Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of “United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists.”
The departure of Lt. Gen H.R. McMaster from the White House removes one of the most capable public servants in the Trump administration, a war hero in both US wars in Iraq whose doctorate became “Dereliction of Duty,” an influential best-seller that excoriated the generals who waged the Vietnam War for not providing President Lyndon B. Johnson with unvarnished military advice.
At least McMaster wasn’t fired by tweet, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was last week. Tillerson first learned of his defenestration via the President’s preferred mode of communication.
McMaster was allowed to resign and received an effusive statement of thanks from Donald Trump for his more than three decades of military service. Given all the abrupt firings of White House officials, this is the Trump administration’s version of a golden parachute.
Undercutting Trump’s public eulogy for his departing national security adviser, for many months White House officials had told reporters on background that McMaster was on the way out because the three-star general’s briefing style grated on Trump. This resulted in a steady drip-drip of stories that McMaster was headed out the door.
It’s hardly surprising that Trump objected to McMaster’s briefings because the President says he already knows all he needs to know and relies on his gut alone to make decisions.
As Trump claimed during the election campaign, “I know more about ISIS than the generals do. Believe me.” No need for a general’s briefing then.
Trump also told Fox News that the many unfilled senior positions at the State Department didn’t affect the conduct of foreign policy because “I’m the only one that matters.” No need for informed briefings then.
The removal of Tillerson and McMaster is being framed by anonymous White House officials as a necessary reshuffle as Trump gears up for his meeting with Kim Jung Un, the first-ever such encounter between a US president and a North Korean leader, a meeting slated for late May.
This rationale makes little sense because in The Wall Street Journal only last month newly appointed national security adviser John Bolton argued forcefully for a unilateral American military strike against North Korea.
It’s the same type of argument that Bolton had advocated in the run-up to the Iraq War, which had the dubious honor of marking its 15th anniversary this week.
Bolton also publicly called for the bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities three years ago on the grounds that “time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed.”
His longstanding advocacy for pre-emptive wars is reminiscent of Talleyrand’s quip when the Bourbons were restored to power after the French Revolution, “They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.”
Bolton is also among the most vocal and influential advocates for tearing up the Iran nuclear deal, which does exactly what would likely emerge from any possible deal with the North Koreans: They would dial back their nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions against them.
As recently as Tuesday, Bolton described the Iran deal as a “strategic debacle” on Fox.
This is not the well-informed view of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who testified in October that the Iran nuclear deal is in American national security interests.
In short, it’s hard to imagine a worse negotiator to sit across the table from the North Koreans than Bolton.
It’s not just McMaster’s style that rubbed Trump the wrong way: They also have important, substantive differences about how they see the world.
Take Russia: In December the Trump administration released its national security strategy, a dense 55-page document supervised by McMaster that focused heavily on Russian aggression against neighboring states and its efforts to undermine Western democracies. These are actions that Trump barely acknowledges, while he repeatedly embraces Russia’s apparent President for life, Vladimir Putin.
A month before the release of his own administration’s national security strategy, Trump said of Putin, in regard to the 2016 US election, “He said he didn’t meddle. … Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ And I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it.”
By contrast, the national strategy stated that Russia is “using information tools in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democracies. … Russia uses information operations as part of its offensive cyber efforts to influence public opinion across the globe. Its influence campaigns blend covert intelligence operations and false online personas with state-funded media. …”
McMaster publicly endorsed this analysis last month at the Munich Security Conference when he said of the just-handed down American indictments of 13 Russians allegedly involved in meddling in the 2016 presidential election, “The evidence is now really incontrovertible.”
This reference to evidence of Russian electoral meddling was swiftly and publicly rebuked by Trump, who tweeted, “General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians and that the only Collusion was between Russia and Crooked H, the DNC and the Dems.”
After that public dressing-down it was clear that McMaster’s days at the White House were numbered – a case of not if he was going, but when.
Get our free weekly newsletter
Sarah Sanders, who has turned into the “Baghdad Bob” of the Trump administration, tweeted only a week ago that she “just spoke to @POTUS and Gen. H.R. McMaster – contrary to reports they have a good working relationship and there are no changes at the NSC.”
In fairness to Sanders, she can only repeat what the President tells her. Summoning the shade of Sanders’ Nixonian predecessor, Ron Ziegler, her tweet is now no longer an “operative” statement.