Gayle Lemmon: McMaster assumes his new national security adviser role in America that is at war but does not act like it
For the most part, its citizens are insulated from the fights waged in their name, she says
Editor’s Note: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the New York Times best-seller, “Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
For days after the dramatic resignation of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn – followed by Ret. Vice Adm. Bob Harward’s rejection of President Donald Trump’s offer of the job – America remained without a permanent national security adviser.
Now, Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster has stepped up for the job.
McMaster’s arrival amid the headline-grabbing upheaval in America’s national security infrastructure comes at the same time America pursues plans for expanding its wars abroad. What we are witnessing is a profound mismatch between America’s desire to project stability around the world and its inability to establish stability at home.
America is a nation at war that does not act like it. For the most part, its citizens are insulated from the fights waged in their name. The result? Americans don’t demand and prize stability in their national security infrastructure in part because the consequences are so hidden from their sight.
But there is a danger in that distancing. Particularly as our nation’s leaders consider sending more troops to Afghanistan and expanding authorities in Syria, it is essential that America’s leaders explain to the American public – and the military in whose name it serves – the goals and objectives of America’s conflicts.
Consider that only a sliver of a slice of the country fights 100% of its wars. Meanwhile, an anesthetized America remains safely removed from the relentless demands of constant deployments. This gap leaves America viewing its internal political chaos as a purely domestic matter, rather than a critical piece of the way the world sees American power, weighs it and judges it on battlefields across the world by people deciding whether to back – or back away from – US forces.
In other words. America’s internal discord quickly leaps beyond America’s borders to touch and even shape America’s wars, even if American citizens are too distant from those battles to realize it or too ill-informed about them to know they should care.
We are at a critical moment.
Right now, the Pentagon is drawing up new and dusting off old recommendations for Syria at the President’s behest, recommendations that may include deploying conventional ground troops inside the country to join special operations forces already there.
And that is just the start. In Iraq, more than 4,000 US forces serve on an advise and assist mission alongside the Iraqi military in the fight against ISIS. On Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson testified before Congress last week that the Pentagon is likely to seek more US troops to advise Afghan forces in the battle against both an emboldened Taliban and the looming threat of ISIS.
And in Yemen, the Sahel region of Africa, and well beyond, special operations forces lead nighttime combat operations in a continuation of the post-9/11 battles targeting terror groups. Such a raid claimed the life of Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens last month during an operation in Yemen targeting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The clash between America’s domestic tumult and foreign intervention is pronounced. And those responsible for actually leading and fighting these wars are taking notice, even if the rest of America will not.
“Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil. I hope they sort it out soon because we’re a nation at war,” said Gen. Tony Thomas, the widely respected head of U.S. Special Operations Command, at a military conference in Washington last week.
“As a commander, I’m concerned our government be as stable as possible,” Thomas later said in an interview.
The comments immediately raised eyebrows, partly because special operations leaders rarely speak out about domestic matters and also because American stability has rarely ever before been questioned. All that is changing.
For the moment, this public concern about the firmness of America’s domestic terrain largely seems limited to those in uniform who prize stability and continuity precisely because it’s what they are charged with helping to bring abroad. The question is, when will the rest of America join them in the worry that chaos at home will give way to chaos away?
Thomas’ comments come as special operations take on ever more of the fight. Initially mistrusted inside the military at its creation 30 years ago, Special Operations Command and the special operations forces it oversees have proven their effectiveness in the post-9/11 wars.
Their shadowy nature also allowed military objectives to be achieved without maximum visibility. After America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq and the public’s eventual disillusionment with it, President Barack Obama wanted to avoid the large numbers of troops in harm’s way that came with the deployment of “boots on the ground.”
And so in the years that followed, combat operations officially ended while special operations deployments continued. In 2016, for the first time in America, more special operations than conventional forces died at war, a remarkable fact given that special operations makes up less than 5% of the US military.
If the VIX index, which measures volatility on the financial markets, tracked Washington’s frantic ups-and-downs this week, it would no doubt be leaping skyward at the moment. A nation at war that aims to be a stabilizing force in the world requires stability in its national security apparatus at home.
A good start as McMaster begins his work would be helping our country’s citizens to recognize this: We are a nation at war.