H. R. McMaster: The Policy “Battlegrounds” He Has Won, Lost, And Continues To Fight

interview with H. R. McMaster
Tuesday, September 22, 2020

To watch the video, click here.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Born in Philadelphia, Lieutenant General, H.R. McMaster graduated from West Point in 1984 and later earned a doctorate in American history from the University of North Carolina. His doctoral thesis was published as dereliction of duty Johnson, McNamara, the joint chiefs of staff and the lies that led to Vietnam. General McMaster served in the Gulf War, Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom. From February, 2017 until April, 2018, General McMaster served as National Security Advisor to President Trump. General McMaster's new book "Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend The Free World". H.R. Welcome back to Uncommon Knowledge.

H. R. McMaster: Thanks Peter. It's a pleasure to be with you.

Peter Robinson: I should point out, I don't mean to indicate disrespect by failing to call you general, but you and I are colleagues and friends, and certainly, so H.R. Battlegrounds. At the turn of the 21st century, the United States was set up for a rude awakening of tragic proportions close quote, explain that.

H. R. McMaster: Oh, thanks, Peter. What a pleasure is to be with you. And thanks for what you do to help make accessible to the American public in understanding of these complex issues. Well, I think I lived through this period of time and bore witness to a dramatic swing in the emotional impetus behind US Foreign Policy and National Security Strategy. From I think over optimism in the 1990s to pessimism, maybe even resignation in the 2000s. And of course that optimism grew in the wake of victory in the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Peter Robinson: So you come out of the West Point, you come out of the United States Military Academy in '84.

H. R. McMaster: Right.

Peter Robinson: You're in East Germany. Is that right?

H. R. McMaster: Well, on the West German border in 1989, when the wall comes down.

Peter Robinson: So five years after you graduate this titanic struggle that's lasted half a century ends in essentially in a victory for the West.

H. R. McMaster: And not necessarily a huge victory for the West. And what was dramatic is you're living in West Germany and actually with our cavalry regiment patrolling the East West German border. And seeing, seeing that scene changed dramatically from one moment, staring down East German border guards to then thousands, then tens of thousands of people gathering at that border crossing, the hates thrown open, our soldiers being swamped by East Germans, with bouquets of flowers and bottles of wine. And there were hugs and tears of joy. And so it was a triumphant moment. And then of course-

Peter Robinson: And it felt like a permanent victory, is that right?

H. R. McMaster: Well, I think it did too many Americans. I think many Americans assumed that really this was a fundamental shift in the nature of international relations and in the nature of the competitive nature of the world. Charles Krauthammer who I know you knew, and I think was just a very keen observer, always. He called it the unipolar moment because he knew it was a moment. But some people assumed that there had been an arc of history that guaranteed the primacy of our free and open societies over closed authoritarian systems. And so we forgot that we had to compete. And I think we became overconfidence, complacent and that complacency and overconfidence, not only based on the dramatic end of the Cold War, but also based on this lopsided military victory over Saddam's army in the 1991 Gulf War. I think it leads to this assumption that a future wars will be fast, cheap, efficient way from standoff range. We don't really have to compete in traditional arenas of competition, involving really information and propaganda and disinformation, different forms of economic competition. We didn't really have to engage in because our free market economic system was proven.

Peter Robinson: That's right.

H. R. McMaster: Other alternatives had failed.

Peter Robinson: Right.

H. R. McMaster: I mean, Russia was in, it was in a really bad, in bad shape in the 90s. China's rejuvenation was not really in full swing. It was the opening period of dunk shell ping, but it had not really taken full effect in China. And so I think we assume that great power competition was passe. And in this overconfidence, I think it was a setup for many of the difficulties we encountered.

Peter Robinson: And so this subtitle says it all, the fight to defend the free world.

H. R. McMaster: Right.

Peter Robinson: Once again we have a fight on our hands.

H. R. McMaster: Absolutely, we have a fight.

Peter Robinson: I'm sorry, you mentioned Russia just a moment ago. The book takes us all around the world. It gives us a lot of history and says, here's what we ought to be concerned with in this region. This does go literally around the world. This is television, so we don't have time to circle the entire globe, but let's take a few, Russia. Battlegrounds, I'm quoting you again. In 2019, Russia's GDP was smaller than Italy's and the United States had a defense budget that was 11 times larger. Here's the threshold question. Why do we care about Russia?

H. R. McMaster: Right. Well, because your enemies, your adversaries, your rivals, your competitors like Russia, they don't have to compete with you symmetrically. I quote, my friend Conrad Crane in the book, he said there are two ways to fight the United States, asymmetrically and stupidly. And you hope that your adversary pick stupidly, but what Russia has done is they've engaged in a very sophisticated campaign of political subversion against Europe, the United States and the West. And Europe I mean, Russia feels like it doesn't have to be the strongest. I think Putin wants to be the last man standing while he exacerbates and widens fissures in our societies, pits us against each other, reduces our confidence in our democratic principles and institutions and processes.

Peter Robinson: Another threshold question again, from Battlegrounds. And here, you're writing about a meeting with your Russian counterpart. This is shortly after you become NSC Advisor, I quote, having studied the evolution of Russian new generation warfare, RNGW which you explained in detail in the book, having studied Russian New Generation Warfare for years, I looked forward to talking with Patricia to understand better the motivations behind this pernicious form of aggression. So you've answered why we need to care about them. They don't have to be as strong as we are to do a lot of damage, but this question of motivations. What do they want? Why don't they want a democratic society in which everyone can prosper? How could they not like, they'd be richer and better and lead more peaceful lives and have a greater country. If they lived more, the way we do, what are they trying to do?

