Rules Are for Schmucks: Debriefing McMaster

When H. R. McMaster was announced as the replacement for disgraced National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, initial reports disclosed a surprising detail. Not only did he have a brilliant record as a field commander in Iraq, but he also published a book highly critical of the decision-making process that led to America’s war in Vietnam.

Has Donald Trump slipped up and done something good? Might the lessons McMaster learned from his study of Vietnam serve to make the United States safer for the remainder of this administration?

In search of a glimmer of hope, I decided to read the book. I’m glad I did, because it’s well-written and informative. I think we could do worse than having its author as the assistant to the president for national security affairs. I also think we could do a lot better.

First, the good news. Not only will McMaster be willing to tell President Trump things Trump doesn’t want to hear, he’ll revel in doing so. The central thesis of his 1997 book, Dereliction of Duty, is that the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) failed in their legal obligation to give President Johnson an honest evaluation of his alternatives.

To be fair, that would have been harder than it sounds. Johnson and his inherited defense secretary, Robert McNamara, had already decided what they were going to do. Simply abandoning the military effort commenced by President Kennedy, which had already suffered a great many American deaths, was distasteful to them. They believed breaking Kennedy’s promise would lead to other problems around the world. Launching a major war, with hundreds of thousands of troops, massive bombing, and billions of spending was equally distasteful. Not just because of the risk of bringing in the Soviets and China, but—as McMaster documents persuasively—because Johnson preferred to spend the money and political capital on his “Great Society” domestic programs instead.

Eliminating those two options left only the choice of a holding action, a strategy aimed at stalemate rather than victory. It was a strategy with which the Vietnamese utterly failed to cooperate, repeatedly pushing the unpopular Saigon regime to the brink of extinction. Then we’d ratchet things up again, using force not with the intention of “winning,” i.e., destroying the enemy’s capacity and will to resist, but to “communicate American resolve.”

What McMaster wanted was for the JCS to stand up and say, “This is nuts. We need to win or get out—and you cannot win unless you do x, y, and z.” By various bureaucratic means, up to and including outright lying, McNamara succeeded in keeping this blunt message from the president (and from Congress). The chiefs grumpily played along, in part because of inter-service rivalries, and in part in the hope the administration would ultimately give them the authority they sought.

I think it’s a safe bet McMaster won’t do that. He is likely to make sure that President Trump will get honest advice from experienced security professionals, without sugarcoating. (I’d love to be a fly on the wall listening to McMaster ream out Steve Bannon.) When he discovers that political or Trump family financial concerns are damaging national security, he is likely to resign, after reporting his objections to Congress. Although he doesn’t say it in so many words, he is clearly contemptuous of Gen. Harold Johnson, the Army chief of staff, for not having done so in 1965—a move McMaster argues could have made a huge difference.

That’s to the good—but it’s not enough. Consider first that McMaster could have selected any time period for his study, but deliberately chose to narrow it to 1963-1965. Does that make sense? Picture a child having a terrible fall down a set of twenty steps. Now consider a student of that event, who decides to analyze in excruciating detail what happened between steps five and eight. Is that a wise choice? Aren’t the events at the top of the staircase of greater interest?

What most people don’t understand about Vietnam—and what McMaster ignores completely—is the critical role the Catholic Church played in our involvement. Indochina had been colonized by the French, and the best way for ambitious Vietnamese to get ahead in life was to convert to Catholicism. Vietnam was the church’s shining outpost on the Asian mainland, and privileged Vietnamese Catholics sided with the French throughout the revolution led by the Viet Minh. The Viet Minh offered to include Catholics in a coalition government, but they haughtily refused. After intensive church lobbying, the US wound up installing and propping up a puppet Catholic government in the southern half of the country, run by the brother of the Catholic bishop of Hue. At no point in its sordid twenty-year history did this junta enjoy the slightest public support. (Stunts like flying the Vatican flag from public buildings did it little good.) Everyone knew that if there were free elections, as had been agreed in Geneva when the French withdrew, the Viet Minh party would win.

I have no training in military strategy, but I do think it’s fundamental in any competition to understand whether you are playing offense or defense. Despite all the religious and political rhetoric at the time to the contrary, we were actually the aggressors in Vietnam, trying to impose Catholic rule on people who overwhelmingly didn’t want that. A guy who writes a 480-page book about Vietnam strategy planning but doesn’t acknowledge what we were doing is missing a rather important point. Indeed, although McMaster never says so directly, his obsession with the failure to deliver proper military advice can’t help but suggest a belief that if the JCS had gotten what they wanted up front, everything would have turned out much better. Which is nonsense. They ultimately did get what they want, and lost anyway—a fact McMaster ignores entirely, since he stops in 1965. The only possible way for the United States to have prevailed in Vietnam would have been to maintain a massive, permanent, hated occupying force—something even the JCS did not recommend.

One other little fact McMaster doesn’t mention: within not too many years after our extraordinarily costly defeat, we became rather friendly with Vietnam. Isn’t that relevant, too?

What does McMaster’s tunnel vision imply for the future? The struggle today is with the militant segment of Islam, not with communism. To the extent that struggle occurs outside the borders of the western world, we are the aggressors, just as we were in Vietnam. I believe this is an aggression we must continue, but we have to be smarter about it. Tanks and bombs did not defeat communism—blue jeans and television did. Communism collapsed because our western humanist values, on the average, in a lumpy sort of way, produce a better life for most people than communism did. So people behind the Iron Curtain finally gave up on it.

Our values also produce a vastly better life, by an even wider margin for most people, than do blasphemy laws and the oppression of women and non-Muslims. Our national security strategy should be to defend ourselves decisively with military force where necessary—as it seems to be with ISIS—but to mount a general offensive with information, not with force. There are many ways to do that. In 2009, for example, Congress passed (but apparently never funded) the “VOICE” act, to aid hackers in getting past Iranian Internet censorship. That’s the kind of offensive operation we need on a far grander scale, along with supporting secular bastions like Tunisia inside the Muslim majority world, and expressing our contempt for the Muslim thugs who run places like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as vehemently as we did against Stalin and Brezhnev.

Does McMaster get this? Nothing in his book suggests that he does. One of his first disagreements with Trump, over use of the words “radical Islamic terrorism,” seems to align him with the failed Obama strategy of just being nice to Islam and hoping it will leave us alone. That’s not promising either. It took us seventy years to defeat communism, and demographers tell us that in much less time than that, Islam will become the world’s largest religion. We need to get started on fighting it—the smart way—soon.