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Retired Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster’s second book, Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World, while mostly well researched and clearly argued, will not have the institutional significance of his first book Dereliction of Duty, written as a young Army major. If you heard little of Battlegrounds after its publication, that is to McMaster’s credit and our media’s continuing shame. General McMaster kept his honor clean, refusing to put himself out on the same corner Bill Kristol and John Bolton have been working. This is a work well worth your consideration. At the very least, take a look at the brief video summary of his central claim: American long-term failure in foreign policy comes from “strategic narcissism” and a lack of “strategic empathy.”*
“Strategic empathy” refers to the conscious effort to understand the viewpoint, the motivations, of others, rather than projecting assumptions and motives the observer prefers, for whatever reason. “Strategic empathy” is presented as the alternative to wishful thinking across administrations. McMaster is using “strategic empathy” as a term of art, limited to understanding/ taking the other’s position and claimed motivations seriously, not sympathizing. McMaster advances his vision for a more successful foreign policy through country case studies, most importantly addressing Russia, China, Iran, Afghanistan, and North Korea. In each case, he names names and cites failures across multiple administrations of both parties.
McMaster points to foreign policy scholars on the left and right arguing for a deterrence policy with a nuclear Iran. He says it is foolish to suggest that deterrence might work with a set of leaders and at least a significant population that deeply believes in the Shia emphasis on supernatural victory through their own blood. Iran’s religious-political leaders believe in “victory of blood over the sword.” This linked text points to official propaganda seriously asserting that America was defeated by killing the Iranian top terror master. His blood, being spilled, supernaturally created victory for the Iranian revolution. Take them seriously, rather than dismissing it as spin, and you see that under no condition can they possibly be allowed a nuclear weapon.
McMaster calls out both the New Left and what he considers the isolationist right. He directly contradicts claims that it is America and the capitalist West that cause the negative behavior of other countries, from Iran and North Korea seeking nuclear weapons, to Russian and Chinese Communist military and influence operations in the near and far abroad. Not only are the New Left’s claims factually suspect, but they take agency, independent will, away from other countries, other peoples. McMaster believes the start point of any sustainable foreign policy, with any hope of really defending American interests, is acknowledgment that Pakistani leaders, Russian leaders, Chinese leaders, are adult human beings who are neither copies of our leaders nor reactive victims of “imperialism” or “capitalism.”
This is not to say that empathy is sympathy for the devil. Far from it. In his detailed accounts of each country case study, McMaster is unsparing in his moral condemnation of malign leaders and regimes, pinning their bad acts and motivations clearly on them, not America, the CIA, Western imperialism, or capitalism.
Unfortunately, the book ends weakly with a chapter about the supposed threat of human-caused catastrophic global warming. McMaster would have us believe he believes that human beings can control the temperature of the planet. Yet, even in this conventional elite posture, he has no patience for left environmentalist nostrums. McMaster supports a great expansion of modern nuclear power plants plus natural gas, pointing out that China’s plan to go electric will actually greatly increase carbon dioxide emissions, plus pollutants, from new coal-fired power plants. So, he is entirely in opposition to the political and corporate establishment, yet he burns bridges to Reagan Democrats/ Tea Party/Trump voters as he fully embraces the left’s vile smear term “climate deniers.” This leftist libel only has power from its derivation, “climate denial” echoing “Holocaust denial.” I get that a man’s got to make a living, and H.R. McMaster acknowledges in passing financial interest, as a board director, in an energy strategy sort of company. However, tacking a “climate” chapter onto the end, acknowledging that he has no special expertise in this field, weakens an otherwise solid book.
Having stumbled past what seems a topic he just had to throw in, McMaster summarizes his argument and makes an appeal, not advanced earlier in the book, for education reform at every level, with a re-dedication to history and civics taught from the view that America’s goodness has come from an imperfect realization of the aspirations expressed in the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. This is a bold, politically controversial position to take today, as is his call for empathy at the interpersonal and domestic level, listening and considering others’ points of view rather than engaging in the politics of outrage and personal destruction.
Yet, McMaster does a bit of name-calling and straw man burning himself when he attacks what he styles “21st-century realists,” who he characterizes as wanting a border wall and a military that only defends us at the water’s edge. He creates the classic staff officer’s three courses of action, every bit as artificial as the false dichotomy of endless war or staying home. Were he more empathetic to Americans with whom he disagrees, he might have generated a humbler and messier book, as the Afghanistan section illustrates.
A young Major McMaster boldly put in print an unequivocal condemnation of men, whose status he aspired to attain, charging that American soldiers, marines, airmen, and sailors died in the service of immoral leaders: “Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam.” Now, having been promoted to the second-highest active rank, Lieutenant General McMaster took the position that he, as National Security Advisor, must act differently and offer a viable, morally defensible strategy for success in what the American public was coming to see as a “forever war.”
