Who would replace him?
Tom Ricks has known and respected H.R. McMaster many years. So have I. Ricks argues in this Politico article that McMaster should step down as national security adviser. He makes a compelling case, but I disagree with his conclusion.
To be sure, I share Ricks’ discomfort with the extent to which McMaster is being put in the role of making disingenuous statements–bordering at a minimum on falsehoods if not actually crossing that line–in defending President Trump from the consequences of his own missteps.
McMaster did this most notoriously when he told the White House press corps, inquiring whether the president had leaked code-word secrets to the Russians: “The story that came out tonight as reported is false.” This may not technically be a lie—the words “as reported” serve as some protection assuming there was some detail in the Washington Post that was inaccurate—but it comes pretty darn close. Even Trump himself now implicitly acknowledges that he did, in fact, share the information based on Israeli intelligence.
Trump’s defense is that as president he has a right to declassify information, and that’s true. In this case, there is no evidence that there was a deliberate decision made, after consulting all the relevant parties, to declassify the intelligence in question. Rather, Trump seems to have done so impulsively and without understanding the full ramifications of his actions. Thus, McMaster was also on a limb when he said the next day that “the premise of that article is false—that in any way the president had a conversation that was inappropriate or that resulted in any kind of lapse in national security.”
McMaster has compromised himself two more times this past weekend. First, when he said after the president’s trip to Europe: “It is a matter of fact that the United States, the president, stands firmly behind our Article 5 commitments under NATO.” The U.S. may have historically stood behind Article 5—the mutual defense provision of the alliance—but, as McMaster well knows, Trump pointedly did not affirm his own support for Article 5 in Brussels, to the shock and dismay of our European allies.
Second, McMaster compromised himself by defending Jared Kushner after a report appeared in the Washington Post that the president’s son-in-law had tried to set up a secret backchannel to Russia before the inauguration, even suggesting the use of the Russians’ own communications equipment for this purpose. “We have back-channel communications with a number of countries,” McMaster said. “What that allows you to do is communicate in a discreet manner, so I’m not concerned.”
As McMaster well knows, such communications are not normally undertaken before an inauguration by an adviser who holds no formal foreign-policy position. They’re definitely not made following a Russian intervention in the U.S. election. Most importantly, they avoid using a hostile state’s communications gear for the transmittal of sensitive information. This is anything but normal, and for McMaster to claim otherwise is disingenuous.
Ricks is right that McMaster is not conforming to the highest standards of conduct expected from a serving general—“A military officer is required to tell the truth and shun conduct unbecoming of his or her position.” But I’m simply not prepared to suggest that McMaster should quit, based on what we now know.
Ricks wrote: “I don’t see McMaster improving Trump. Rather, what I have seen so far is Trump degrading McMaster. In fact, nothing seems to change Trump. He continues to stumble through his foreign policy—embracing autocrats, alienating allies and embarrassing Americans who understand that NATO has helped keep peace in Europe for more than 65 years.”
The stumbles are real, and so is McMaster’s degradation, but how do we know that McMaster is not, in fact, stopping Trump from acting on his worst instincts? In fact, prior to his deeply problematic foray to Europe, Trump was acting in a somewhat more responsible fashion by dropping campaign rhetoric about labeling China a currency manipulator or calling NATO obsolete or lambasting Islam. It seems fair to ascribe some of the toning down to McMaster’s influence.
The ultimate reason why I think McMaster should stay at his post, at least for now, is that I am terrified by who would replace him. Recall that McMaster himself was hired to replace Mike Flynn, who was on the Turkish and Russian payrolls while advising Trump. The president has spoken longingly of his desire to bring Flynn back to the White House.
The national security adviser is one of the most important positions in the government. It is not just a normal staff job: It is a job with immense repercussions for the entire world.
The recently deceased Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of the most influential national security advisers of all time, single-handedly helped to avert World War III in 1979: He was awakened in the middle of the night and told that the Soviets had just launched a nuclear-missile strike against the United States. President Carter had three to seven minutes to respond before the missiles hit. Luckily Brzezinski was wise enough to seek confirmation, and before long he learned that the “attack” was only a training tape running in the NORAD computers. But imagine what would have been the fate of humanity if Brzezinski had made the wrong call.
Who would you rather receive that 3 a.m. phone call today: H.R. McMaster or a possible successor in the Flynn mold? I opt for McMaster. I continue to believe that he performs a valuable restraining role in the White House.
That said, McMaster needs to realize that his sparkling reputation is being damaged by his willingness to do damage-control in public for the president. McMaster needs to make clear that he will not only not lie; he will not deceive on the president’s behalf. And if that leads Trump to fire him, so be it. But it’s not yet time for McMaster to resign.
