When Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, President’s Trump’s national security adviser, appeared at a Washington think tank last year, he asserted that the Islamic State terrorist group “can’t be contained.”
It was an assessment that on its face appeared to contradict the message from the commander in chief. Mr. Trump has made it clear that his top foreign policy objective is not to contain the Islamic State but to destroy it. Defense Secretary James Mattis has presented the plan in outline form.
If there is any field general best able to size up the terrorist threat, it is Mr. McMaster. He doggedly led soldiers on the ground in Iraq against the vicious al Qaeda in Iraq insurgency led by Abu Musab Zarqawi.
In tough street fighting, his soldiers secured the crossroads town of Tal Afar near the Syria border — the same critical juncture that U.S.-supported Iraqi forces are fighting over today.
“They are some of the worst human beings on the face of the Earth,” he told the Pentagon press conference back then. “There is no really greater pleasure for us than to kill or capture these particular individuals.”
Then-Col. McMaster went on to earn three stars as he held Army training and doctrine posts, studied the enemy and emerged as a public authority on warfare.
At the Center for Strategic and International Studies in May, his worldview touched on the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh) and its expansion from a Syrian “proto-state” into Iraq, the broader Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan and Europe.
“And so, ISIL. This is an unprecedented threat in many ways because now we have a terrorist proto-state in the Greater Middle East,” he said. “It’s a problem that we know can’t be contained, right? Half the Syrian population is dead, wounded or displaced. That has affected not only countries in the region and is not only a humanitarian catastrophe, but also it is destabilizing Europe in some ways.
“And so ISIL is a problem because of the difficulty of it being contained,” he said. “For that reason and, of course, the terrorist threat to Europe, to the Middle East and to our own nation. But ISIL is a threat that can’t be contained because it’s already a multigenerational security problem.”
Michael Anton, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, told The Washington Times he was not aware of those quotes, but maintained that the national security adviser and the president were on the same page.
“He’s made abundantly clear to everybody here he’s here to support the president,” Mr. Anton said. “He’s fully onboard with the president’s agenda, his policies. Whatever opinions he’s expressed in the past — I can’t give you any insight into that, that speech. He’s onboard.”
Mr. McMaster attended a Feb. 27 briefing by Mr. Mattis, who presented a broad outline of his plan to crush the Islamic State. Mr. Mattis has stated publicly that he wants to accelerate the capture of Raqqa, Syria, the terrorist group’s declared capital.
“[He] was fully supportive of the outlines of the plan,” Mr. Anton said of Mr. McMaster. “It’s not a final plan, obviously. It’s going to be worked over through the inner agency. But he is fully supportive.”
Mr. McMaster’s White House arrival was met with scorn from strategists and analysts who advocated linking Islam to groups such as the Islamic State. They view the teachings of the Sunni Salafi movement as the ideology driving the Islamic State, al Qaeda and other Islamist groups to justify mass killings.
Like Mr. Trump, they want to label the enemy as a way of framing the debate on how to destroy it. They maintain that the Islamic State, rather than being un-Islamic, is rooted in Muslim scholarship and cannot be separated from Islam.
Mr. McMaster, on the other hand, has stated that the “Islamic State is not Islam.” He does not like labels such as “radical Islam.”
The ‘so-called Islamic State’
“There is a cycle going on where groups like ISIL, who use this irreligious ideology — you know, this perverted interpretation of religion — to justify violence,” he told the CSIS gathering. “They depend on ignorance and the ability to recruit vulnerable segments of populations to foment hatred and then to use that hatred to justify violence against innocents.”
Said Robert Spencer, who heads Jihad Watch, which tracks Islamic violence and hatred worldwide: “This could be Barack Obama or John Kerry speaking.
“There have been indications that the Republican establishment has been trying to co-opt Trump and keep him from effecting the sweeping reform that he has promised, and this appointment could indicate that, at least for the moment, these forces have gained the upper hand,” Mr. Spencer said.
The McMaster view at CSIS does seem to put him less in sync with Mr. Trump and more in line with former President Barack Obama, who made it policy to isolate terrorists from Islam and mock such language. He said that one of the priorities of his presidency was to protect Islam from negative portrayals.
“The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam,” Mr. Obama said at the United Nations.
The Pentagon’s 2015 National Military Strategy does not speak of Islam but of violent extremist organizations.
“We are leading multiple coalition efforts to disrupt, degrade, and defeat VEOs,” says the strategy from retired Gen. Martin Dempsey, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Central to these efforts is strengthening our global network of allies and partners.”
Mr. Anton, the National Security Council spokesman, asserted that Mr. McMaster’s view is closer to Mr. Trump’s than critics maintain.
The criticism intensified after the retired general held an all-hands National Security Council meeting on Feb. 27. He again expressed his view that the Islamic State is not Islamic.
Mr. Anton explained Mr. McMaster’s views this way: “He said something along the lines of the ‘so-called Islamic State. I don’t think they are Islamic. They’re un-Islamic. They’re irreligious. They’re criminals. They’re barbarians.’
“Very similar language to actually what the president said last night [in a speech to joint session of Congress]. He has expressed the point which I think is reasonable from a counterinsurgency officer operating in theater that you want to talk about the faith in a way that is sensitive to allies. When you’re in that environment, working with tribal sheikhs, working with imams, working with local security forces, trying to defend the local population, you want to be sensitive to their faith and their perception of their faith. You don’t want to lump them together with the same people you are trying to defeat. It’s ultimately a semantics issue. Beyond that, they do see the fight fundamental the same way.”
On the use of the nonspecific “violent extremist organizations,” Mr. Anton said Mr. McMaster rejects the term.
“That’s nonsense,” the NSC spokesman said. “He was very clear about that. He was quite critical of it in the all-hands meeting.”
Mr. Anton said some new official language will be coming out of the White House.
“I think H.R. has had some suggestions,” he said. “If you tweak this word here, if you tweak the language a little bit there, it helps with allies. Here’s the point: Trump’s criticism all along throughout the campaign was of a political correctness that refused to see the issue for what it was, that tried to deny any connection. H.R. is arguing for that [Mr. Trump’s] perspective. He’s not saying the Obama-Clinton argument had it right: ‘Let’s just pretend there is this violent extremism and it’s all of a piece.’”