WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, said U.S.-backed peace talks in Afghanistan are doomed to end in “failure” and warned the risk of another 9/11-style attack on America is “very high.”
The U.S. is “in many ways more at risk today than we were on Sept. 10, 2001,” McMaster told USA TODAY in the first print interview for his new book, “Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World.”
In a wide-ranging conversation, McMaster lamented the politicization of the military, said the Trump administration has mishandled the coronavirus pandemic and expressed grave concern about a “destructive cycle” in American politics that has weakened the country.
“We’re creating this destructive cycle and these centripetal forces that are pulling us apart from each other,” said the former Army lieutenant general. “We’re forgetting who we are as Americans.”
McMaster served as Trump’s second national security adviser, appointed to the job in February 2017 after Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn was fired for lying about his contacts with the Russian ambassador. Flynn had served in the post less than a month, and McMaster said the White House was not the “well-oiled machine” the president claimed when he arrived.
But his book is not a dramatic tell-all documenting his 13 months in the White House. McMaster said he had no desire to write another “palace intrigue” memoir. Instead, he offers a thoughtful critique of U.S. foreign policy and a restrained assessment of Trump’s approach to North Korea, Afghanistan and other global hotspots.
He says Trump saw a summit with Kim Jong Un as “irresistible.” He said he “can’t really explain” why Trump seems so deferential to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He won’t say if he supports a second Trump term.
“I’m determined, even in retirement, not to be dragged into partisan politics,” he said.
Indeed, McMaster takes pains in his book not to attack Trump too directly or too harshly, and in the interview, he tiptoed around some of the most nettlesome issues confronting the White House right now. He says the Obama administration and other presidents also engaged in what he calls “strategic narcissism,” in which they base foreign policy decisions more on hopes and dreams than on reality.
But McMaster makes clear he disagreed with some of the president’s decisions – such as withdrawing from the Paris climate accords and negotiating with the Taliban, which he says was based on a “fantasy” and “wishful thinking” that the militant Islamic group would renounce its ties to al-Qaida, which orchestrated the 9/11 attacks.
‘Mass executions … every other Saturday?’
The Trump administration brokered a peace deal with the Taliban in February, agreeing to a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. In exchange, the Taliban promised to sever its ties with al-Qaida and keep the country from reverting to a terrorist haven. The Taliban is now negotiating with the Afghan government in the hopes of crafting a power-sharing agreement.
McMaster said the U.S. deal will simply allow the Taliban to expand its territory and establish an Islamic caliphate and a terrorist training ground. And he ridiculed the idea of a power-sharing agreement, saying it will pave the way for the Taliban to reimpose its brutally repressive laws on the Afghan people – particularly women.
“What (does) power-sharing with the Taliban look like?” he asked. “Does that look like … every other girls’ school bulldozed? Or does it look like mass executions in the soccer stadium every other Saturday?”
” … We’ve created this idea that the Taliban can be partners for peace when in fact, they’re determined to establish an Islamic caliphate in Afghanistan and to use that Islamic caliphate as a base for expansion,” McMaster said.
He predicted the effort will result in failure and leave the United States increasingly vulnerable – not just to al-Qaida but also the Islamic State and other virulently anti-American terrorist groups. The threat is wider now, he said, and those groups are more capable.
Compounding the problem: “There is a very strong sentiment in the United States across both political parties to disengage from these complex problems … overseas,” he said.
He demurred when asked if the Trump administration made a mistake in dismantling a pandemic preparedness office, which the Obama administration added to the National Security Council as a response to Ebola. (McMaster’s successor, John Bolton, disbanded that unit as part of a broader streamlining effort.)
Still, McMaster said Trump’s instinct to downplay the virus did not make sense.
“In my experiences as a military commander, the more you tell your soldiers about even the most dangerous mission, it’s going to allay their concerns, and it’s going to encourage them to take initiative,” he said. The COVID-19 response is “probably one of the biggest shortcomings” of the Trump administration.
Trump ‘not hesitant to disparage anybody’
McMaster, who won a Silver Star in 1991 for valor during the ground phase of the first Gulf War, said he never heard Trump disparage U.S. troops during his time in the White House and couldn’t comment on an “Atlantic” magazine report that he denigrated World War I soldiers as “suckers” and losers.”
But “he’s not hesitant to disparage anybody” who he sees as unsupportive, the retired three-star general added.
