The appointment of lieutenant general H.R. McMaster as national security adviser ( NSA ) to Donald Trump has been widely welcomed. In the wake of Michael Flynn’s resignation, McMaster is seen as an ideal candidate to introduce a modicum of order and structure in Trump’s national security council (NSC). He is not the first serving military officer to be inducted as NSA for these purposes. Few seem to recall the deeply dysfunctional NSC under Ronald Reagan. No fewer than six NSAs passed through the White House during Reagan’s eight years in office. The most notorious of these was the first serving officer to be appointed as NSA: rear admiral John Poindexter.
Poindexter not only oversaw the notorious “Iran-Contra” affair, whereby the Reagan administration illegally channelled funds and arms to Iran for the release of American hostages in Lebanon, but also sought to cover it up and lied to Congress. After his ignominious departure, Reagan’s NSC continued on its chaotic course until lieutenant general Colin Powell was brought in to stabilize the ship. Unlike Poindexter, Powell acquitted himself well and rose to become the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff (JCS). It is perhaps not surprising that McMaster wants to remain in service during his stint as NSA .
Much has been written in recent days about McMaster’s stint in Iraq—most of it in the boosterish mode. Rather more pertinent to his new role is a book that he wrote 20 years ago. Dereliction Of Duty is a historical account of the US’ escalating involvement in the Vietnam War under Lyndon Johnson in 1964-65.
In a typically misleading mention of the book, The New York Times wrote that the book “critiqued the Joint Chiefs for not standing up to President Lyndon B. Johnson”. This was, in fact, the way the book came to be read, especially in the US military. But its historical message was subtler.