H. R. McMaster: Well I think what has impeded our development of sound strategy and impeded our ability to compete effectively is we just tend to mirror image to the other and we tend to emphasize really commonality of interest and don't give due attention. We don't give due attention to how really emotions, aspirations, and ideologies drive and constrain the other. And in the case of Russia, I mean, those who are in control, rushing out Putin and the so-called Sola Viki who's brought in, the former KGB agents and the former security ministry, people around him. These are people-

Peter Robinson: These are root guys from the middle levels of the old Soviet operation that we defeated are now running this country.

H. R. McMaster: They're running the country.

Peter Robinson: We're facing them all over again. Okay.

H. R. McMaster: And they are motivated. They're motivated by really, really fear and ambition. Their fear is that this corrupt system that they have built within Russia will collapse. I mean, Putin really, he sits on top of a mafia like protection racket. Where those who have gained control of the wealth in the country, the oligarchs they depend on Putin because Putin has dirt on everybody. And he keeps them from destroying each other. And in exchange for giving them license essentially to continue their pseudo criminal enterprises, Putin gets a cut. But he gets the cut on kind of a handshake deal. If he's not in power, I mean, they might not make good on the promises they made to him. So he wants to keep the corrupt system in place with him at the pinnacle of power. And you've seen what he's done recently. Just in rewriting the constitution, trying to create this new role from which he can maintain control also try to remove any kind of term limits on power so he can remain in power. The aspiration is to achieve national greatness again for Russia. And for Russia to reassert really its influence in the former Soviet republics and beyond, and then to be a player in other key regions of the world. For example, as Russia has inserted itself in the Middle East and in North Africa.

Peter Robinson: So Vladimir Putin if we want to understand this man's motivations, we need to think of him as one part old fashioned czar. He wants to build an empire because that's what Russians do. On one part, Tony soprano.

H. R. McMaster: I think those are very good analogies. Those are very good analogies. So Vladimir Putin is not gonna be our friend. And so I know people sometimes think is really vaccing about President Trump. Why does President Trump thinks he can be a friend with him?

Peter Robinson: So here he is, you quote him in the book. You have an interview that the president gave in 1982 and he says, calling Russia an adversary is, and now I'm quoting the president, incredible, says Donald Trump. Russia lost 50 million people and helped us win the Second World War close quote. They didn't lose 50 million, the highest estimate I've ever seen is 2025.

H. R. McMaster: Yeah.

Peter Robinson: Still they lost a lot of people. So you were national security, forget your time in the White House. Right now how do you say to the president, you've already begun it. He's not going to be our friend. What do we do about Vladimir Putin?

H. R. McMaster: Well, I think what we have to do is we have to affect his calculation, such that he recognizes he can't accomplish his objectives through continued use of this pernicious form of aggression, this sophisticated campaign of political subversion that employs disinformation and propaganda, oftentimes as well combinations of conventional military force with unconventional military force, as we saw in the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine. And the employment of these disruptive technologies, especially in cyberspace, the weaponization of social media. But then also certain military capabilities that he has developed not to replicate our exquisite military technology, but to take apart what he sees as our competitive advantages. Putin will continue to pursue this strategy again, based on really this sense of offended honor associated with the collapse of the Soviet Union, but and also his ambition, his ambition to be a world player. And certainly-

Peter Robinson: So we can't befriend him, we can't convert him, all we can do is adjust the incentives he faces.

H. R. McMaster: Well and we can also look at ourselves, and inoculate ourselves against this campaign. We can become stronger. We can be less susceptible to this sort of effort to polarize our society and pit us against each other. What people I think sometimes overlook because so much has been about the attack on the election itself in 2016. The attack on the election was a means toward a broader, it's just one part of a broader strategy to divide us and to pit us against each other on issues of race. 80% of Russian bot and troll traffics originating in the Internet Research Agency, the IRA in Moscow was based on race on both sides. The second, this really where the big gap in between race and immigration was the next, gun control was the next. So it's an issue that naturally could divide us Russia doubles data. But when try to write about in the book too, is there's a lot of continuity in this approach. I mean, going back to the communist party in the 1920s and 30s, there was a plan then that they probably pulled out of the KGB archive and dusted off, to also try to affect Americans' confidence in who they are. And in our principles and in our identity as Americans.

Peter Robinson: Iran, Battlegrounds, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal was to President Trump and example of an agreement in which the United States forfeited its bargaining power and gave away too much for too little close quote. Was he right?

H. R. McMaster: He was right. He was absolutely right. And he was right, because of really two fundamental reasons. One is they were just flaws in the deal in terms of its ability to achieve its purpose, which is to block a random path to a nuclear weapon. It just didn't do that. As you see just in the news in the last month or so, you have around saying, we can't look at this site, you can't look at that site to the Europeans and others and the IEA. And they did that from the very beginning the day that President Obama announced the deal, the spokesman for the Iranians said, "Oh, and here's all the places you can't come." So there was poor verification regime and inspection regime. And then also the sunset clause didn't do anything, but just allow them to reap the benefits of sanctions relief, apply the profits that they made to intensifying their 40 year long proxy war against us, and still maybe be able to continue a clandestine program. I mean, do you trust, who trust Iranians. I mean that they're going to do what they say they're gonna do.

