Trump asked McMaster to serve as his national security adviser after Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn was pushed out for providing “incomplete information” to then-Vice President Mike Pence about discussions he had with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
An active duty three-star general, McMaster had served heroically in the first Gulf War. As an Army captain, he led a tank battle that destroyed 28 Iraqi tanks, 16 personnel carriers and more than 30 trucks in under half an hour. McMaster was awarded the Silver Star for valor.
Then, as a colonel in the Iraq War in 2005, he led the first major victory against Al-Qaeda in Iraq in the city of Tal Afar.
While a major, McMaster earned his PhD, which became the book “Dereliction of Duty.” The book caused something of a sensation in the US military when it was published, as it took the top Pentagon generals to task for failing to provide substantive military advice to President Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War.
Following is our discussion, which was edited for clarity and flow.
BERGEN: You’ve described the Taliban peace agreement with the United States that was signed by the Trump administration in 2020 and implemented by the Biden administration this year as a “surrender agreement.” Who’s responsible for this surrender?
McMASTER: Well, I think there’s responsibility across multiple administrations. And I would put a lot of responsibility on the Obama administration, especially in connection with announcing in 2009 the timeline for our withdrawal from Afghanistan and then trying to negotiate with a terrorist organization, the Taliban, and that was delusional.
And then the Trump administration for doubling down on those same flaws, not understanding the nature of the enemy, and again, giving a timeline for a withdrawal, making concession after concession, and then thinking you’re going to get a favorable agreement.
Then President Biden could have reversed those horrible decisions and that fundamentally flawed approach to the war, and he didn’t.
So, I would say three administrations share responsibility for what I would call the “surrender” to a terrorist organization.
We created the enemy we would prefer in Afghanistan: A Taliban that would be more benign, a Taliban that was separate from other jihadist terrorist groups, and that was a complete pipedream. All of us knew it, but you kept hearing the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the secretary of state, the President describing an enemy that didn’t exist in Afghanistan, and then surrender to terrorists.
BERGEN: Are you talking about Trump or Biden or both?
McMASTER: I’m talking about the Biden administration, especially toward the end. The Biden State Department said the Haqqanis were separate from the Taliban. And then we watched the Taliban’s elite unit, Badri-313, take over the Kabul airport, which is a Haqqani force.
BERGEN: On Siraj Haqqani, what’s your reaction? The United Nations has identified him as part of the leadership council of al-Qaeda, and now he’s the acting Afghan minister of the interior. What does this signify?
McMASTER: This is what happens when you surrender to terrorists: The terrorists are in charge.
BERGEN: Switching gears, it seems the Taiwan situation is heating up. Is this just the Chinese doing what they always do and is nothing particularly new, or is this something different?
McMASTER: I think it’s connected to Afghanistan. We are exuding weakness at this moment, and China thinks they can probably get away with intimidating Taiwan. After the humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan, the message in Chinese state-controlled media to Taiwan was, “Hey, do you really think the United States has your back?”
What China really wants is the annexation of Taiwan by invitation, and they want to do that through intimidation in a sustained campaign of political subversion against the Taiwanese people to affect their will. This has many components to it: Economic coercion is involved, the co-option of elites, a sustained campaign of disinformation and propaganda, and military intimidation is part of that as well.
BERGEN: What’s America’s best policy here?
McMASTER: I think “strategic ambiguity” is still a solid policy. If it’s made clear to the Chinese Communist Party and the people of the People’s Liberation Army that they can’t accomplish their objectives using force because of the possibility of US intervention and because of the capabilities that we have positioned forward in the area of Taiwan.
Also, it’s important for our allies and partners to send the same message, and we’re seeing that now. You saw that with the former prime minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, giving a strong speech in Taiwan recently. And it was the Japanese deputy defense minister who said, “We’ll defend Taiwan,” and that sent shockwaves; Japan had never made a commitment like that before, and Japan is increasing its defense capabilities.
But the real key is to help Taiwan develop its own defensive capability, so it becomes indigestible from the perspective of the Chinese Communist Party.
BERGEN: Do you see continuities or differences between the Trump administration’s China approach that you were deeply involved in and the Biden team’s China approach?
McMASTER: I think there are mainly continuities. I think there’s a recognition that we can no longer adhere to the flawed assumptions of the past, and the primary assumption was (that) China, after having been welcomed into the international order, would play by its rules, and as it prospered would liberalize its economy and liberalize its form of governance.
China’s President Xi Jinping did the opposite. The Chinese Communist Party is driven by fear and ambition and is extending an exclusive grip on power through brutal means, including a campaign against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, extending the party’s oppressive arm into Hong Kong, but also it’s become more and more aggressive internationally. I think it’s clear from Chinese Communist Party actions that this isn’t a Washington-Beijing problem. This is a free world-Beijing problem.
BERGEN: Should the Biden administration be saying more about the Uyghurs, more about Hong Kong?