H.R. McMaster Should Stay Put, For Now
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Sobriety in September.
August is traditionally the silly season in American politics and journalism, and this August is living up to the sobriquet.
Apparently, not even celestial mechanics is exempt from the necessity to be politically correct. To wit, there’s an article in The Atlantic complaining about Monday’s solar eclipse. The author says that not enough black people live along the path of totality. While it’s true that the northwest and high plains states at the start of the eclipse have very low black populations, that’s not true of Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and South Carolina at the end of the path.
Horses are in the same category as celestial mechanics. The mascot of the University of Southern California has been for decades a white Arabian horse named Traveler. The current horse is the ninth to bear the name, and he charges across the field every time the team makes a touchdown, ridden by someone dressed up as a Trojan. The problem? The horse’s name is Traveler.
So what, all but serious Civil War history buffs might well ask? But that was, almost, the name of General Robert E. Lee’s horse, Traveller. Traveller rests in peace near the grave of his master at what is still called, I think, Washington and Lee University. Up the road, Stonewall Jackson’s horse, Little Sorrel, is buried at Virginia Military Institute, although his mounted hide can be seen in a glass case. Stonewall Jackson was a lousy horseman, by the way, and Little Sorrel was a placid creature almost guaranteed not to throw him.
Speaking of horses, the equestrian statue of Joan of Arc in New Orleans, inexplicably left standing, was defaced with graffiti calling for it to be torn down. I hadn’t realized that she fought for the South.
And speaking of General Lee, the statue of Lee in the chapel of Duke University will be removed. However, the statue of George Washington Duke—Confederate sailor, slave owner, and tobacco magnate in whose factories worked poorly paid black labor—will surely not be. His son gave Trinity College $40 million in 1924, and it was promptly renamed Duke University in the old man’s memory.
Oh, and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, in which “temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever” has been defaced with four-letter graffiti.
To paraphrase Shelley, when the silly season comes, can Labor Day be far behind? I hope not.
An imitation mastermind exits a make-believe position
The fact that Steve Bannon, ousted from his senior role at the Trump White House, was its “chief strategist” in the first place is testimony to how accidental this presidency was and is. Who would hire for such a job a person whose first serious involvement in American political life had come only a few years earlier when he found himself running a right-wing media website due to a tragic accident—and whose entire involvement in actual political events was limited to three late months on the Trump campaign? This is the sort of thing that, in a normal universe, might get someone a deputy assistant to the president post as a reward—not a personal fiefdom inside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that Bannon is the greatest genius since Picasso. The fact is, Picasso had had art lessons before his Blue Period. Bannon took a central role in the White House with a knowledge base about the practical workings of politics gleaned entirely from books and newspapers. Trump the real-estate guy wouldn’t ever have hired a project manager who’d never so much as built a Lego tower before. In effect, that’s what he did with Bannon.
To be fair, no one really knows what a “strategist” is. The word’s common use can, I believe, be attributed to my friend Bill Kristol, who decided to call himself a “Republican strategist” when he had left the first Bush White House and was being sought to give good quote about the condition of the GOP in 1993 and 1994. From Bill’s clever innovation, a fancy-sounding title for a non-existent title perfect for a TV chyron became a national sensation.
Now the question is, what will the departure of this made-for-TV job mean for the Trump White House? My guess is: Not very much. Stephen Miller, who may be 30 years younger than Bannon but has about five times the political experience, is still in there fighting for what is essentially the Bannon worldview. Trump’s entirely personal decision to lean toward the alt-Right in the past week is an indication that the conservative fear he might move leftward is ridiculous. Trump is gonna dance with the one who brung him here; he thinks he owes those guys.
So basically what I’m saying is: The Bannon subplot is over. Time for the rise of a new White House figure to serve the subject of the next “he’s the real president” newsmagazine cover story.
A long time coming.
The horrific series of events in Barcelona is yet another macabre example of what is starting to feel like Europe’s new normal. This is the era of frequent, low-tech, mass casualty Jihadist attacks, in which any ideologically driven fanatic can jump in a van or pick up a knife and inflict carnage on the streets of our cities. The former head of Mi5, Lord Evans, has predicted that the battle against this form of terrorism is likely to last for a generation.
Yet there is a certain added grotesque irony to the attacks in Barcelona. This current wave of Islamist terrorism, the so-called leaderless Jihad, has its origins in Spain. When that van sped through Barcelona’s iconic Las Rambles, plowing down innocent pedestrians, the latest incarnation of Jihadism was coming home to roost.
