Memo for: Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, National Security Advisor
Subject: A Modest Suggestion
You have a lot on your plate just now, so I apologize for this intrusion. But you come from a world that values discipline. And I’m guessing that you appreciate the danger posed by the absence of discipline now emerging as a dominant trait of the administration of which you are a senior member.
You have joined a team whose members take apparent pride in contradicting one another (or themselves) from one day to the next. True, in certain circumstances, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Yet with all due apologies to Ralph Waldo Emerson, his familiar aphorism does not apply to the circumstances in which the United States finds itself today.
Emerson went on to say that “To be great is to be misunderstood.” Don’t believe it, at least not as applied to your current line of work. To be misunderstood by those wielding power in places like Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, and Tehran—or for that matter in London, Berlin, Jerusalem, Tokyo, and Seoul—is to court disaster. Yet misunderstanding is what you and your colleagues seem intent on cultivating.
Here’s a simple question: does the U.S. attack on a Syrian air base last week signify a change in basic policy? Based on the musings offered by you and other senior administration officials since, the answer is yes and no and maybe.
Until last week, “America First” ostensibly defined the central theme of your boss’s worldview. This week that hoary old phrase has either been stretched beyond all recognition or has suffered the fate of various other “on day one” promises that have now gone by the board. Truth to tell, many such promises—moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and tearing up the Iran nuclear deal, for example—were pretty dumb and I’m glad to see them go.
But then we have Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declaring shortly after the Syrian attack that “We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world.” Any and all? Anywhere in the world? Did Tillerson fancy that he was propounding some eponymous doctrine that might win him a place in the history books? Or was he just blathering, perhaps having had a bit too much to drink after a very long flight?
We need to know. That is, we need to know if we should attend to what Tillerson has to say or whether to dismiss it as so much hot air. Ditto for Secretary Mattis, Ambassador Haley, White House advisors Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner, the nameless guy chairing the Joint Chiefs, and the unfortunate soul who fills the post of White House press secretary.
Granted, your boss the president will never be a source of discipline or consistency. Trump will be Trump, indulging his apparent compulsion to share whatever impulses cross his mind. Among the burdens that your tenure as national security advisor will oblige you to bear, random Tweets launched in the wee hours of the morning will have a place of prominence. I can well imagine that your first thought upon waking each morning must be, “God in heaven, I wonder what he said last night.” Nothing you can do about that but cope.
Still, might it not at least be possible to get the rest of the team (I use the term loosely) to read off the same sheet of music? Talking points—that’s what this administration needs if it’s ever going to outgrow its reputation as a gang that can’t shoot straight.
It doesn’t matter whether the issue is big or small, long-term or unfolding in the moment. All principals need to keep to a common script. In practical terms, that script should consist of a one-page document with bullet points describing “where we stand now.” Your shop will have to initiate, staff, revise, and disseminate the document and it will need to do so quickly—sort of an OODA-loop exercise in decision-making repeated 24/7.
Your job is to serve as the enforcer. No freelancing allowed. Anyone straying from that script regardless of rank or position, you hammer. From what I hear, you already know how to do that. Making nice has never been your thing anyway.
Impose a sense of order. Without order, there can be no policy. It’s that simple.
“Discipline is the soul of an army.” General Washington supposedly said that. I’ll bet it’s a sentiment you can identify with. As to whether today anyone or anything in the city named after the general actually has a soul, I’ll admit to entertaining doubts. But this much is for sure: unless you succeed in imposing discipline on the national security apparatus, you’re going to fail, the administration is going to fail, the country going to suffer, and the world might blow up.
Andrew Bacevich is The American Conservative’s writer-at-large.