I’m one of those folks, probably just one among many, here, who was a great admirer of H.R. McMaster. I’ve been following his public career since about 2006 and had always been impressed with his intellectual power and his blunt rejection of the Revolution In Military Affairs–concepts “that lead to the idea that you have perfect knowledge and can apply military power perfectly.” I have been forced, over the past few days, however, to come to the conclusion that McMaster is a big part of the problem in the mad rush to war on Syria that erupted, last week, war that could lead to a direct military confrontation with Russia. His appearance on Fox News Sunday was an indication of that but there were indications of this potential well beforehand, while he was still at US Army Training and Doctrine Command. His pre-occupation for the past two years, before he went to the White House, was, after all, how to reshape the Army for future war against Russia. There were two public discussions he was involved in April-May of 2016, the first in Chicago on April 12, at the Pritzker Military Museum and Library, and the second one at CSIS in Washington, DC on May 4, 2016, in which he laid out his view that Russia is little more than an aggressive power that uses, among other things, criminal gangs to further its offensive intentions against American power. (I’m going to focus, here, on McMaster’s public remarks. There’s been a great deal of reporting on the machinations and feuds going on inside the National Security Council, but I will leave comment on that to those with better insight into such things).
In the Pritzker discussion, McMaster was asked about deterrence by denial, what would this look like in Eastern Europe. In response, he said that there are three aspects to deterrence by denial. The first is the right kind of capabilities “that could counter Russian aggression, right, and those are our capabilities, I think, like what we’re seeing as landbased long-range precision fires capabilities, a tiered air defense capability, an answer to their long-range massed fires, for example, that they’ve employed in Ukraine. I think it’s a significant enough conventional deterrent so that you can also address really what Russia has been advertising as this doctrine of escalation domination where they boast about going to the use of tactical nuclear weapons. So certainly there’s a nuclear qualitative deterrent to that capability.” the second aspect is quantity. “I mean you have to be–you have to have forces in sufficient scale to demonstrate your ability to deny the enemy those objectives.,” he said. Thirdly is “the will of the alliance [NATO],” keeping it strong and united. On this, he was full of praise for ex-NATO commander Gen. Philip Breedlove for doing “a tremendous, tremendous job.” It will be recalled that Breedlove, for his anti-Russia war propaganda, was getting much of his “intelligence” from Philip Karber, the head of the Potomac Institute, which McMaster praised as a good open source on the Russia New Generation Warfare Study that McMaster was heading up at TraDoc at the time.
In the CSIS event, McMaster described the “invasion” of Ukraine and the “annexation” of Crimea has having “punctuated” the end of the post-Cold War period, but that thase were not new developments “in terms of Russian aggression.” He pointed to the Georgia war in 2008 and the cyber atttacks on the Baltic states as earlier indicators. Despite these earlier signs, Mcmaster lamented that the US response was to continue draw down forces in Europe. “And what we’re seeing now is we’ve awakened to, obviously, this threat from Russia, who is waging limited war for limited objectives – annexing Crimea, invading Ukraine – at zero cost, consolidating gains over that territory, and portraying the reaction by us and allies and partners as escalatory, that what is required to deter a strong nation that is waging limited war for limited objectives on battlegrounds involving weaker states – or what Thomas – Mackinder called at the end of the 18th, early 19th century the shatter zones on the Eurasian landmass – what is required is forward deterrence, to be able to ratchet up the cost at the frontier, and to take an approach to deterrence that is consistent with deterrence by denial, convincing your enemy that your enemy is unable to accomplish his objectives at a reasonable cost rather than sort of an offshore balancing approach and the threat of punitive action at long distance later, which we know obviously from – recent experience confirms that that is inadequate,” he said.
“Of course, this is a sophisticated strategy, what Russia is employing – and we’re doing a study of this now with a number of partners – that combines, really, conventional forces as cover for unconventional action, but a much more sophisticated campaign involving the use of criminality and organized crime, and really operating effectively on this battleground of perception and information, and in particular part of a broader effort to sow doubt and conspiracy theories across our alliance,” McMaster went on. “And this effort, I believe, is aimed really not at defensive objectives, but at offensive objectives – 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.”
McMaster presents all of this as if it’s happening in a vacuum, as if the actions of the Anglo-American-led West had nothing to do with anything, particularly in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. McMaster, the PhD historian, should know much better than that. The collapse of the post-World War II system could be happening for reasons that have nothing to do with Russia. Perhaps, like the Soviet Union in the 1980’s, it’s collapsing for reasons of its own internal contradictions, but this possibility is not even admitted into the discussion. McMaster knows that the U.S. invaded Iraq on the basis of lies, but dismisses any discussion of that to focus on decisions, both good and bad, that were made afterwards. Yet the events that followed were totally shaped by that decision to invade. So, McMaster appears to have abandoned the intellectual rigor that characterized his book on the Vietnam War and much of his work afterwards. At first glance, it appears that he is instead drawing his outlook from the neo-cons, particularly about the alleged threat to American power, but I have to do much more work to develop this before I can say anything definitively.