American policy toward Russia for two decades has struggled under a mistaken belief that presidents or positions can break through with President Vladimir Putin, former national security adviser H.R. McMaster said Monday.
And actually, he argued, they probably can't.
McMaster told NPR's Rachel Martin that he sought to help President Trump recognize the need for a tougher suite of policies against Russia after its aggression in Eastern Europe and interference in the 2016 election.
Martin asked the longtime Army general whether Trump's sometimes inexplicable attitudes and comments about Russia made that job more difficult. Yes, he acknowledged — but Trump also wasn't the first president to be stymied by Moscow, as McMaster said he tried to explain in a new book.
"What I write about in Battlegrounds is that President Trump isn't the first president — he's the third, actually, to suffer under the delusion that we can have a good relationship with Putin. We can make him change. He's going to become, y'know, a nicer guy. He's really not," he told NPR.
U.S. policy toward Russia chilled after its military incursions into Ukraine and then stayed cool after its interference in the 2016 presidential election aimed at helping Trump's election.
McMaster told NPR that he supported a number of steps to check Russian moves and impose some costs on its conduct: "What I describe is Putin's playbook, in the book, and then what we have to do to counter it. We have to work really every day to defend ourselves against it."
McMaster said the challenge for him and other national security specialists is helping presidents view the geopolitical situation as it is and with the tools they have in hand — not in a way they'd prefer or with limitless means.
"So I put in place some mechanisms to help us avoid those same pitfalls," he said. "One was to frame problems — to apply design thinking to the greatest and most crucial challenges that we faced. And so on Russia, we determined we have to really, really explore, you know, what are the emotions and aspirations that drive and constrain Vladimir Putin. This is the term I use in the book, 'strategic empathy,' to compensate for what I see as our strategic narcissism, which is our tendency to view problems as we'd like them to be and engage in wishful thinking and self-delusion."
The dilemma for the West is understanding how far Putin believes he's fallen and how limited his own options are in restoring what he considers lost Russian greatness, McMaster said.
Trump isn't the first U.S. president to struggle to understand that, he argued, but it was McMaster's job to try to make the case.
"What we explained to the president and to others across the administration is that Putin is driven by a sense of honor lost and a drive to restore Russia to national greatness. But, you know, Russia has some big problems, right? Their economy's not doing great. There's now a collapse of oil prices, of course. Demographics aren't in their favor. Their economy's the size of maybe Texas or Italy. And so they have some real constraints. So what is Putin doing? He's trying to drag all of us down."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Some of Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster's friends tried to convince him not to take the job, but after serving more than 30 years in the Army, General McMaster said yes when President Trump asked him to serve as his second national security adviser, his first being Lieutenant General Michael Flynn. Mcmaster served for just 13 months. He says in that time, he helped shape the administration's response to numerous national security threats, including Iran, Russia and China, which he explains in his new book, "Battlegrounds: The Fight To Defend The Free World." I talked with General McMaster about his book, and two things came through in my conversation - one, the successes he had at the NSC sometimes happened despite President Trump, not because of him, and two, how desperately this career military officer wants to rise above partisan divides even as the president he served exploits them.
H R MCMASTER: What I found, Rachel, is that there are really three types of people I think who serve in any White House. There are those who want to provide the elected president options and help that president really decide upon and implement his or her agenda. And then there is a second group of people who are there not to help the president execute his or her agenda but instead to advance their own narrow agenda. And then there's a third group, and I think this is true in any White House - maybe it's more magnified in this administration. But there are some people who define themselves in the role of maybe saving the country and the world from the president. And I was clearly, I felt, in that first category. Those who were in the second and third sometimes don't appreciate what you're doing in providing options to the president and helping the president make, you know, sensible and the best possible decisions, as well as helping the president implement his agenda.
MARTIN: So you were not someone who saw President Trump as some kind of risk from the beginning and that it was your duty to come in because you had been asked and that you could help save him from his worst instincts.
MCMASTER: Right, exactly. Because, I mean, nobody elected me, right? They elected Donald Trump.
