National security adviser H.R. McMaster is continuing to fill out his national security staff with conservative foreign policy experts from the establishment think-tank world, preferring them to the military intelligence types favored by his predecessor, retired Gen. Michael T. Flynn.
Two White House officials confirmed that McMaster has offered the post of senior director for South and Central Asia to Lisa Curtis, a well-known conservative expert and senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Curtis has accepted the offer and is going through the entry process now. Curtis has been a leading voice on the GOP side of the South Asia expert community for decades, having worked at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as an adviser to the State Department during the George W. Bush administration and as an analyst with the CIA.
What’s illuminating about the pick is that McMaster decided to scuttle Flynn’s choice for the post, Brig. Gen. Robin Fontes, who is currently the defense attaché at the U.S. embassy in New Delhi. The Pentagon had already announced that Fontes was going to the NSC to take the senior director job, as she was offered the post by Flynn before his firing.
“General McMaster is doing the hiring and it reflects his priorities but it’s not a reaction against [Flynn],” one White House official told me. “This is going to give us significant person-power in an area where we need it.”
The Curtis appointment is only the latest McMaster choice that steers the NSC staff away from Flynn’s penchant for military intelligence officers he happened to know well. Last month, McMaster chose GOP foreign policy expert Nadia Schadlow to be senior director for strategy and charged her with drafting the administration’s new national security strategy.
Officials also confirmed that Fiona Hill, a Brookings Institution scholar and traditional GOP Russia hawk, will be senior director for Russia and Europe, a newly combined directorate that brings both regions under one chain of command. Originally, Flynn had selected Tim Shea, the defense intelligence officer for Eurasia at the Defense Intelligence Agency. Shea actually decided to go back to the DIA before Flynn was fired, a DIA spokesperson said.
Several other Flynn hires have also left since his departure, for a variety of reasons. Senior director for strategy Dave Horan left the same day as Flynn. Senior director for the Western Hemisphere Craig Deare, a former Marine intelligence officer, was shown the door after it was revealed he criticized Trump in a private think-tank meeting. Robin Townley, another former Marine intelligence officer, was forced to leave his post as senior director for Africa after the CIA denied him his security clearance.
Replacements for both of those regional senior director roles are in the works, officials said. The officials also confirmed reports that K.T. McFarland, the deputy national security adviser who arrived before McMaster, has been offered other roles outside the NSC, including a possible foreign ambassadorship. No transfer has been decided and McFarland might end up staying at the NSC, officials said.
McMaster wanted to get rid of Flynn’s senior director for intelligence programs, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, but top White House officials reportedly intervened on his behalf. Now that Cohen-Watnick is part of the controversy over the alleged unmasking of Trump transition officials who were caught up in incidental collection by American spy agencies, the White House is even more determined to keep him in place, officials said.
As for Curtis, she will soon be the only senior official appointed in the Trump administration who deals with the South Asia region, which includes the strategically important countries of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, among others. There’s no permanent assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, no Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the State Department and no assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs at the Pentagon.
“It’s rather disheartening I’m sure for the people in the region,” said Shuja Nawaz, distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council. “They are still fumbling for some direction as to how the Trump administration will deal with this region.”
No world leader from the region has visited the White House and the Trump administration has said very little about its plans for the region. It’s been particularly quiet about Afghanistan, where thousands of U.S. troops are stationed.
Also up in the air is whether the NSC staff will play a major role in foreign policymaking. In the recent visit of the Saudi crown prince and the upcoming visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping, senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner has taken the lead. Also, several senior GOP foreign policy hands interviewed for top administration jobs have been rejected by the White House because they expressed some anti-Trump views during the campaign, shrinking the pool from which candidates can be chosen.
McMaster’s filling out of the NSC staff with experts and professionals rather than Flynn’s battle buddies is a positive step toward normalizing the foreign policymaking process in the Trump administration. But that effort still has a very long way to go.