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H R McMaster: The philosopher general who could tame Trump

The US national security adviser faces major challenges in his new role.

The goddess Fortuna works in mysterious ways. After much fretting in European capitals, the three most senior national security positions in the Trump administration are now filled by people who are committed to Nato (with caveats) and have expressed their support for different iterations of the “liberal international order” – the death of which has been repeatedly declared since November last year.

They are more convinced of the need to take a firm line against Russian expansionism, for instance, than two of the three leading French presidential candidates. In Rex Tillerson at the US state department and James Mattis at the Pentagon, Trump had already picked two relatively uncontroversial figures who hold largely conventional views of America’s role in the world. The arrival of Lieutenant General H R McMaster in the White House as the new national security adviser has completed this triumvirate.

Concern about the course of Donald Trump’s foreign policy has focused on the influence of his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, and McMaster’s predecessor Michael T Flynn. While Bannon’s influence is undiminished, Flynn – known for his unflinching line on tackling Isis and confronting Iran – was forced to resign in February over his alleged connections with Moscow. The independent-minded, urbane and scholarly McMaster is a different proposition altogether. He may be less determinedly abrasive, but he will be no less forceful.

It is rumoured that McMaster does not have the same “walk-in” privileges as Bannon, and so he cannot meet with the president without first securing a slot in his diary. Yet the measure of McMaster’s success will not be his ability to keep the president’s attention. Instead, his appointment represents an opportunity to establish a much-needed bridgehead between the core Trump team and the national security establishment. The latter has been maligned variously as the “blob”, the “priesthood” or the “deep state” by the more unreconstructed partisans of Trump’s victory. For the presidency to function at all, some common ground will have to be found.

The affable McMaster arrives in office with deep reserves of goodwill. Crucially, he is anything but a yes-man. His 1997 book, Dereliction of Duty, which began as part of his PhD thesis, was an excoriating critique of the failures of military and civilian advisers in speaking truth to Lyndon B Johnson during the Vietnam War. It is widely believed that McMaster was never made a four-star general because he practised what he preached with his superiors.

As a commander in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, McMaster reinterpreted his brief to adopt a new approach that helped his men wrest control of the city of Tal Afar from insurgents. This created the blueprint for the counter-insurgency methods later adopted by the US army as the basis of “the surge”. This may have cost him promotion, but it won him kudos among his peers.

Unlike Flynn, McMaster is more of a renegade than a revolutionary. Tales of his first few days in his new office have been lapped up eagerly by those looking for signs of normalisation after one of the most chaotic transition periods in presidential history. In his first meeting with the permanent national security staff, he reportedly reassured them that their jobs were safe, set an extensive reading list, reiterated his belief in the value of America’s commitment to the post-1945 world order and repudiated the Flynn term “radical Islamic terrorism”, saying that it plays into the hands of jihadists.

McMaster has little interest in sophisticated language for its own sake. Instead, he offers an approach to national security that is more than enemy-centric. This entails both a better appreciation of the context in which America’s enemies operate and a recognition of the importance of the country’s allies. In January, at Policy Exchange in London, he spoke candidly about the “fallacies” that had crept into Western strategic thinking. It was time to “integrate all elements of power: military, political, diplomatic [and] economic”; and to go beyond the crisis management approach that had left the US and its allies caught behind the curve.

McMaster’s reading choices – from Thucydides to Marc Bloch and Elting E Morison – demonstrate his catholic tastes. Among his recent recommendations is The Unquiet Frontier by Jakub J Grygiel and A Wess Mitchell, which calls for the strengthening of America’s alliance system, particularly on the frontiers of Western power.

Yet it would be a mistake for Europeans to think that the US security umbrella will shelter them indefinitely. Trump’s foreign policy may not be mutating at the pace that many in Europe feared, but America’s world-view is evolving rapidly. If a new consensus is thrashed out between the Bannonites and future planners such as McMaster, it will be based on the full-hearted agreement that America must “start winning again”.

John Bew is Professor of History and Foreign Policy at King’s College London and is leading a project looking at Britain’s place in the world for Policy Exchange. He is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of Citizen Clem, an Orwell Prize-winning biography of Clement Attlee. 

This article first appeared in the 02 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The far right rises again

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Prostate cancer research has had a £75m welcome boost. Now let’s treat another killer of men

Each week in the UK, 84 men kill themselves – three times the number of women.

The opening months of 2018 have seen a flurry of activity in men’s health. In February, figures were published showing that the number of male patients dying annually from prostate cancer – around 12,000 – has overtaken female deaths from breast cancer for the first time. Whether coincidence or not, this news was followed shortly by two celebrities going public with their personal diagnoses of prostate cancer – Stephen Fry, and former BBC Breakfast presenter Bill Turnbull.

Fry and Turnbull used their profiles to urge other men to visit their doctors to get their PSA levels checked (a blood test that can be elevated in prostate cancer). Extrapolating from the numbers who subsequently came to ask me about getting screened, I would estimate that 300,000 GP consultations were generated nationwide on the back of the publicity.

Well-meaning as Fry’s and Turnbull’s interventions undoubtedly were, they won’t have made a jot of positive difference. In March, a large UK study confirmed findings from two previous trials: screening men by measuring PSA doesn’t actually result in any lives being saved, and exposes patients to harm by detecting many prostate cancers – which are often then treated aggressively – that would never have gone on to cause any symptoms.

This, then, is the backdrop for the recent declaration of “war on prostate cancer” by Theresa May. She announced £75m to fund research into developing an effective screening test and refining treatments. Leaving aside the headline-grabbing opportunism, the prospect of additional resources being dedicated to prostate cancer research is welcome.

One of the reasons breast cancer has dropped below prostate cancer in the mortality rankings is a huge investment in breast cancer research that has led to dramatic improvements in survival rates. This is an effect both of earlier detection through screening, and improved treatment outcomes. A similar effort directed towards prostate cancer will undoubtedly achieve similar results.

The reason breast cancer research has been far better resourced to date must be in part because the disease all too often affects women at a relatively young age – frequently when they have dependent children, and ought to have many decades of life to look forward to. So many family tragedies have been caused by breast malignancy. Prostate cancer, by contrast, while it does affect some men in midlife, is predominantly a disease of older age. We are more sanguine about a condition that typically comes at the end of a good innings. As such, prostate cancer research has struggled to achieve anything like the funding momentum that breast cancer research has enjoyed. May’s £75m will go some way to redressing the balance.

In March, another important men’s health campaign was launched: Project 84, commissioned by the charity Calm. Featuring 84 haunting life-size human sculptures by American artist Mark Jenkins, displayed on the rooftops of ITV’s London studios, the project aims to raise awareness of male suicide. Each week in the UK, 84 men kill themselves – three times the number of women. Suicide is the leading cause of male death under 45 – men who frequently have dependent children, and should have many decades of life to look forward to. So many family tragedies.

I well remember the stigma around cancer when I was growing up in the 1970s: people hardly dared breathe the word lest they became in some way tainted. Now we go on fun runs and wear pink ribbons to help beat the disease. We need a similar shift in attitudes to mental health, so that it becomes something people are comfortable talking about. This is gradually happening, particularly among women. But we could do with May declaring war on male suicide, and funding research into the reasons why so many men kill themselves, and why they don’t seem to access help that might just save their lives. 

Phil Whitaker’s sixth novel, “You”, is published by Salt

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge