President Trump has picked Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster as his national security adviser, to replace the scandal-stained Michael Flynn. In any administration, McMaster would be an excellent pick for this role. But when it comes to the Trump administration, his appointment seems particularly apt.
Let's go over his credentials. The portmanteau most often associated with McMaster is "warrior-scholar" and, indeed, he is one of those few generals who has made his mark both as a warrior and a scholar.
Early in his career, McMaster was a tank captain who helped win the famous (among war buffs) Battle of 73 Easting during the first Gulf War, facing a larger Iraqi force. During that engagement, McMaster's E Troop's eight tanks destroyed more than 80 Iraqi Republican Guard tanks and other vehicles without loss. During the war in Iraq, he became famous as a colonel for securing the city of Tal Afar in 2004, pioneering the sort of counter-insurgency techniques that would later prove so crucial to the successful 2006 "surge."
He also has another, very rare, distinction: His Ph.D. thesis has been read outside the halls of academia. The book that grew out of his thesis, Dereliction of Duty, is a withering critique of American generalship during the Vietnam War.
But those lines on his resume belie a much more important characteristic: innovative thinking and a pioneering spirit. In a U.S. military whose main disease is conventional thinking and unimaginative generals, perhaps McMaster's most promising achievement is that he was passed over for general twice despite his excellent track record.
One of the noteworthy aspects of the Battle of 73 Easting is that American troops went beyond the coordinates at which they were supposed to stop their advance in order to maintain their advantage and destroy Iraqi units before they could regroup. The main thesis in McMaster's book is that during Vietnam, the generals failed by not challenging their civilian superiors' views more, a piece of advice McMaster has certainly taken to heart in his own career. His counterinsurgency techniques went against the prevailing doctrine of the day before they became almost conventional wisdom. As the former French Military Academy professor Alexandre Delaigue put it, McMaster's career can be summed up as "if my boss tells me something stupid, I'll tell him he's wrong. If he insists, I'll just stop listening and do it my way."
As long as he's smart, reasonable, and talented, this is an enviable character trait in any general. But it might be all the more important in a Trump administration that has been mired in chaos. As the military historian Max Boot points out, Vice President Mike Pence had to be dispatched to Europe to reassure allies that the U.S. wasn't pulling out of NATO, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had to explain to Iraqis that the U.S. wasn't about to steal their oil. Meanwhile, it seems that close Trump advisers like Jared Kushner and Stephen Bannon are trying to set up a parallel foreign policy process.
The better outcome of all this chaos, of course, would be for Trump to recognize that it is not productive, and settle for a rational process. But failing that, someone who can tell the boss to buzz off, and instead do things his own way, is pretty much the best we can hope for.