The effort to erode Iranian influence in the Middle East will take far more than precision strikes, argues former US national security advisor, H.R. McMaster. The US has a lot cut out for it if Washington wants to try to disentangle countries like Iraq and Lebanon from Tehran’s octopus-like grasp. The US would need to make sure Sunni Arabs and Kurds are no longer marginalized, help responsive government institutions grow, engage Baghdad with powerful diplomatic means and bring Saudi Arabia and Iraq together as friends. In Lebanon, the US should support representative government and the rule of law.
If this sounds a bit optimistic, considering the fact the US has spent decades talking about these ideals and values in the Middle East without seeing them grow, it is. Nevertheless, the former military officer who has often been prescient when it comes to American strategy is not naïve. He argues that while the US should do these things, some problems may be insurmountable. Exhibit A is Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AK Party are increasingly authoritarian and anti-Western “so improved cooperation may not be possible. A strategy for the region should therefore consider how to mitigate the loss of Turkey as an ally while moving toward a transactional relationship.” If transactional sounds like a keyword of US President Donald Trump’s administration, it is. McMaster, unlike others who left the administration, has not written a new tell-all about the US president, but rather an important new book that lays out what US strategy can accomplish in the future.
McMASTER, BORN in 1962, is from Philadelphia, and graduated from the US Military Academy in 1984 before serving in Iraq – first in 1991 and then as head of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Tal Afar, a Turkmen town in northern Iraq in 2004. He gained some fame for that assignment and media coverage for his work in a town that seemed to embody the complexities of Iraq, with its Sunni insurgents and Shi’ite Turkmen minority and rural landscape around it with Kurds, Yazidis and Arabs. McMaster went on to gain a reputation as a broad-minded military thinker and strategist, adviser to then-preeminent US general David Petraeus and author of a book on the Vietnam war. He was tapped by Trump as the second national security advisor for the young administration in February 2017, and served for a year until John Bolton came into the picture. McMaster now works with a variety of key US think tanks and institutions, from the Hoover Institution, to Stanford’s graduate school, the Hudson Institute and Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is a 34-year veteran of the army and retired as a Lt.-Gen. in 2018.
In 2008, George Packer at The New Yorker noted that McMaster was “a true believer that victory in Iraq is possible” and compared him to Col. John Paul Vann of the Vietnam era. Vann gained fame as a result of a different book, and McMaster, so Packer informs us, rejects the comparison. In his new book Battlegrounds, it is clear how much McMaster has grown from those kinds of warrior-thinker-true believer comparisons to a strategist of American power. Perhaps in Battlegrounds we might search more for a profile of US power in this century, similar to US strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan’s vision for the US’ role in the 20th century.
McMaster’s book is a glimpse into the Trump administration to some extent. He agreed to serve to help a new and unconventional president “close gaps between reality overseas and fantasy in Washington.” He begins by telling how we got here. He says that in the 1990s, US global hegemony led to narcissism and failure to really compete in foreign affairs. Into this American hubris walked the authoritarian regimes of Russia, China and Iran, to exploit US weakness and prepare to challenge Washington.
MCMASTER’S BOOK is beautifully crafted, packed with information, but not boring and tedious. He doesn’t dwell on his own role, briefly explaining what he did during his year with the administration, and then unpacking the before and after to give the reader an understanding of the problem. On Iran, he notes that US policy “has suffered from a lack of strategic empathy and a failure to understand how historical memory, emotion and ideology drive the Iranian regime’s behavior.” While these sentiments, understanding one’s enemy, are important, it’s also worth asking enemies like Iran to also have the same strategic empathy. We can work hard to understand others, but in policy we also need to demand adversaries take responsibility for their actions. The US generally fails when it thinks if it just changes tack then it can get results. US administrations tend to come and go, and often try to re-write the rules each eight years, or even blame the last administration for all of Washington’s problems. That is why George W. Bush thought he could trust Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and why Barack Obama and Bill Clinton did a “reset” with Russia and why Trump thought he could also persuade Moscow. But it is the same Moscow.
McMaster provides some insights on Israel, noting that Iranian-backed groups of the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq “provoked Israeli air strikes through efforts to assist Iranian missile proliferation.” In general, his description of the threats to Israel by Iran is consistent and sympathetic to Israel. He doesn’t appear to propose a larger strategic relationship with Israel and other states in the region, such as the Gulf, which is what appears to be happening today. The strategist advocates for a continued US role in the Middle East, and sketches out how dangerous the rise of China has become for US interests. McMaster’s concluding vision is fraught with challenges and while he hopes his work will make a contribution to strengthen the US and free world, the current partisan landscape and infighting in America make it difficult for the country to focus in unity on foreign policy goals. The writer is the Middle East affairs analyst at The Jerusalem Post and the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East.
Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World
By H.R. McMaster
560 pages; $35.00