MARTIN: Let me ask about Russia. Did the president make it more difficult when it came to Russia? I mean, you talk about one of the victories of your tenure being the recognition of Russia as a strategic threat. And the president himself refused to acknowledge that Russia had been behind the spread of disinformation in the 2016 election. How difficult did that make your job?
MCMASTER: Well, you know, it made it a little bit more difficult.
MARTIN: Time and again in this interview, General McMaster avoided placing blame on the president. On Russia, he went on to say President Trump has repeated a mistake that others before him have made.
MCMASTER: President Trump isn't the first president. He's the third, actually, to suffer under the delusion that we can have a good relationship with Putin. We can make him change. He's going to become, you know, a nicer guy. He's really not. And what I describe is Putin's playbook in the book and then what we have to do to counter it.
MARTIN: During the impeachment hearings for President Trump, your former top Russia expert from the National Security Council, Fiona Hill, was attacked repeatedly by Republicans in Congress and the right-wing media who questioned her integrity and her patriotism. Why did you never come to her defense, as well as other of your former staffers, who were publicly maligned in that process?
MCMASTER: Well, you know, I do defend - come to their defense but in different ways, not a public way, right? I mean, I'm happy to say on the record anytime what a great person Fiona Hill was. And I did multiple times in that period. But, you know, what, Rachel? I just don't want to get dragged down into the vitriolic partisan discourse. I'm going to try - I don't know if it'll work, but I'm going to try to transcend it, right? I think that if we talk about issues, if we talk about the realities about what a fine person, what a tremendous civil servant, what a great scholar Fiona Hill is - let's just rise above the partisan vitriol.
MARTIN: And I know that is what you try to do in this book. Nevertheless, I need to ask, some of your former colleagues in government and the military have been publicly very critical of this president and his judgment - former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, former National Security Adviser John Bolton, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to name just a few. You made a name for yourself early on in your career as someone unafraid to speak truth to power. In fact, you wrote a book called "Dereliction Of Duty" about the negligence of senior officials to question authority during the Vietnam War. Yet you have refrained from any public rebuke of this president. Do you not share those same concerns about the president's ability to govern?
MCMASTER: Well, I'll tell you, Rachel, my primary duty when I was national security adviser was to tell the president really what he needed to know, not what he wanted to hear. And I came in with a determination to do that. That's what I did every day. It was probably one of the factors that grated on him. You know, I was the one who was always bearing, you know, a different perspective or bringing, you know, a different set of facts or analysis. What I am very concerned about is that we cannot allow the military profession to be drug into partisan politics. And, again, I just don't think - you know, being another general to come out to endorse or to disparage a presidential candidate in the midst of an election, I just don't think that would be at this stage very helpful. That's why I wrote a much different book, you know, from another palace intrigue or another tell-all.
MARTIN: You write in the book that as part of trying to remain apolitical throughout your career, you have never voted. You are retired now and you no longer serve in government. Will you cast your vote for president this year?
MCMASTER: (Laughter) Well, my three daughters are working on me, so we'll see.
MARTIN: Are they pushing in any one direction?
MCMASTER: Yeah, they want me to become more engaged and, of course, they want me to be - this is - you know, what I wrote - I write in the preface of "Battlegrounds," this is not the book that most people wanted me to write, you know, including my wife and three daughters, so...
MARTIN: OK, that sounds - and you can tell me if I'm wrong - that sounds like your daughters are pushing you to vote for Joe Biden.
MCMASTER: (Laughter) No, I'm not - I won't say. I think - you know, I really do think one of the important elements of our democracy is the secret ballot, you know, and the privacy that it affords us. And I think that, you know, I just think that we have to, at some point, stop talking about parties. You know, I mean, I think about The Federalist Papers and Federalist 10 and what James Madison and what Alexander Hamilton wrote about. They worried about the danger of factions, which they really meant political parties, and I think that really they foresaw what we're going through today.
MARTIN: Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster - his new book is called "Battlegrounds: The Fight To Defend The Free World." General McMaster, thank you so much for your time.
MCMASTER: Rachel, thank you so much.
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