Part memoir, part history and part think-tank report, “Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World” is McMaster’s attempt to instruct the reader about the world he encountered as national security adviser and throughout his career. In it, we learn almost nothing about his interactions with Trump or his personal opinion of the man. McMaster holds up this decision as a virtue, prefacing his book with a brushback statement that amounts to a pox on both houses. He frames his book as disappointing Trump supporters searching for a portrait of an “unconventional leader” who advanced American interests, or Trump opponents who “wanted an account to confirm their judgment that he was a bigoted narcissist unfit for office.” Instead, McMaster immodestly describes himself as “apolitical; in the tradition of Gen. George C. Marshall (the architect of victory in World War II).” The parenthetical seems intended to drive home his point: Those uncorrupted by politics do the work.
That’s what the book aims to do: the work, in particular, of educating the reader in a manner that makes the case for McMaster’s conventionally hawkish approach to American national security. With the kind of detail that reportedly caused Trump to sour on him, McMaster takes us on a tour of those parts of the world that, in his view, pose the greatest danger to the United States — from Russia and China, to traditional hot spots such as Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and North Korea (pandemics merit only a glancing reference). Along the way, there are dense and often rich diversions into the history that shaped each place; evocations of ancient Greek philosophers, Confucius, and the 18th-century military strategist Carl von Clausewitz; and empathetic and astute portraits of interlocutors such as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (“he came from a people, the Ahmadzais, known as warrior-poets”) and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (“Abadi’s educated, pious Shia family, like many others, rejected a secular government driven by power and avarice.”)
McMaster has an erudite and confident voice, and is at his best when dissecting emerging trends such as Russia’s weaponization of disinformation and Xi Jinping’s increasing assertion of control over all aspects of Chinese life and use of technology to shape events beyond China’s borders. Clearly, McMaster wants to communicate an intellectual framework and sense of reason behind the dramatic foreign policy shifts of the early Trump administration, for instance the move to a more confrontational line toward China. But his insistence on avoiding frank commentary on his former boss undermines the very credibility he is seeking to assert.
Reflecting on a 2017 visit to China, he writes, “We saw competitive advantage in freedom of expression, of assembly, and of the press; freedom of religion and freedom from persecution based on religion, race, gender, or sexual orientation.” Yet McMaster served a president who lambasted the free press as an “enemy of the American people,” and regularly singled out Americans for attack based on their religion, race, gender or sexual orientation. The fact of Trump’s presidency opened a wide space for China to extend its influence at the expense of an erratic U.S. government. And McMaster’s failure to grapple at all with the racialized and undemocratic currents of the Trump presidency make his words ring hollow: A competition of political models cannot be won when the president doesn’t embrace the values that define our own.
Similarly, McMaster meticulously and effectively portrays how Russia uses disinformation to divide American society. He recounts in compelling detail how Russia was behind a relentless information campaign to attack him: “The emphasis was on reinforcing the ‘deep state’ narrative, which asserts that disloyal civil servants were actively undermining President Trump’s agenda.” Again, left unsaid is that no human on the planet — including Vladimir Putin — did more to advance this deep-state narrative in a way that divided Americans and rendered our national security apparatus dysfunctional than Trump.
McMaster does offer critiques of Trump. Writing more as a dispassionate analyst than a former West Wing staff member, he uses the president’s public comments to criticize a familiar litany of Trumpian moments — lavishing praise on Putin and Kim Jong Un, withdrawing U.S. troops from northern Syria and striking a dubious deal with the Taliban. Although he doesn’t say it, his core thesis — that post-Cold War America has embraced a “strategic narcissism” that sacrifices resolute leadership in favor of short-term, self-obsessed and politically motivated decision-making — can easily be read as an indictment of the North Star of Trump’s foreign policy: Trump’s own interests.
But in his own way, McMaster does take a side. He is far more withering and constant in his criticism of President Barack Obama, casting him dismissively as a fellow traveler of the post-Vietnam “New Left” — which he defines as viewing the United States as “the principal cause of the world’s problems.” Without entertaining the notion that Trump’s disdain for Obama accounted for his efforts to dismantle his legacy, he offers justifications for those efforts that Trump probably could not articulate. The Trans-Pacific Partnership was an effort to generate leverage on China through a new trading bloc, but Hillary Clinton would have abandoned it (I suspect she would have renegotiated aspects of it, rather than walking away). The Iran Nuclear Deal is cast as a hopelessly failed effort to change Iranian behavior, ignoring the fact that Iran complied with nuclear restrictions that it has violated since Trump left the deal, and the damage to our alliances from Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign. Most strangely, McMaster says he opposed leaving the Paris Agreement, but argues that leaving had a “silver lining,” in that it would “draw attention to the agreement’s inadequacies” in fighting climate change, which hardly seems to be Trump’s intent.
As an officer, McMaster is right to feel as though political leaders of both parties have placed enormous and shifting burdens on the military. He has an admirable commitment to pursue better outcomes to the nation’s post-9/11 wars. As a progressive, I’m among those who believe that there is a different form of strategic narcissism in thinking that the United States can shape events inside other countries through some of McMaster’s suggested courses — more sanctions on Iran; the devotion of more resources to Afghanistan and the Middle East; a continued prioritization of counterterrorism in a post-pandemic world. It’s wrong to say that Obama believed the United States was the root of the world’s problems; he just had different priorities, expressed through initiatives on arms control, climate change, the Asia Pacific, the global economy and global health security. Moreover, Obama believed that the nation’s influence depends chiefly on what kind of country we were at home — not just what we did abroad.
There are important debates to be had about these issues, and in a normal world we must have them. But this book is being published just a few weeks before a U.S. presidential election that could determine whether the United States remains a functioning democracy and whether there will be any international order at all. Perhaps McMaster will have more to say about this as he discusses his book. For now, the strangest thing about “Battlegrounds” is that it appears at a moment that is existential to the form of U.S. leadership he advocates, and yet he is defiantly silent about the elephant in the room: the most important battleground right now is the one at home.
The Fight to Defend the Free World
By H. R. McMaster
Harper. 545 pp. $35