Former National Security Advisor McMaster ‘Not a Military Drone’

April 9, 2021 by Daniel Mollenkamp
Former United States National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster

Lt. General H.R. McMaster wants you to know he’s not a military drone. Despite a long, high-profile career in the military, he has criticisms of American foreign policy, and he expressed those criticisms even when he was in the military.

In a conversation Wednesday night for the World Affairs Council, McMaster offered a list of foreign policy blunders that he said were the result of a “strategic narcissism” that has caused the U.S. to begin to falter on the world stage.

“Strategic narcissism is our tendency to define the world only in relation to ourselves, denying the agency of others,” he said, later re-emphasizing the “‘agency of others.”

After the American victory in the Cold War and a lopsided victory in the Persian Gulf, a combination of the American military’s technological prowess and economic growth lulled the country into the belief that wars would be easy, according to McMaster’s historical analysis. It inspired overconfidence which set the country up for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

“Iraq is an interesting story, obviously it’s a tragedy,” he said.

At the time, McMaster was a colonel, serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. He got some national attention from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment’s counterinsurgency campaign in Tal Afar. Later, he would join the Trump administration, serving briefly as National Security Advisor. These days, McMaster is a Hoover Institute Fellow and a lecturer at Stanford.

The solution to strategic narcissism, McMaster says, is “strategic empathy,” a term he borrowed from the historian Zachary Shore, which McMaster defines as the ability to understand the driving factors and ideology of others.

The talk circled around content related to McMaster’s 2020 book “Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World.”

Ben Rhodes, reviewing the book in the Washington Post, criticized a reluctance in McMaster’s book to let his critical eye linger over the Trump administration or his own actions, writing, “his insistence on avoiding frank commentary on his former boss undermines the very credibility he is seeking to assert.” 

The analytical credibility is at odds, stereotypically at least, with the military confidence and political necessities exemplified by McMaster, critics like Rhodes suggest.

McMaster, for his part, does not deny the role of confidence in his analysis.

“One of the aims of the book is strategic self-confidence,” McMaster said on Wednesday.

However, other critics have had more aggressive commentary.

A former West Point faculty member, Gregory Daddis, who reviewed McMaster’s book said that McMaster’s use of history belies “something more brutal,” recounting an incident where McMaster began a talk about working with allies by showing clips of his regiment unleashing destruction in the Middle East set to music. 

“While he may not be fond of war, he believes in it profoundly. And if not war necessarily, then certainly in the United States’ ability to coerce others into adhering to American interests with force or the threat of it,” Daddis wrote.

McMaster doesn’t view himself as a dove. He described views of American policy that throw the ills of the world on capitalism or colonialism as revealing a fundamental “arrogance.” It voids out the agency of others, and it is “an exercise in self-flagellation” and a “curriculum of mild self-loathing,” he said. 

McMaster’s view of strategic narcissism, in fact, demands violence. Strategic narcissism leads not only to overconfident action but also to undervaluing the costs and consequences of inaction, he said Wednesday. Not enforcing the Syrian red line was one such example, the complete withdrawal from Iraq in 2013 was another.

This view extends into other conflicts as well.

“Sometimes war chooses you.” 

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