness problems, but they could be addressed without raising total military budget. Those lamenting the state of military readiness ignore those solutions because they are using it to argue for a higher topline.
Harbingers of Future War: Implications for the Army
By Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster
Center for Strategic and International Studies
May 4, 2016
Speech at CSIS
And what I’d really like to talk to you about is really I think a period that we’re in right now, a period of increasing risk: increasing risk to national and international security for a number of reasons that are, I think, reinforcing in connection with the elevated level of risks to our nation, to our allies, and really all of humanity. And those involve growing threats to national and international security, threats that are taking shape in the form of state and non-state actors both. But it also has a lot to do with reductions in capacity – capacity not just in our armed forces, but reductions in capacity of our key allies’ armed forces as well. And then – and then also reductions in modernization – reductions in modernization for our Army in particular – in a period of time when we have seen potential adversaries investing a great deal in modernization of really all of their services, but of land forces in particular.
Half-Measures in Syria: Going Big or Going Home
By Jon B. Alterman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
February 15, 2017
If you rank the inputs and outputs for countries involved in the Syria conflict right now, you end up with some interesting numbers. Turkey and Iran are making major investments of money and lives, and they have a major impact on the course of the conflict. Some Gulf Arab states supporting rebel groups in Syria are making a small investment and believe they get a small benefit from harassing Iran. Most of the 65 U.S. allies who are part of the vaunted U.S.-led coalition (including many of the Gulf Arab states) are also making a small investment, and they derive limited benefit, mostly from supporting the United States. The United States itself has poured billions of dollars into the Syria problem, but it remains on the sidelines of the conflict’s resolution. Russia has put far less into the fight, and it has an outsized influence on its outcome. The disproportion between the U.S. and Russian yields on investment would be bad enough, but there’s also this additional problem: what counts as “winning” on the U.S. side doesn’t look much like victory at all.
Fixing the Navy’s carrier gap
By Rick Berger
American Enterprise Institute
February 22, 2017
For almost two months, the United States Navy has operated without its required aircraft carrier in the Middle East and Europe. These continual carrier “presence gaps” should not surprise us; they represent a voluntary choice by a Navy asked to do too much with too little for too long. And while Pentagon leadership and combatant commanders have agreed for years that the Navy requires at least twelve carriers to keep three deployed at any one time, appropriators long ago failed to fund a carrier fleet of that size. Today, President Trump and the Republican Congress have signaled their intent to repair the U.S. military, but no easy or quick fixes exist for America’s aircraft carrier fleet. Reconstituting a healthy carrier force requires an understanding of the real problem, followed by several short-term actions and a generational commitment to America’s premier power projection force.
Iraq: Post-conflict Stabilization Redux
By C. Alexander Ohlers
Foreign Policy Research Institute
February 17, 2017
As the U.S.-backed forces in Iraq move to reclaim west Mosul, the Islamic State’s (IS) final territorial stronghold in Iraq, U.S. policymakers are certain that the group will be eradicated, but are uncertain as to what will follow. As retired U.S. Army General David Petraeus notes: There is no question that the Islamic State will be defeated in Mosul; the real question is what comes afterward. Can the post-Islamic State effort resolve the squabbling likely to arise over numerous issues and bring lasting stability to one of Iraq’s most diverse and challenging provinces? Failure to do so could lead to ISIS 3.0. Accordingly, the Islamic State has executed a string of attacks in Baghdad, including January bombings in the Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City and other parts of Baghdad that killed over fifty-six Iraqis. IS also retains operational units in liberated areas of Anbar province and, in November of last year, used a car bomb to kill seventeen Iraqis attending a wedding in Amiriyah
How the United States Should Help Protect Jordan from the Chaos Next Door
By David Schenker
Washington Institute/Brookings Institution
February 22, 2017
Jordan today is Washington’s most reliable Arab security partner. In particular, the kingdom plays an increasingly important role in the U.S.-led coalition campaign against IS. While intelligence sharing and security cooperation between Washington and Amman is already exceptionally strong, some incremental tweaks can be made to strengthen the relationship and improve Jordan’s capabilities. In 2016, Washington provided the kingdom with over $800 million in security assistance and counterterrorism funding. No additional U.S. aid is required, but to improve Jordan’s intelligence-gathering capabilities over southern Syria, the Trump administration should provide the kingdom with an advanced armed- and surveillance-drone capability. This would help Jordan better defend its border and protect the de facto humanitarian zone it is working to preserve along the frontier in southwestern Syria.