Before he was the national-security adviser, he wrote a lacerating account of generals who failed in advising Lyndon Johnson. What will he say now that he is free to talk about Trump?
“They have their exits and their entrances,” wrote Shakespeare, and so it is, as we see some actors deliver frantic speeches while others leap, slide, or crawl on and off the foreign-policy stage.
Rex Tillerson said farewell to the Department of State much as he entered it: clueless about government service, clueless about his department, and clueless about his boss. He invoked the cliché of Washington as a “mean-spirited town”—as though executive suites in Houston were foreign to nastiness, and as though the capital were demonstrably short of the amiability that characterizes Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, or Las Vegas. He could not accept the true diagnosis of his failure: that he had chosen to work for an immoral egomaniac who predictably treats his subordinates—and treated him—as shabbily as he has betrayed his wives and allegedly attempted to buy his sex partners.
At almost the same moment that Tillerson was delivering his meagerly attended soliloquy, National-Security Adviser H. R. McMaster was similarly given the boot. The world was notified by tweet of his dismissal, but the exchange of compliments between the general and the commander in chief was more civil. Like Tillerson, McMaster had been surprised by his initial job offer; like Tillerson he never established a rapport with the president; like Tillerson he suffered repeated humiliations and put-downs from a boss who shared neither his decency nor his regard for public service. But Trump was a bit more gentle in this case: perhaps because he has a sneaking affection for generals, who are, in his parlance, “killers.” He may also have reflected that in addition to a moralistic streak, McMaster has a temper and a gift for effective writing.
Tillerson and McMaster were good men who answered an unexpected call to serve. Their motives to do so probably included some admixture of ambition or vanity as well as patriotism. They themselves may not know the proportions of such motivations, human nature being the complex compound of pure and impure impulses that it is. They are being replaced by considerably more canny and political figures, Michael Pompeo and John Bolton, whose policy instincts are more in tune with Trump’s tough-guy swagger, but more importantly who are much more skilled at manipulating the president. Neither McMaster nor Tillerson were cynics, and both were Washington outsiders. To find their successors, the president has turned to a corner of the very swamp he had once promised to drain. A former congressmen and a long time in-and-outer are, after all, creatures from the reeking fens, even if they hail from a distinctively boggy corner of the Washington wetlands.
The mix of personalities in high office matters more than ideology, particularly with a president so ignorant and unrooted as this one. Bolton; Pompeo; a weakened and not overly principled chief of staff, John Kelly; and an obsequious vice president, Mike Pence, will collectively tend to facilitate Trump’s more pugnacious foreign-policy inclinations. They will attract a darker, angrier, and more aggressive set of subordinates, together with a larger number of opportunists, and in both categories, mediocrities. Who else, after all, would choose to serve in an administration so chaotic, so badly managed, so besieged with special counsels, weekly sex and expense-account scandals, trade wars, disdainful allies, impending electoral debacles, simmering conflicts with a variety of foreign powers, and, on top of it all, indictments and possibly even impeachment looming in the years ahead? Ultimately, they will probably clash with the one remaining foreign- and security-policy outsider, who is also the administration’s most important moderate, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. The new team makes dangerous policymaking even more likely in an already fraught world.
Tillerson will probably retreat to Texas and lick his wounds. He may or may not write a memoir: He does not need the money, and although there are ghost writers aplenty to assist him should he choose to do so, his discomfort with the written word would make for a clunky tale. If he writes a memoir it will probably be an attempt to retell and justify his brief, unhappy time as the country’s chief diplomat rather than to indict the administration.
McMaster is a different case, whose choices will be more consequential. He will retire from the Army, a course he would have been well-advised to take before taking office. He is not wealthy; he has strong convictions at odds with those of Trump; he is known for his forceful views of right and wrong; he probably would rather have been a four star. And above all, he has already written one powerful book, and now has the opportunity to write another.
Dereliction of Duty, McMaster’s revised Ph.D. thesis on the Vietnam War, made his literary name, presenting as it did a powerful and well-researched case that the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the mid-1960s failed candidly to present and argue their position to President Lyndon Johnson. It is a good book, although it should be noted that LBJ fully understood that the JCS wanted to do more in Vietnam and faster, but chose not to take that course for a number of reasons. Furthermore it is far from clear that the Chiefs’ preferred approach would have made a useful strategic difference. Indeed, it might well have precipitated a clash with China not all that dissimilar from that of the Korean War. No matter: Dereliction of Duty deservedly made a splash when it came out in 1996.
The book was a successful young combat veteran’s expression of righteous anger against superiors of an earlier generation whom he thought had failed to speak truth to power. It became the middle-aged general’s hundred-pound rucksack when, much to his surprise, he was plucked by Donald Trump from imminent retirement to become national-security adviser. It became an implicit measuring rod against which any public official would probably fall short. And when McMaster began publicly to praise the president, to echo his dystopian view of international politics, to cover for his reckless compromises of intelligence material, there was no shortage of commentators keen to pounce.
]McMaster now has a choice. He can simply remain silent about his time in government and his views of the Trump administration’s methods and policies—highly unlikely given his nature and the financial incentives to speak out. He may, alternatively, choose to make only restrained criticisms in a careful memoir; or he may, in accordance with both his character and temperament, write a volcanic account, perhaps angry and self-justifying, but insightful, blunt, cathartic and even, in some way, redeeming.
The national-security adviser had to, or in some cases chose to, say things that his inner nature must have abhorred. As a scholar trained by one of the best military historians in the country, for example, McMaster knows just how rancid a slogan America First is, what dangerous and even vile policy sentiments of 1940 and 1941 it reflected. It will be a hard memoir to write if he confronts that and other facts. Whether he chooses to do so will say something about him, of course, but something too about the readiness of decent and prominent men and women who have served or justified this administration to face the truth. From start to finish, the question about Trump and those who have served, supported, or opposed him has come down to character. McMaster’s memoir, should he write one, will, in many ways illuminate the battering to individual integrity the president has caused. It may also indicate whether the cuts can heal, leaving scars, as one hopes, rather than suppurating wounds.
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