This kind of terrorism, increasingly familiar across Europe, was, in fact, masterminded by a Spaniard. A veteran Jihadist called Abu Musab al-Suri. Formerly part of al-Qaeda, he is understood to have parted with Osama Bin Laden. In 2005, he published what would turn out to be a hugely significant text: “the Global Islamic Resistance Call.” It would be some years before western countries would feel the full effect of the strategy outlined in this document, but it is precisely the tactics developed by al-Suri that have gone on to form the basis of Islamic State strategy and the strategy for the IS inspired attacks that we are now seeing in the West.
Abu Musab al-Suri has had a decades’ long involvement in modern Jihadism, and particularly with Islamist terrorism in Spain. The Spanish authorities have wanted al-Suri since 2003, for his role in establishing the country’s first al-Qaeda cell in the mid-1990s. However, Al Suri’s role in terrorism in Spain goes back to well before this. Spain also wants al-Suri in connection to the 1985 Madrid bombing by the Islamic Jihad Organization, in which a restaurant frequented by US servicemen was blown up leaving 18 people dead. But it is also believed that he may have had a connection to the far more devastating 2004 Madrid train bombing, which killed 191 people.
Al-Suri’s jihadism took him to several conflict zones, including Afghanistan. But his most significant role has been as an ideological mastermind. During the 1990s he spent a stint living in London. From there he was editor of al-Ansar, one of the most important Jihadist magazines the time. His writings would also later be published in al-Qaeda’s Inspire magazine. It has even been suggested that al-Suri was ideologically connected to the 7/7 bombings, given that his writings had specifically encouraged the targeting of the London Underground.
By 2005, however, it seems that al-Suri had become disillusioned with al-Qaeda’s strategy. Its rigid, top-down structure and highly-organized, sophisticated attacks had brought about neither the desired awakening among Muslims nor the Islamist revolution the Jihadists had hoped for. In 2005, al-Suri released his “Global Islamic Resistance Call” onto the internet. Envisaging a leaderless Jihad, in which individuals or small cells would form their own organic and independent plots, they would avoid detection by not linking to a large structured network and instead used the internet to spread ideology and tactics. Crucially, al-Suri’s Jihadist manifesto stresses the importance of ultimately capturing territory to establish an Islamic state. This obscure Spanish extremist had set in motion events that would bring about the wave of terrorism being suffered today.
Al-Qaeda had hoped to function as a vanguard for triggering a much larger Islamist insurgency. But it was the rise of Islamic State in Syria that would eventually turbo charge the vision laid out by al-Suri. Between 2014 and 2016, Islamic State’s prolific spokesman, Mohammed Adnani put out a series of messages to Muslims living in the West, increasingly calling on them not to travel to the Middle East, but to instead carry out attacks in the West using whatever they had available to them; a knife, a car, poison, even a rock if need be. And Adnani told adherents in the West not to wait for instructions, but to take their own initiative and to target civilians. Like al-Suri, IS believe that through attacking civilians in the West, they can eventually bring about a clash in Europe that will rally European Muslims behind them.
In Barcelona, as with the recent vehicular attacks in London and Paris, we are witnessing the adherents of this strategy attempting to get their deranged, but terribly dangerous, plan off the ground. And in a chillingly ironic way, via al-Suri, it is a strategy that traces some of its origins back to Spain. European authorities are now engaged in struggle of trying to prevent any more of al-Suri’s vision from coming to fruition. But as the former head of Mi5 has warned us, it is a generational task we now face, and there can be little doubt that Europe is now caught up amid a new era of Jihad.
Terrorists in the wind.
While there was still blood on the streets, attackers on the loose, and victims of the terrorist event in Barcelona who had not yet succumbed to their ultimately fatal wounds, President Donald Trump went public with his half-baked thoughts on the matter. As is so often the case, those thoughts were crude and callous—implying, as he had on the campaign trail, that an apocryphal tale involving the defilement of Muslim corpses is illustrative of practices America should embrace. Political observers were fixated on those comments, not on the attack or its aftermath, as they should have been. It was, in truth, fans of the president who ignored the fact that Trump’s first impulse amid an ongoing terrorist attack was barbarous who don’t have their priorities straight.
Once the shock of the president’s comments had abated, though, it was incumbent on the country to do what the president did not: turn their attentions to Spain. 14 people are dead today. Over 80 are injured. Many nationalities are represented among the fatalities, including one American, as the terrorists targeted a popular tourist boulevard.
This was no low-tech event conducted by lone wolves. Hours after the attack in Barcelona, police in the city of Cambrils 70 miles south of Barcelona tracked down terrorists preparing to mount a companion attack. Four suspects were killed in the ensuing gunbattle with a fifth dying in hospital.
All told, 130 people were injured as a result of these attacks, 17 of whom are in critical condition.