Yet, McMaster’s recommendations for sustained American ground and tactical air forces in Afghanistan rest critically in a change in Pakistan and Iran’s behavior. He lays out for his readers the incentives of Pakistani leaders, “an army with a country,” and Iran’s religious-political leaders’ belief in “victory of blood over the sword,” and yet would have us keep significant ground forces in Afghanistan while counting on Russia and China to pressure Pakistan. What about unilateral pressure on Pakistan to stop supporting the web of jihadists that radiates out from their mountains? Take a look at a map of the region and tell me how you would sustain logistical support if Pakistan closed their air space, ports, and roads. Trace some other sea/land route into Afghanistan that Russia, China, or Iran has no ability to interdict, push come to shove.
Under what real conditions does Pakistan give up its fundamental assumption that Afghanistan is either a source of strategic depth or strategic threat in Pakistan’s ongoing conflict with India? How is a strategy for long-term stability in Afghanistan, unless as a Pakistani dependency, ever not in conflict with what McMaster acknowledges as the self-perceived national interests of the neighboring nuclear power? So, did both Obama and Trump acknowledge some basic truths and respond to military advice by muddling through?
Was the mess created the moment Bush’s national security leaders failed to overwhelm the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in the early months, cutting them off or chasing them down into any Pakistani village, refusing to treat Pakistan as Cambodia was for most of the Vietnam War? Was this a dereliction of duty by Rumsfeld and the gang? I saw no comparison being drawn to the squandering of public support by McNamara, Westmoreland, and LBJ. There is a serious argument that if Marine Corps generals’ strategy had been accepted back in 1965, rather than roughly adopted to fight A Better War only after public support had been squandered, then we might have been able to translate military tactical victories into geopolitical success. McMaster does not address whether he entered the position of National Security Advisor at a time relative to 1969 in the Vietnam War, and so whether his good ideas were effectively foreclosed by the missteps of past leaders and the reality of American culture and politics.
Worse, McMaster slurs all of us, who challenged career government workers as a “deep state” resisting our will through resisting President Trump, labeling this criticism in passing as false on its face and arising from an antisemitic “alt-right,” amplified by Putin’s bots. He makes much of Russian influence operations, even as he then shows that their track record of success has been very poor, even counterproductive, as Putin’s openly preferred candidates lost in European elections. Nor can McMaster even acknowledge that the efforts of domestic actors, from social media giants to leaders within the Republican and Democratic parties, to undermine public confidence and acceptance of the legitimacy of the 2016 presidential election result and of the Trump administration, swamped the relatively trivial efforts attributed to Russia. Indeed, he approvingly cites as serious the political stunt indictment of Russian officials, by the gang of Democrat party activists organized under Robert Mueller’s cover. And. H.R. McMaster’s book gives no credence to claims that President Trump was Putin’s puppet, to the great disappointment of the Washington establishment.
Finally, because H.R. McMaster had to publish before the 2020 election, he lost the opportunity to incorporate analysis of the astonishing Abraham Accords. Given what he wrote on the Middle East, I suspect any update to the book will include praise for this set of limited results within the context of what McMaster envisioned as a path to peace or greater regional stability.
On balance, H.R. McMaster’s second book is helpful as a summary of long-standing national security challenges around the world, and as an illustration of better strategic thinking. He takes no party partisan position and is deeply critical of foreign policy and defense professionals, and academics’ assumptions since at least the end of the Cold War. McMaster only really stumbles when he looks inward at the American political and cultural landscape, alien to his 34 years of study and practice. He resisted the lucrative and socially approved impulse to openly attack President Trump and his supporters, to the disappointment of the media establishment.** I wonder if what I see as weaknesses in his narrative are a result of, rather than despite, the extensive consultation with academic experts, cited by name at length in the back of the book.
Battlegrounds is well worth your reading. At least check a digital copy out of your public library, as I did.
H.R. McMaster. 2020. Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World. Harper Collins. 560 pages, hardcover list price: $35.
* These two short videos are a good summary of H.R. McMaster’s basic argument in Battlegrounds:
** Consider the headlines from two major sources:
The Guardian, “HR McMaster to publish book that may pose headaches for Trump”
Former national security adviser H.R. McMaster wants you to know he has not written the book you probably wanted to read — and he says it right up front.
“This is not the book that most people wanted me to write … a tell-all about my experience in the White House to confirm their opinions of Donald Trump,” the author warns in his preface.
That might have been “lucrative,” he says, but it would not be “useful or satisfactory for most readers.”