News Release

Bacevich on New Trump Advisor McMaster: Where’s the Vision?

H.R._McMasterANDREW BACEVICH, bacevich [at] bu.edu

Bacevich is professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University. A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, he received his PhD in American diplomatic history from Princeton University. Before joining the faculty of Boston University, he taught at West Point and Johns Hopkins. His latest book is America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History.

He said today: “Just as H.R. McMaster wrote a book about Dereliction of Duty among senior officers of the Vietnam era, there is an opening for some young officer today to tell the story of post-9/11 ‘Dereliction of Duty’ among senior officers belonging to the generation of which McMaster is a part.”

Bacevich just wrote the piece “The Duty of General McMaster” for The American Conservative, which states: “The national security adviser operates — or should operate — in the realm of ‘grand strategy.’ In this rarified atmosphere, preparing for and conducting war coexists with, and arguably should even take a backseat to, other considerations. To advance the fundamental interests of the state, the successful grand strategist orchestrates all the various elements of power. While not shrinking from the use of armed force, he or she sees war as a last resort, to be undertaken only after having exhausted all other alternatives.

“This distinction between military strategy and grand strategy is more than semantic. Maintaining it is crucial to successful statecraft.

“Consider the case of nineteenth-century Germany. Von Moltke the Elder was a gifted military strategist. Bismarck was a master of grand strategy. The collaboration between the two, with the Iron Chancellor in the role of senior partner, created the modern German state. Once Wilhelm II handed Bismarck his walking papers in 1890, however, the distinction between military strategy and grand strategy was gradually lost. The results became apparent after 1914. In the person of Erich Ludendorff, war absorbed statecraft, with the fall of the House of Hohenzollern the least among the many catastrophes that ensued.

“U.S. national security policy in the present century bears more than passing resemblance to that of Germany a century ago. …

“Like German militarists in 1917, American militarists in 2017 fight on because they lack the capacity to imagine an alternative. In policymaking circles, war has become a habit.

“The question is whether H.R. McMaster can play a role in breaking that habit, as President Trump in his weird, inconsistent way has suggested he intends to do. To put it another way: Can General McMaster restore the distinction between grand strategy and military strategy and re-subordinate the latter to the former?

“Little reason exists to suggest that he will do so — indeed, whether he is even inclined to make the effort. That he is an accomplished practitioner of his chosen craft is unquestionably the case. McMaster is a resourceful and demanding military leader. As a field commander, he has exhibited impressive tactical skill. As a staff officer he has filled high-profile assignments both at home and abroad, winning favorable attention of General David Petraeus, among others. Like Petraeus, McMaster has demonstrated a knack for courting journalists and members of Congress.

“For all that, he remains a professional soldier, not a global visionary. For the past two years, McMaster has devoted himself to contemplating about the future of the United States Army, not the future of the international order. On Russia, he appears to be a neo-Cold Warrior, favoring the recommitment of U.S. ground forces to Europe, a prospect welcomed by an army that today finds itself searching for a raison d’être.”