McMaster could lead to more predictable foreign policy
Washington - With the appointment of US Army Lieutenant-General H.R. McMaster as Donald Trump’s national security adviser, US policies in the Middle East could move from some of the more extreme positions taken during the first chaotic weeks of the new administration, analysts said.
Trump on February 20th named McMaster, 54, successor to former Lieutenant-General Michael Flynn, a long-standing Trump ally.
Flynn resigned as national security adviser after only a few weeks in office following revelations that he had lied to US Vice-President Mike Pence about conversations he had with the Russian ambassador to Washington. Flynn was known as an anti-Muslim firebrand who once described Islam as a “cancer” and as a political ideology.
Analysts in Washington said McMaster arrived at the White House with years of first-hand experience in the Middle East and a résumé that combines knowledge acquired as a battlefield commander and as a scholar. He served in the Iraq wars of 1990 and 2003 and reportedly trained his soldiers to learn about local customs, as well as about social and religious life of Iraqis to be able to deal with radical insurgents.
An early sign that McMaster’s view of the world differs from that of anti-Islam hardliners in the administration came when the new security adviser told a staff meeting and Trump himself that the term “radical Islamic terrorism” was not helpful, news reports said. Despite McMaster’s reported warnings, Trump used the term in his speech to a joint session of Congress on February 28th.
One challenge facing McMaster is to bring order and predictability to a White House that has made headlines with sudden and sometimes ill-prepared foreign policy choices since Trump’s inauguration.
“It’s a very positive development,” David Mack, a former State Department official and US ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, said. “All indications are that McMaster will be very good at this,” added Mack who now works at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
Populist ideologues such as Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon have enjoyed a strong position in formulating US foreign and security policies, while representatives of more traditional approaches have struggled to be heard. Bannon was one of the aides behind the executive order introducing an entry ban for people from seven predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East and Africa that created confusion around the world before it was blocked by the judiciary.
The White House is working on a new version of the order that would exempt holders of valid resident permits and visas from the ban, news report say. Some reports said Iraq would be no longer among the countries whose citizens are banned from travelling to the United States.
The Bannon-led group in the White House is also reportedly pushing to have the Muslim Brotherhood designated a foreign terrorist organisation. Sebastian Gorka, a White House official reporting to Bannon, is known for his view that terrorism by Islamist groups is not an exploitation of Islam by extremists but rooted in the religion of Islam itself.
McMaster is expected to take a different position. “It would appear… McMaster took away from his experiences in the Iraq war a better understanding of the people and the culture of the region and has a more balanced perspective on Arabs and Islam,” Gerald Feierstein, a former US ambassador to Yemen, who, like Mack, is an analyst at the Middle East Institute, said in an e-mail message. Feierstein said he had never met McMaster in person.
“I would anticipate that US partners in the region, like those around the world, will welcome the appointment of a leader like General McMaster to the position of national security adviser,” Feierstein added.
One unanswered question is how much influence McMaster will wield in the administration. Foreign diplomats in Washington said they were trying to work out which of the competing power centres in the administration have Trump’s ear. “I expect a longer period of uncertainty,” one diplomatic source said. “It is hard to figure out,” the source said about the rivalries within the Trump administration.
McMaster’s arrival strengthens the camp of aides favouring a more traditional concept of US foreign policy. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, CIA chief Mike Pompeo and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly are seen as potential allies of the new security adviser within the government.
“As Trump recruits realists for his national security team, the chances are better for much-needed continuity — if he takes their advice,” Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution think-tank, wrote on Twitter.
Observers said McMaster’s reputation as a man whose rise through army ranks was delayed several times because he questioned decisions by authorities meant that he was unlikely to be a pushover in his new job.
“He tends to speak his mind,” Mack said, adding it was reasonable to expect McMaster and officials such as Mattis to openly express their reservations in some situations and say: “No, Mr President, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”