Peter Robinson: Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton trusted Iranians they're the one, and John Forbes Kerry trusted Iranians. They're the ones who cut this deal. So is this, can I just, you go out of your way in this book to say, I'm not writing about President Trump, I'm writing about foreign policy and I respect that. And so if you wanna bet this question down, bet it down, but is this one of those? I get the feeling we're friends, we talk to each other, we run into each other at the gym. There are many ways in which you like the guy. And as best I can tell this kind of gets to it. He could look at something where there was a consensus in Washington and say, "No, I'm not going with that." There was a certain kind of animal common sense about his, I should say about Donald Trump, that's right more often than it's wrong. Is that the way you felt?

H. R. McMaster: Well, I mean, I think it's apparent that the reason why President Trump was elected is a lot of people felt that they needed a disruptive leader at that point of time.

Peter Robinson: And he's got the guts to disrupt things that needs to be disrupted.

H. R. McMaster: There's no shortage of things of Washington that need to be disrupted. And what I try to do is I try to place the Trump policies in context of previous administrations going back, at least until 1991, the end of the Cold War. And so just take Russia, for example, quickly, you have President Trump saying, hey, if we had a good relationship with Putin, that'd be a good thing, not a bad thing. Well, that is not dissimilar from Hillary Clinton, bringing the reset button to Lavrov in Geneva or President Obama leaning over to Medvedev and saying, "Hey, I'll have some more flexibility after the election." Or President George W. Bush saying he looked into his soul. Anything, 'cause he really cares about the Russian people. So this is really an element of continuity across three administrations with Putin.

Peter Robinson: And what he says is everybody falls for the guy at first.

H. R. McMaster: Everybody falls for the guy, he's an operator, he's an operator. My former colleague, Fiona Hill has written a great book called Mr. Putin that an operator in the Kremlin, that's exactly what he is.

Peter Robinson: So back to Iran if I may. First of all explain to me what we're doing and then of course what you think we ought to do. And the reason I asked you to explain what we're doing is because it's a little confusing. The president's disposition is clearly to get out of the Middle East, at least to get off the ground in the Middle East, get out to end to what he, and so many others call the forever wars. And then on January 3rd, there's a drone attack and we kill an Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. We did it in, I wanna make sure I don't get, we did it in Iraqi territory.

H. R. McMaster: Right. And Albemarle Mohandas who was with him.

Peter Robinson: Right.

H. R. McMaster: Right.

Peter Robinson: And that was in a very aggressive move. So what's going on? Are we in, or are we out, is the president withdrawing us as much as he can, but engaging in a very sophisticated fight in retreat where he throws a punch every so often. What's the correct way to understand what's happening right now in the Middle East?

H. R. McMaster: Well, I think in terms of the US Foreign Policy under the Trump administration, it's based on a set of fundamentally different assumptions from those of previous administrations. And I think if you look at the broad sweep of the US approach toward Iran, you can make an argument that I think is compelling, that we have essentially taken a conciliatory approach to Iran, even from the days of the revolution. So you have Brzezinski going to Algeria to talk to their foreign minister. What happens? They storm our embassy and take 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. President Reagan thinks, okay, well, they're in such a tough spot here in Iran Iraq war. We'll sell him some weapons. Maybe when we sell them some weapons, he'll release some hostages. Of course, rencontre happens and really we get nothing out of it except the Tanker War. And we also get brutal attacks on our forces in Lebanon. Where it kills 100s of Marines and kills Americans that are at our embassy there as well. So that didn't work out. And then if you go forward to George H.W. Bush and his inaugural address, he said, Goodwill be gets Goodwill. He also released money back to the Iranians to get hostages released. Well, guess what? They just took more hostages and then has bullet goes global, bombs a Jewish synagogue, and a community center in Argentina, destroys a Panamanian air flight. That didn't work. And then '96, they bombed Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia kill 17 American airmen in that bombing. And President Clinton sees, oh, a new president coming in hot to me, he was a librarian, he must be a nicer guy. I'm not gonna collect any reprisals for that attack. And guess what? That didn't work either. So I could go on and on. The JCPOA was just doubling down on what historically has been a conciliatory approach with Iranian regime. And that conciliatory approach has been based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the regime. And the regimes permanent hostility to the great Satan, us, the little Satan, Israel, the Arab monarchies and the West broadly. And so what we did for the president is we gave him options for a strategy based on the assumption, hey, the Iranian regime is permanently hostile to the United States. Therefore, whatever policies in place ought to try to influence an evolution in the nature of that regime, such that it seizes that permanent hostility. Now that doesn't mean we do regime change. The Iranian people obviously are those who are gonna decide if this regime continues, but in Iran, there's always been this idea. That you have the republicans and the revolutionaries. And if we're just nicer to Iran, the republicans will gain strength and reform and moderate the regime. But guess what? There was a maybe a competition between them, but the revolutionaries won.

Peter Robinson: They have guys with the guns and the money.

H. R. McMaster: They have the guns, they have the RGC, the Quds Force for external operations. They have the brutal procedure which killed over 1,000 Iranians in December in street protest.

Peter Robinson: Do you realize how audacious, what you're saying sounds. H.R. McMaster walks into the Oval Office and says, in effect, "Mr. President, your predecessors, republican and democratic alike, going all the way back to Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan have been wrong about Iran. They hate us and they're not gonna stop. And Donald Trump says I sort of thought that was what was going on. Let's get this change. That's roughly what took place?

H. R. McMaster: Well, a little bit different from that, because we do have the benefit of hindsight, but I think where we go wrong on Iran is in two areas. We don't consider the nature of the regime and we don't place the latest incident, whatever it is, blowing up, oil tankers, attacking Saudi oil fields, cyber attacks, attacking our soldiers and forces in Iraq and killing Americans. We don't place it in context of what has been a four decade long proxy war against the United States.