” … The president’s very brash and unconventional. And I was OK with that. I mean, I don’t agree with much of what the president says,” he said. “I regret some things he says, but I didn’t see it as my job to be the arbiter of his tweets or statements.”
In the book, he recounts Trump’s off-handed comment about the war in Afghanistan. “I could win that war in a week. I just don’t want to kill 10 million people.”
McMaster says that belied a misunderstanding about the conflict and “cheapened” the sacrifices made by both American and Afghan soldiers who lost their lives in the war.
He said Trump’s photo-op at LaFayette Square – in which peaceful protesters were dispersed so Trump pose with a Bible in front of a historic church near the White House – was a “mistake” because it it cast the military in a political role and made it seems as if U.S. troops were being used against the protesters. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and Defense Secretary Mark Esper joined Trump in walking along a path cleared by police and National Guard forces.
But McMaster said Trump’s critics have also seized on the incident for political gain.
“It’s regrettable that the military is being drug into partisan politics, and we have to be really careful and we have to be really responsible, across both political parties, to prevent that from happening,” McMaster said.
Trump’s affinity for Putin? ‘I can’t really explain it.’
McMaster’s tenure was not as tumultuous as that of other administration officials who have rotated through the White House. But he did get crosswise with Trump early on, after he told a national security conference in Munich there was “incontrovertible” evidence of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Trump quickly chided him via Twitter: “General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians and that the only Collusion was between Russia and Crooked H, the DNC and the Dems,” he said, using a derisive nickname for former secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
McMaster said the U.S. has not done enough to punish Russia for its meddling in the 2016 presidential election, and he writes extensively about Moscow’s ambitions to undermine the United States and other Western democracies.
He said Trump is hardly the only president guilty of underestimating Vladimir Putin. He said there’s a pattern across three administrations – from George W. Bush to Obama to Trump – of wishful thinking that “Putin is going to change.”
Asked about Trump’s praise for Putin and his refusal to take the threat of Russian aggression more seriously, McMaster said: “I can’t really explain it.”
“… President Trump says things that … I think are are overly generous, to put it mildly, toward a very hostile leader,” he said.
McMaster declined to weigh in on the Ukraine impeachment scandal but said he never heard Trump pressure foreign leaders for political favors.
He did, however, hear from the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who led the campaign to pressure Ukrainian leaders to dig up dirt on Trump’s Democratic rival, Joe Biden.
McMaster said he had contact with Giuliani on “a few occasions” while he was Trump’s national security adviser. But he declined to say why Giuliani approached him, whether he found those contacts inappropriate or if he raised any concerns to others in the Trump administration.
He said Trump cast a wide net when it came to seeking outside advice, and he saw it as his job to “just grab that advice” and put it in context “so that there weren’t end runs around the system that would do the president disservice.”
‘I will never endorse anybody’
McMaster left the White House in March 2018 on relatively amicable terms, with hardliner John Bolton lined up to succeed him.
McMaster said Washington and the White House had become “toxic,” noting that he had been targeted by alt-right activists who saw him as a globalist and an obstacle to their agenda. The accusations against him ran the gamut, from being a puppet of billionaire philanthropist George Soros to being soft on Iran and terrorism.
Meanwhile, his main client, the president, reportedly grew tired of McMaster’s detailed briefings – cutting them short or trying to avoid them all together, according to a 2018 Washington Post story.
But McMaster expressed no regrets about his time in the White House. And he declined to say whether he thought Trump deserves a second term or not.
McMaster said he has never voted because of a desire to remain devoutly apolitical, and “I will never endorse anybody.”
No matter who is elected in November, the next president will face an unparalleled threat from within, he said.
“Whether it’s President Trump or President Biden, I’m worried about what we’re going to do to ourselves,” he said. “It seems to me like we’ve lost the ability to empathize with one another. And I think if empathy is over, we’re going to have a very difficult time really understanding who we are as a people” and restoring civility and repairing democracy.
He said the U.S. faces a triple crisis right now with COVID-19, the recession and the racial injustice “laid bare by the murder of George Floyd.” Russia, China and other rivals perceive the U.S. as weak right now, and they’re using that opening to act more aggressively regionally and globally.
“That argues for continued engagement (around the world) because as we’ve learned with COVID-19, if you don’t address a problem overseas and contain it, once it reaches our shores, the cost can be become very difficult to bear,” he said.