Those would-be terrorists were wearing explosive belts that turned out to be fake, but that is only a stroke of good luck. On Wednesday night, hours before the van attack in Barcelona, a bomb went off in a house in the city’s southwest suburbs. One was killed in the process of making improvised explosives, which, had they been successful, would doubtlessly have been used in this coordinated set of attacks.
“As you look at the chronology, this was a fairly large cell, had to have been in place for a while — pretty good planning,” said George W. Bush administration homeland security advisor Fran Townsend. “If these guys had successfully executed on the explosives you can imagine instead of just – I don’t want to minimize it – using the car as the weapon, imagine if the car had exploded.”
This attack represents the first successful mass casualty terrorist event in Europe claimed by ISIS since the de-facto capital of the Islamic State, Raqqa, began to fall into the hands of liberating forces. As of last week, 50 percent of the city had been retaken by coalition forces. The beating back of ISIS from the strongholds in Iraq and Syria it once occupied has compelled the terror group to change tactics. They’ve advised would-be recruits to stop making the effort to come to the Middle East and to try instead to execute terrorist attacks in their home countries. ISIS leaders have been preparing to transition the organization into a more traditional terrorist group along the lines of al-Qaeda as the territory it controls shrinks.
ISIS-led operations in the West will become more urgent as ISIS’s “caliphate” dissolves, and this deadly event in Spain is likely indicative of a forthcoming trend. The Spanish weren’t ready. If Donald Trump’s bloody revenge fantasies are any indication, he is not treating this threat with the sobriety it merits either.
The tipping point.
We are deterred.
That’s the only possible way to read the confessions of Donald Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who inexplicably vomited out a variety of compromising thoughts in an interview with an adversarial journalist at a liberal publication. The interview is packed with juicy tidbits, but the comment with the broadest policy implications is receiving the least amount of attention. In that interview, with The American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner, Bannon confessed that the administration’s rhetorical posture regarding a conflict with North Korea is utterly hollow.
“There’s no military solution,” Bannon said. “Forget it.”
“Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here,” he added. “[T]hey got us.”
So much for “fire” and “fury.”
Lay observers can be forgiven for thinking this concession amounts only to acknowledging reality. It’s not exactly a state secret that North Korea’s dug-in artillery positions on or near the 38th Parallel, just miles from the South Korean capital, represent a significant deterrent threat. At no point, however, did an administration official—much less one as close to the president as his chief strategist—suggest that this threat was sufficient to stay the commander-in-chief’s hand.
The president and a variety of administration officials have made a conscious effort to communicate (both to Pyongyang and to Western lawmakers) his willingness to entertain the prospect of a preventative first strike on a narrow set of North Korean targets. The risks of such strikes, ranging from provoking a limited or full-scale retaliatory response to environmental and collateral damage, are real. That might be bluster, but it serves a utilitarian purpose.
It is unclear that the United States will accept a nuclear North Korea with the reliable capacity to deliver a nuclear warhead to the continental United States. It’s not even clear that America will be able to live with a North Korea that can strike U.S. troop positions in South Korea and Japan, which could occur with almost no warning. Making Kim Jong-un’s regime understand that the U.S. will not tolerate a nuclear-capable North Korea creates an incentive to de-escalate and head back to the negotiating table—even if those are negotiations to which the U.S. and its allies are not party.
The prospect of a first strike might have been a bluff. If that was the strategy, however, it was one to which the U.S. had committed itself. It was not Steve Bannon’s role to undermine the president and force the United States to retrench from its current position.
Even though this approach is reckless, it makes sense if Bannon’s objective was to take the prospect of preventative warfare off the table. That notion falls apart when taking into account the ostensible purpose of Bannon’s call to Kuttner, who is a trade hawk and a friend to the complaints of labor union activists: to rag on China.
“We’re at economic war with China,” Bannon said. “On Korea, they’re just tapping us along. It’s just a sideshow.” He added that, on the present trajectory, there would be an “inflection point” from which America will not recover. In 25 or 30 years’ time, he said, it will be the People’s Republic and not the United States that is the world’s global hegemon. “[T]he economic war with China is everything,” Bannon averred.
This is some pretty blatant sabotage. If the United States lacks a military solution to the crisis on the Korean peninsula, it needs a diplomatic one. The only party that can execute that objective is China, and the Trump administration has been making admirable strides in convincing China to get off the sidelines. If Bannon had his way, it seems, all progress toward compelling Beijing to abandon the Kim regime would be done away with; and all because of one man’s obsession with a glorious Sino-American trade war.
This interview was grossly irresponsible. The kind of freelancing in which the president’s chief strategist engaged in has blown the treads off the administration’s existing strategy. This was not done in service to the president or the country, but to Steve Bannon and his fanatical commitment to isolationism and protectionism. He’s done his president and his country a disservice. Steve Bannon has to go.