Peter Robinson: So here's what I'm trying to get at. I'm trying to get at what makes, let's forget, we can't forget about Donald Trump, but let's set him aside. Let's take you H.R. McMaster. What kind, what is the psychology of a career officer? What enables you to say my reading of history and I hear the arguments. I'm not making this up. I'm not trying to be audacious, but my reading of history is that American policy toward Iran has been fundamentally mistaken for three and a half or four decades.

H. R. McMaster: Well, from my perspective, I think it's more-

Peter Robinson: That can make you popular.

H. R. McMaster: It's Pentagon. Well, I think my perspective is more as a historian. I think you have to try to understand how the past produced the present as the first step in making any kind of a projection into the future. And I think that historical perspective is invaluable in policymaking. And I think when people don't understand the history, the culture, how the past produced the present, what they tend to do is they tend to mirror image their adversary and undervalue the continuity in favor of change, and then maybe have unrealistic faith in their own agency. The other big deficiency-

Peter Robinson: So H.R. McMaster's modus operandi, is to stand on the history, read the history, take the arguments from what actually happened in the past. And that's where, so it's not personal audacity or you're not trying to be Georgia's Patin.

H. R. McMaster: No, absolutely not. Absolutely not. And this is not a militaristic policy. This is a policy that combines diplomatic, economic and military efforts, but also law enforcement, financial actions. I mean, when you look at what the Trump administration has done, it is an integrated strategy. Now no strategy is ever implemented perfectly. I mean, but the strategy is based really, I think on a set of sound assumptions. What we did I mean, the process we went through Peter is we said, okay, for every one of these situations, we have to understand the challenge to us, this problem set on its own terms. And so I think sometimes people come at these problems with a theoretical perspective. I think part of this is in academia where there is an emphasis on these sort of international relations theories, and then people try to fit these cases into their theory. I think we have to ask first order questions. That's what historians want to do. It's all about the question. What is the nature of this challenge to our national security? Understand it on its own terms. And then with Iran that draws you to the revolution and the effort to export the revolution and the 40 year old proxy war. And what drives them is their desire to stay in power. This is a supreme leader and the boneyards and the IGC. And then the next question to ask them, which is immensely important. What is at stake? How does this challenge affect our vital interests? And then view that challenge through the lens of the vital interests to craft an overarching goal, more specific objectives, but what is skipped in Washington, if you've sized really, almost all that oftentimes is to develop assumptions, especially in assumption concerning the degree of influence that we have over that complex problem set. We tend to sort of, we tend toward what I call on the books strategic narcissism, in that we define these problems in relation to us only. And then we assume that what we do, whether it's intervention or whether it's withdrawal and disengagement will be decisive to the outcome. And we only allow the other to have aspirations, and to act in reaction to us. Well, actually some of them, so they have their own agenda and their own degree of agency.

Peter Robinson: Afghanistan. You write in Battlefields. Since my first visit to Afghanistan in 2003, you're writing, excuse me, I should set this up. You go back to Afghanistan as national security advisor, and you write of that visit. Since my first visit to Afghanistan in 2003, I had felt the emotional impetus behind Afghan policy shift from over-optimism to resignation and even defeatism close quote.

Peter Robinson: Well, H.R. I read that and I thought to myself, why wouldn't we begin to feel a little defeated? We've been there for 18 years and spent you and I had this conversation once.

H. R. McMaster: We did.

Peter Robinson: You can read all kinds of ranges of figures, of how much we've spent in Afghanistan over the years. But the lowest estimate I can find is that in the 18 years, we've spent over $300 billion in Afghanistan. And the Taliban is still there and the government still hasn't achieved control of the country. So why shouldn't we feel a little defeated?

H. R. McMaster: Well, we shouldn't feel defeated first of all, because there is an Afghan government as problematic as it is now with the contentious election and both of Abdullah Abdullah, and President Ghani having dualing inauguration ceremonies and so forth. But I mean, a statistic that's important for people to keep in mind. I think that the recent survey was that 83% of the Afghan people said the Taliban should have zero role, no role in how they're governed. And of course, Afghans, remember how they were governed from 1996 to 2001. And of course, what brought us into that war is the Taliban giving safe haven and support to Al Qaeda who murdered nearly 3,000 on September 11th, 2001. What set us up for the unanticipated length, difficulty, cost of the war in Afghanistan was a short war mentality from the beginning. We were gonna get in and get out. And so while we can say hey, we've been in Afghanistan for 18 years, we have fought a one year war in Afghanistan, 18 times over. And we continue to want to take this short term approach to what is a longterm problem set. And then we set at times, unrealistic expectations. Afghanistan will never be Denmark. It just won't be right. They will only be Afghanistan. And I thought what was important and what we did for the president was to give him an option for a sustained longterm approach to Afghanistan that was sustainable. And then also an ability to explain to the American public, how the risks that their son and daughters take in that war and how the sacrifices they may be called on to make and how the cost of that war was contributing to an outcome worthy of those costs, those risks, those sacrifices. And I think we did that. I think we did that. But there's come back into the discourse, this belief that it is a futile endeavor.

Peter Robinson: Hold on for just two quotations. The first one is you from Battlegrounds, H.R. McMaster, one of the assumptions foundational to America's fantasy in South Asia. Now here you are criticizing the wrong way of thinking or the mistaken way of thinking, was that the Taliban, even as it gained strength and the United States, withdrew would negotiate in good faith and agree to end its violent campaign. That's quotation number one. Here's quotation number two.

H. R. McMaster: I believe they really wanna make a deal. I think after 19, actually going very close to 20 years, they're also tired of fighting, believe it or not.

Peter Robinson: But if it takes more troops to keep the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, is that something you would be willing to take?

H. R. McMaster: Well, there's a big question about the government of Afghanistan. There's a big question about that whole situation in Afghanistan. We're getting along very well with everybody. We have to get our people back home, it's not fair. We're a police force over there. We're maintaining things. Eventually we have to leave. We don't wanna stay there for another 20 years. We don't wanna stay there for 100 years. We want our people to come back home.

Peter Robinson: Okay. You had the president where you wanted him.

H. R. McMaster: No, no, no, no. We had the president where he wanted to be. So what we did is we showed the president a wide range of options. I believe it was my job as national security advisor, not to advocate for a policy. But my job was to give the elected president options which we did. And what I believe is that what we determined at the time, which was one of the fundamental flaws in the Obama administration approach to Afghanistan is to say, "Hey, we're leaving. And we'd like to negotiate, the deal is favorable to us." That we replicated that same flaw. War really is a contest of wills. And the president speech that he gave, I think in September of 2017, I think really bolstered our effort psychologically. I think everybody should recognize those who are bearing the brunt of the fight. Not only against the Taliban, but also against Al Qaeda in that region. Also Asis Corazon and the other 22 or so US designated terrorist organizations that thrive in that ecosystem or that terrorist ecosystem between Pakistan and Afghanistan, Afghan forces are bearing the brunt of that fight. There are thousands of their soldiers are dying per year. We're enabling them. We're supporting them at, I believe a cost that is sustainable. What we did is I think what we did recently in recent months with Afghanistan is replicate that same sort of tendency toward wishful thinking. To define your enemy as you would like your enemy to be. So I would just ask the question, what is power sharing with the Taliban look like? Does it look like bulldozing every other girl's school? Does it look like mass executions in the soccer stadium every other Saturday? And then of course-

Peter Robinson: If I may set the president on one side, he finished speaking by saying, we need to bring our troops home and there was applause.

H. R. McMaster: Of course there was.

Peter Robinson: The argument is, look-

H. R. McMaster: I understand that.

Peter Robinson: It took 18 years and 300, 400, who knows how many tens of billions of dollars we spent on those people on that country in Afghanistan, it's their problem now. Let the Afghans bear the full brunt, it's their country. Two decades is enough, bring them home. How do you answer that? That understandable impulse.

H. R. McMaster: It is their problem now. It is their problem now, but it's unclear that they can do it on their own. Especially when you consider a safe haven to support patient base in Pakistan and the efforts of the Pakistani ISI.

Peter Robinson: If they can't do it on their own, it costs us.

H. R. McMaster: Well, no, it costs us less and less because over time what has happened is that we've been able to build up I think the resiliency of Afghanistan, even though more and more territory is contested. It's imperfect, the president alluded to, we know the government has problems, but I prefer Ashraf Ghani to Arkansas, the leader of the Taliban in terms of the person to back. And what we did in recent months is had this really strange I think shift in our thinking in which we started to partner with the Taliban under the illusion that partnering with the Taliban could help us achieve peace. But you asked a question, which is important question. Why do Americans care about this?

Peter Robinson: Right.

H. R. McMaster: Well, first of all, it's important to remember that those who committed mass murder against us on September 11th, 2001 were the so-called Afghan alumni. There were the alumni of the Mujahideen resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1980 to 1988. The Al Qaeda, the various other groups alumni are now orders of magnitude greater. This is already a multigenerational problem. Should the situation in that region deteriorate further, you would have the Taliban in complete control of an extremely lucrative territory resource of personnel, and people, but also a very lucrative drug trade that will fund their operations. Not only locally, but also against us because these groups are not monolithic or homogeneous or separate from each other. A great analyst on Afghanistan again, Tom Joslin, who writes for the Long War Journal. Said we have tried too hard to disconnect the dots, and that's what we've done. In Afghanistan we've created in large measure the Taliban we want. Right?

Peter Robinson: Right. All right, H.R. China, again, two quotations. Here's Jimmy Lai, the Hong Kong Publisher and Democracy Activist just arrested in Hong Kong. President Xi, President of China. President Xi is arguably the most absolute dictator in human history, more absolute than Mao because Xi has artificial intelligence. H.R. McMaster writing in Battlefields about a trip to China as national security advisor. Quote, Xi's outer confidence masked of sense of foreboding that he might suffer a fate similar to that of previous rulers close quote. So here we have China. Is Xi the most absolute dictator in history or is he running scared?

H. R. McMaster: Yeah, Well, I think it's both. And I think the fear that he feels, the fear that his role that the Chinese Communist Party's role could come to an end is what drives much of the behavior internal to China and externally. Now, of course, with the Nova Coronavirus and the pandemic has put even more pressure on China. But what China has done is they have taken extraordinary measures to extend and tighten the parties exclusive grip on power.

Peter Robinson: I'm sorry, so this is in your book, but I can, here's a sub-quotation that sums it all up and I'm sticking it in because it was by Harry Rowen, who's the late foreign policy and the Hoover fellow colleague of ours. He wrote in 1996, quote, when will China become a democracy? The answer is around the year 2015. This prediction is based on China's impressive economic growth, which in turn fits the way freedom has grown elsewhere in Asia close quote. China was supposed to follow the pattern of South Korea and Taiwan where economic growth leads to political freedom.

H. R. McMaster: That's right.

Peter Robinson: And it was not a crazy idea, but it didn't happen. Did how come?

H. R. McMaster: It didn't happen because of ideology and emotions that drive the party. And one of the aspects of this story-

Peter Robinson: We're dealing with people who aren't like us.

H. R. McMaster: It is and so I make the case I use historian Zachary Shore's term. We need strategic empathy. We need to understand these competitions from the perspective of the other. And we fail to do that oftentimes and we don't pay enough attention to it maybe. Now there were some reason for optimism in the 1990s. I think it's important to understand that our push toward China prior to the end of the Cold War was mainly to balance against the Soviet Union. And this is when President Nixon and Secretary of State Nixon's advisor Kissinger initiate a triangular diplomacy. The idea was we will have a better relationship, both with China and with Russia than they have with each other. After 91 that's when we saw the assumptions really kind of come to the fore that China, if we welcome China in to the international economic and political order, China will liberalize. It will liberalize its economy and play by the rules. And then as China prospers, it will liberalize its form of governance. Well, it's done the opposite. It is doubled down on a status economy that engages in a wide range of economic aggression that disadvantages our companies and our workers. And also, I think is aimed at dominating the emerging data economy, we can talk more about that, and gaining a differential advantage over the US militarily as well. And it has done the opposite of liberal highs form of governance. It has created an Orwellian police state in China, far beyond what Orwell imagined in the novel, 1984.

Peter Robinson: Okay. So China is the game. China, China is what matters. I'm summarizing what I take to be your argument. So, correct me if I've got it wrong. Whereas Iran is a problem of course, it's a problem, but it's a country of 60 million people that's very poor and riven with factionalism. Putin has a huge land mass, but he has an economy the size of Italy's and it's based on extractive industries. All he does is sell oil and natural gas. They don't make anything anybody wants to buy. And on China is different. They lifted six or 700 million people out of poverty. They have legitimacy, even from a humanitarian point of view, hundreds of millions of people who used to be dirt poor, now lead materially comfortable lives. And they've done it with a system that is very different from ours. So it's a country that's huge, rich, powerful wants to be number one and has a certain legitimacy, which even we cannot gain say, correct?

H. R. McMaster: Well, legitimacy, I think that is purchased oftentimes and a legitimacy that is based on what I've described in the book is co-opting others to buy into the relationship with China. Once those countries or companies are co-opted, then China coerces them to support China's world worldview and to support its objectives. And then the key strength for China is it conceals its nefarious activity and tries to portray it as normal business practices. And I think each of these problem sets that you've just summarized here require a different set of solutions. And really never gonna really solve them, but we need to compete more effectively by really integrating all elements of our national power with efforts of likeminded partners. And so the key, there are three sort of themes that run through the book. The first is the recognition that this is a competition. And the second is that we have to improve our strategic competence. And in particular, understand better how the past produces the present and pay more attention to ideology and emotions that drive and constraint the other. And the third element is confidence. Confidence in who we are as a people, but also to focus inward and to strengthen our economy and to strengthen and preserve our competitive advantages in technology and education in particular.

Peter Robinson: Let me ask you to grade one aspect. Well, no, I'll put it to you that I think there's, I'll grade it. And you tell me if you approve of my grade. We've just discussed since, since the '19, I served in the Reagan White House. And the hope then was as China became economically more successful, economic freedoms lead to political. So this goes way, way back and it hasn't worked. And here's what Donald Trump has accomplished. He may have used trade as a kind of crude tool to stand up to the Chinese. It's hard to know what other tools he had short of military options, but 3.5 years into the Trump administration. The notion that China is an adversary is now universally granted. Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders would all admit that we have a competition on our hands with China. And the idea that this administration has shifted the national consciousness on the question of China that represents a major achievement in itself. I'm I waxing a little too?

H. R. McMaster: I think you're absolutely right about that. I think it is the most important shift in US Foreign Policy since he ended the Cold War. And I wouldn't say adversary, I would say strategic rival, which is what we wrote in the 2017.

Peter Robinson: You don't wanna get too tough on them. Why?

H. R. McMaster: Well, no, no, because I think by competing, that's our best chance in ensuring they don't become an adversary. I think what we had done in the past, under the so called strategy strategic engagement and the assumption that they would become to Bob zoellick's term a responsible stakeholder, and I'm not blaming anybody in the past. I'm just saying that those assumptions on which those previous policies were based, were demonstrably false by 2017. And so we required a new set of assumptions, which are outlined in the book as the foundation for this new strategy.

Peter Robinson: They were thought to be false by 2013.

H. R. McMaster: No, absolutely, absolutely.

Peter Robinson: And Donald Trump had the guts to stand up and say so, right?

H. R. McMaster: I mean, yes, yes, yes. He was absolutely right about this. But what I think is important here is that I think this is one of the many policies and strategies of the Trump administration that guess what surprise has bipartisan support?

Peter Robinson: Well, that's okay.

H. R. McMaster: I mean-

Peter Robinson: So here's the next, last question to you and here's one of them. He's standing up to China. So far the only tool that seems to come to hand is trade policy, but he's got the American people understand we're in a competition. I'll use your word. If you look at the previous Cold War, Harry Truman stands up to the Soviets and then Dwight Eisenhower continues the policy. It becomes by partisan. In Eisenhower shifts, less money on boots and more money toward nuclear power. There are shifts and nuances and so forth, but it becomes a bipartisan project on the part of the nation for 4.5 decades. So what is the prospect that whoever succeeds Donald Trump, whether it's Joe Biden next January or someone unknown five years from now, what is the prospect that a Democrat will what? Will somehow rather stand up to China as firmly as Donald Trump has, will we develop new tools other than trade? To what extent does this become a national project rather than a Trump project?

H. R. McMaster: It already is a national project I would say. It already is. There's tremendous support for this on the hill, for example, and in both parties. And it's an integrated strategy. So what got everybody's attention to where the trade enforcement actions tariffs put in on China really in large measure to get their attention, but also not just on non-barriers to entry to their market, but the full range of predatory and aggressive trade practices into the forced transfer of technology, sensitive technologies and intellectual property, the support for stereo enterprises now that the phase one deal didn't take care of all this, but what else did you see? A lot of people think, okay, well, hey, this administration, because of the phrase America First, which I think is an unfortunate phrase to that because of the historical analysis in the '30s. But they think, well, there's not multinational cooperation going on. The US and Japan are working together extremely well on this whole problem set. So as the so-called Quad with Australia and that India to that across the Indo Pacific region, other countries in the region from most of the osteo nations, they want American participation and leadership on confronting China's unfair trade and economic practices and China's attempt to create survival relationships with their neighbors. The European Union has called European Union even has called China a systemic competitor. And so if you think about December, 2018, I think it was, the United States Department of Justice and the justice departments or their equivalents of 12 other countries simultaneously indicted and or sanctioned APT10, which is the main Chinese Communist Party hacking organization that is engaged in a sustained campaign of industrial espionage against all of our countries. All those countries acted together in an unprecedented and really under reported incident of multinational cooperation.

Peter Robinson: H.R. you're being very careful to steer me to the correct language. They're rivals, but they're not adversaries because all right, Graham Allison of Harvard, he has in his last book, he writes about the Thucydides's Trap, which he claims he finds in through Thucydides's himself. So this goes back what 2,500, 2,800 years. Here's the way Graham Allison describes it. When one great power threatens to displace another war is almost always the result close quote. And in Battlefields, you're careful about this. Some have argued that competition with China is if Thucydides's Trap close quote. Well, isn't it?

H. R. McMaster: No, it's not. So I think our policy ought to try to avoid the extremes of war, and passive acceptance of Chinese aggression.

Peter Robinson: But avoiding more means preparing for it. Does it not?

H. R. McMaster: It does, it does. It means preparing for it. It means deterring your enemy would argue in the book by denial, which means convincing a potential enemy, that enemy cannot accomplish his objectives through the use of force.

Peter Robinson: So this means if I may go back 20, 30 years, this means that the guys over in the Pentagon have to be just as careful about understanding Chinese capacities today and 10 years from now and 20 years from now in the sea and in the air and in the space and making sure that we have programs in place to counter them just the way we countered the Soviets in the old days. Right?

H. R. McMaster: Absolutely. This is Reaganesque peace through strength. That's what this is. But that's only one element of the competition. So I think we try to describe this as the three c's right of competition. And to look at competition as the best way of avoiding confrontation. And also not foreclosing on cooperation, because to deal with something like this pandemic, you have to have multinational cooperation. And there are clear areas where our interests overlap with those of Chinese, the Chinese leadership and China. For example, I don't see any way that in North Korea with a nuclear weapon is in China's interests, for example. So we ought to be able to incorporate.

Peter Robinson: And they have committed it to happen.

H. R. McMaster: Well, they've predicted it to happen.

Peter Robinson: They can take that guy out.

H. R. McMaster: They could resolve that problem themselves.

Peter Robinson: You must've had some testy conversations with, I'm sorry, you know I'm going where I know you can't answer questions. So H.R. let me sum up the China. And then I want to move to a couple of final questions about you and China. They have 1.3 billion people, we have 330 million. They're four times bigger than we are. Their economy may soon, it depends on whom you listen to, but their economy may soon be bigger than ours. And they have a central government, which is odious in all kinds of ways, but it can get things done. And we have this rickety old system that a constitution that's 230 years old has given us. And it gives us all kinds of inefficiencies, but we have a free market and democracy. How optimistic are you? How confident are you? All we have is freedom, which really, I suppose, in military and strategic terms, what it means is we have a chance to stay ahead of them, to out innovate them permanently. Can we?

H. R. McMaster: Yes, we can. If we're not complacent and if we compete, we certainly can. We have tremendous advantages in our system. We have democracy, which means that we can correct ourselves short of a revolution.

Peter Robinson: You mean to tell me serving in the Trump White House and watching that operation get vilified every single day. If it just functions within the Trump White House itself, you mean to say that you came out of that with your faith and democracy intact?

H. R. McMaster: Of course, what's the alternative? Look at the Chinese commerce part, just look at the pandemic outbreak. First denying it happens trying to shut down the doctors were trying to sound the alarm about the pandemic. Mishandling it horribly in the beginning and squelching any kind of public outcry or attempt at social pressure to get the government to do better and demanding that people pray Xi Jinping for the way he handled it. I mean, it's almost ludicrous, but-

Peter Robinson: You still take us over that.

H. R. McMaster: Well, of course. And I have a section in the book where I talk about turning what our adversaries are, our strategic competitors, our rivals perceive as our weaknesses, how do we turn them into our strengths? And I think we can turn them into our strengths. I think if you look at the situation in China now, what China has done to try to leapfrog the United States, essentially, I think has created tremendous frailties in their system. And we don't want China to fail. I mean, the Chinese Communist Party narrative is like, look, you're trying to keep trying to down and try to contain this norm.

Peter Robinson: Of course not.

H. R. McMaster: We just want China's Communist Party leadership to play, but to play by the rules. And we can no longer stand and it'd be victimized. And the Thucydides's Trap, but it poses this false dilemma again between war and just passive acceptance of Chinese aggression. I think if we compete, I'm very confident that we can prevail in that competition but do so in a way that doesn't threaten China. That hopefully, maybe incentivizes China, that they can accomplish what they need to accomplish without doing it at our expense.

Peter Robinson: All right, H.R. you're an unusual bird. In your first book, "Dereliction of Duty" examined the breakdown in the decision making process during the Vietnam War. And that book is now required reading for young officers in the United States military. And at the same time that you're a historian, a careful historian, a well read historian, someone who can deploy historical arguments in the cause of making an argument about what we ought to do today. At the same time, that you're that you are a warrior. This cover picture is not a joke. You can be a very rough guy, 23 minutes in Iraq during the first war you and your tank unit destroyed 18, what was the number of tanks? It was 23 minute battle, you destroyed the opposition and took not a single casualty. How do you pull off these two aspects of your life? Well, you're retired now from the military. And so scholar, you are from here on out, I guess that's the way that works. But during your career in uniform, I don't imagine that a lot of your fellow officers were as deeply, I don't know, imagine that what you did in your spare time, so to speak was a source of, they didn't respect it probably too much. Did they or did they not?

H. R. McMaster: No.

Peter Robinson: It was just the H.R. sort of eccentric? Oh, I'll let him do this, no?

H. R. McMaster: No, I think it's more representative than you think.

Peter Robinson: How atypical were you?

H. R. McMaster: I'm not, I'm not atypical. I mean, I don't, I don't believe I am. I mean, I was given this great gift. I was given the gift to be able to serve my country alongside men and women who are willing to give everything, including their own lives for you in units that take on the quality of a family. Where people are bound together by mutual respect, common purpose, being part of something bigger than yourselves. And they're bound together really by what becomes affection and love for each other. I mean I found every day serving in uniform immensely rewarding. I mean, I really did. And I think today there's a sort of popular perception of the experience of service and in our military, that is skewed a bit by Hollywood, which I think tends to cheapen and coarsen the military experience. And then also really a belief by Americans who really see the suffering associated with war, especially with our soldiers and servicemen and women who are, who were killed or wounded in action. And I think our soldiers are grateful for their sympathy and so forth. But I think really soldiers really don't want to be pitied, right? I mean, I think soldiers want to be valued.

Peter Robinson: Last question, the last question, which flows from this one. It's possible to argue that this country hasn't won a war since the Second World War. Stalemate in Korea, failure in Vietnam, which you wrote about, only a very messy piece in the Balkans. Afghanistan, the fighting is still going on. Iraq, you could call it a functioning democracy, but that would be by a pretty minimal definition. And here we face, as you've just told us a long uncertain rivalry, let's say with China. So what do you say to a kid who's 18 or 19, and thinking about a military career as against the glittering possibilities in this private economy of ours, which is now much richer than it was when you were 18 and making that decision to go to the Academy. What do you say to a kid about this strange world where you don't seem to win outright victories anymore, but you can sure make money.

H. R. McMaster: Yeah, well, I think you have to focus on the less tangible rewards of service. And the fact that you are part of something bigger than yourself. And I think today America's warriors are both warriors and humanitarians as they always have been. I mean, it was in many ways humanitarian mission to defeat Nazi Germany, to the defeat future of Japan, to defend South Korea. I would say that's a war we won. Look at South Korea in 1953, which makes the argument for why it's important to take a longterm approach to longterm problems. South Korea in 1953, the country was completely denuded right after it had gone through decades of war. There were no natural resources in the country. You had an illiterate population and a corrupt government and a hostile neighbor. I mean, look at South Korea now. And so I think that if you understand that victory in war is achieving a sustainable political outcome, consistent with the vital interests that brought you there to begin with, then you can recognize how to consolidate military gains and to integrate all elements of national power to achieve that outcome. I think that's where we've gone wrong in recent years. And this has, I think, a lot to do with Vietnam, which is the subject of my first book. Which is the pain of Vietnam created the Vietnam syndrome. Which was really, I think in many ways, kind of a warped lesson of that war, which means, hey, we just never wanna do any of that complicated stuff again in war. And so we began to define war in a historical way. That divorced war from politics, to divorce war from the human drivers of conflict, fear, honor, and interest with lucidity is identified 2,500 years ago. Wars is uncertain because the interaction with the enemy, how is to explain when you announce a reinforcement of soldiers to Afghanistan, you announced their withdrawal table at the same time. How does that affect the outcome in a way that's positive? And then of course, war as a contest of wills, which is important in terms of demonstrating your will to defeat an enemy. But it's also it gets to the question national will, what you showed with the clip with President Trump and people applauding the withdrawal of Afghanistan. But the American people deserve and what our service men and women deserve is a description of what is at stake in this conflict. Why do they care? Why is this important to American security, prosperity and influence in the world? And then what they deserve is they deserve a description of a strategy that will deliver an outcome that is at an acceptable cost and risk that accomplishes those objectives.

Peter Robinson: The American people deserve to have the argument made.

H. R. McMaster: Absolutely.

Peter Robinson: Which you have done in "Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend The Free World".

Peter Robinson: Thank you.

H. R. McMaster: Thank you, Peter. Pleasure to be with you.

Peter Robinson: From Uncommon Knowledge, the Hoover Institution and Fox Nation, I'm Peter Robinson.