Hard Lessons: Why H.R. McMaster’s Appointment Really Matters

Following the Flynn debacle and the subsequent Harward humiliation, there was an audible sigh of relief from at least part of the defense community with President Trump’s selection of H.R. McMaster as his National Security Advisor. Andrew Exum cheered Trump’s choice, detailing McMaster’s record as a warrior and a scholar — pointing out the present application of McMaster’s extensive critique on weak Department of Defense officials failing to challenge ambitious executives and their war efforts in his book, Dereliction of Duty. Fred Kaplan addressed many of these same themes, but chose to frame them in terms of McMaster’s noted talent, intellect, and most important for his role in the Trump Administration, his maverick nature.

But praise for McMaster from these authors and others appears to be really about how McMaster can counter what they see as the potential shortcomings of Trump’s foreign policy adventures and not about what McMaster brings to managing the complex institution that is the National Security Council. By all accounts these authors are right: McMaster is a legendary war fighter and brilliant thinker and strategist, he is fiercely independent, and arguably the most effective general officer of his generation. While this does bode well for those concerned with the tone and tenor of President Trump’s approach national security, these characteristics are arguably far more important for McMaster’s leadership of the National Security Council, and particularly his role as chairing the NSC’s Principals Committee. One needs to look only back as far as the 2003 invasion of Iraq to see how desperately leaders with McMaster’s qualities are needed to the coordinate the nation’s defense.

The failure of the United States in the Iraq War, not including notable bright spots like McMaster’s leadership in Tal Afar, was potentially preventable. And even if the United States and its Coalition allies might not ever defeat insurgencies, as some argue, efforts like large scale invasions of sovereign nations by land forces do not have to be as disastrous as the beginning stages of the Iraq War was. And arguably, a strong National Security Advisor who could defeat the egos and bureaucracy of the federal government departments and agencies could have been a key mitigating factor, particularly with respect to the post-invasion era, known as Phase IV.

Phase IV of the Iraq War covers the tumultuous reconstruction era of mid-2003, following the invasion during Phase III, and it was characterized by looting, political discord, and a budding Iraqi insurgency. While it is widely charged by opponents of the Iraq War that the war plans ended after Phase III, the actual problem was that there were too many competing Phase IV plans, and no one to properly coordinate and vet them. While there are a small handful of books about the Coalition’s reconstruction efforts in Iraq, the official report of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, or SIGIR, entitled Hard Lessons: The Iraq Reconstruction Experience, provides the best overview of this devastating and thorough lack of coordination and leadership.

Specifically, Hard Lessons covers the SIGIR’s inspection of “about $50 billion in U.S. funds appropriated by the Congress for Iraq — the largest relief and reconstruction effort for one country in U.S. history.” In the first chapter, which is entitled “Planning Begins,” the SIGIR provides countless examples of the leadership and coordination failures that led to the Coalition’s failed reconstruction effort in Iraq. Not surprisingly, these failures mainly involve friction between the Departments of State and Defense and they started as early as the fall of 2001.

This friction was actually due to two extremely divergent visions for the Iraq War between the two agencies. According to the SIGIR, The Department of Defense viewed the war as a form of regime change where “power should rapidly transfer to an Iraqi authority,” which led to a view of “U.S. forces as liberators who would leave Iraq within months of toppling the regime.” Conversely, the Department of State “concluded that invading Iraq and replacing its totalitarian regime would require a U.S. commitment of enormous scope, carried out over a period of years, engaging everything from Iraq’s judiciary to its electrical grid.” The SIGIR concludes, “the intense interplay between these competing visions fundamentally shaped the process of prewar planning for postwar Iraq in the fifteen months that preceded the March 2003 invasion.”

The State Department established a massive planning effort called the “Future of Iraq Project,” which would “serve both as a means to expand postwar planning and as a vehicle to consolidate competing Iraqi exile groups, who were involved with the project from its earliest days.” The White House’s plans reflected the Defense Department’s vision and began in the spring of 2002 through twice weekly Deputies Committee meetings of the National Security Council’s. During these meetings, members focused on three possible approaches: “a liberation model in which Iraqis would quickly take charge through a provisional government; a military administration led by Central Command; or a civilian transitional authority, perhaps run under UN auspices.” By mid-2002, the SIGIR notes, none of the major difference had even been addressed, nor had a unified planning effort started between State and Defense.

In August of 2002, approximately seven months before the invasion, President Bush signed a national security document entitled, Iraq: Goals, Objectives, Strategy, yet additional planning groups were developed. By the end of that month, the SIGIR writes, “the Joint Staff instructed CENTCOM that it should begin planning to administer Iraq for an interim period after the invasion.” National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice established a new planning committee within the National Security Council called the “Executive Steering Committee on Iraq.” And around the same time, Douglas Feith, Rumsfeld’s deputy, established the “Office of Special Plans” within the Pentagon “to engage in large-scale planning for the war.” Rumsfeld directed Feith to stand up yet another postwar planning office in October of 2002, but cancelled the request a few days later. Because the President did not want to reveal his war plans while pursuing diplomatic solutions ahead of the invasion, the various planning efforts continued in secret, separately, and without coordination.

As the Bush Administration moved closer to war, the lack of real coordination resulted in planning failures. The deliberations for the Department of State’s “Future of Iraq Project” went into 2003. Because the Iraq War began in March of 2003, the late development of this plan prevented its inclusion in the Pentagon’s plans. Also, the State Department effort it was over a thousand pages, leading the NSC steering committee to conclude that it “did not look like an operational plan.” Meanwhile, the USAID, which is generally responsible for reconstruction efforts, developed its Vision for Post-Conflict Iraq in late 2002 without ever being consulted.

The SIGIR writes, “the marked separation between civilian and military preparations, which had existed since late 2001, was followed by further fragmentation within interagency planning processes, which had begun in earnest in August 2002.” The SIGIR report concludes, “even as officials thought they were moving toward an integrated master plan, the building blocks of that plan were being developed in a piecemeal that rendered risks and needs less visible.”

As these plans developed separately, the worldviews of the planners persisted. The effort loosely coordinated by the NSC was clearly becoming a military-dominated effort, meaning that the Defense view drove the process. As the SIGIR puts it, the Defense effort relied on a best-case scenario for reconstruction planning, meaning that the American investment in the reconstruction was limited because Iraqi liberation would be paid for through oil revenues. At the same time, the USAID-led effort was preparing for a humanitarian worst-case scenario. Again, there appeared to be lacking a leader who could see this “striking asymmetry,” as the SIGIR puts it.

Multiple and competing plans contributed to, and arguably provided the foundation for, the failure of the reconstruction effort and the military occupation in Iraq. A strong National Security Advisor could have helped prevent the early failures. Authors like Exum and Kaplan may be eager to see a legitimate maverick like McMaster push back against the President’s national security efforts, but United State’s national security policy is much bigger than a single person, even when that person is the President. McMaster’s true value as Trump’s National Security Advisor will seen in his application of his considerable capabilities and experience to wrangle the egos and entrenched national security bureaucracies to ensure we do not repeat any of the hard lessons learned of the Iraq War.

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