McMASTER: I think so, and rally others to say more as well. And it’s not just talking about the issue: It’s imposing costs. The costs would be impeding the massive financial flows into China that allows China to base its decisions on its own strategic advantage rather than on real return on their investments. So, I think there’s a very important financial aspect to this, and I think economically is where we have the greatest leverage. You have European companies who are manufacturing cars in Xinjiang and saying, “What genocide? I didn’t know there’s genocide going on.” That’s ridiculous.
What we need across the free world is for China and the Chinese Communist Party to become the number one ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) issue in boardrooms. How can genocide not be an ESG issue?
BERGEN: Biden: What’s he getting right? What’s he getting wrong?
McMASTER: There’s a lot of talk about processes. We’re hosting a conference on democracies when we just abandoned the Afghan people to live under the hell of Taliban? We keep talking about women’s rights and watching women’s rights be completely extinguished in Afghanistan. So, what I’m concerned about is credibility, because I think this is a performative administration, and it’s confusing what it says with what the reality is in the world.
BERGEN: Is it a good thing that the US is back in the Paris Climate Agreement?
McMASTER: The danger of thinking that everything is OK by being a member of the Paris Agreement is complacency, and the Paris Agreement will not achieve anything because even if the United States and the developed economies meet all their goals, emissions from China, India, Africa, and across developing economies are going to poison the world. So, it’s important that we pursue solutions and do not present what I think is a false dilemma between carbon emission reduction and energy security, because we have a broad range of solutions available, but we’re pursuing those solutions only selectively.
Advanced batteries and wind and solar, all of that is all good, but it’s insufficient. This idea that we can jump right ahead to renewables is a pipe dream, and we’ve seen that in Japan. Japan stopped nuclear power generation for reasons that are understandable after the Fukushima reactor disaster and said they were going to go to renewables. Well, now they’re burning more coal.
So, we should move to next-generation nuclear power, which is much safer, much more advanced technology that produces waste that is less toxic with a much shorter half-life.
BERGEN: The North Koreans? Where are they going?
McMASTER: Well, we don’t know. This is the only hereditary Communist dictatorship in the world, and our view into it is imperfect. But it’s quite likely that they are in a crisis that could threaten the Kim family regime in a substantive way. The crisis is one associated with food security and potential famine as well as the devastation that Covid brought to what was already a failing economy. And so I think what is important is to keep the pressure on North Korea, to convince Kim Jong-un that his regime is safer without nuclear weapons than he is with them. What you’re seeing is the regime still pouring resources into its missile program and into its nuclear program, even though it’s under severe economic duress and experiencing food insecurity.
And I think we must convince the Chinese to do more. Around 95% of trade into North Korea flows across China’s border. Almost all its fuel comes from China. One of the things President Trump used to say to Chinese President Xi Jinping, which I thought was useful was, “You know, you could solve this right now if you wanted to,” and it’s true.
BERGEN: What about Iran?
McMASTER: Iran is a great danger because we’re exuding weakness there as well, as we did in Afghanistan. We have a negotiating team that is anxious to make concession after concession as they did on the previous Iran nuclear deal that would result in a weak agreement that I think will just provide cover for Iran to continue its nuclear program, but it’s even worse than that. The concessions we make in lifting the sanctions will enrich the regime. Money associated with new contracts with Iran go right into the coffers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or into the coffers of the businesses that are run mainly by the children of the clerical order, and therefore, what they do is they give Iran more resources to intensify its four-decade-long proxy war against the great Satan, the United States, the little Satan, the United Kingdom, and Israel. And so the danger to Israel and Iran’s Arab neighbors will increase, and I think a weak agreement with Iran will make the chances of war very high because the Israeli Defense Force will conclude that it has no option other than to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities.
BERGEN: What is Putin’s plan now?
McMASTER: Putin is under tremendous duress, and he’s under duress because of the stagnation of the economy, and he’s under duress because of the extremely poor Russian response to Covid and the ongoing health crisis associated with it. And he’s under duress because I think a lot of Russians are just tired of having him around.
So what will he do? He will do everything he can to maintain his grip on power because he depends on staying in power so he can reap the profits associated with all the money he’s diverted. And so what you’re seeing internationally is continuing aggression on his part, whether using Belarus as a way to weaponize migrants against Poland, for example, or the massive Russian military buildup in Crimea and on the Ukrainian border to intimidate Ukraine.
BERGEN: Should Trump run again?
McMASTER: I try and stay out of domestic politics. However, what I think is the American people need to pick somebody who can get to the politics of addition, who can convene a broader range of Americans around the issues we face and begin discussions with what we agree on, because I believe we can get a heck of a lot done if we just start with that. So, I think what we want are leaders who can help really bring Americans together, and I don’t think we’ve seen that in recent years. And that’s what we need.
BERGEN: Which brings me to the final question: The assault on the US Capitol on January 6th. Any thoughts?
McMASTER: January 6th was an assault on the first branch of government, and I think that what we must do is recognize that it was conspiracy theories that were used by the President and others used to whip up a crowd and incite an assault on the first branch of our government.
But then, also, we should be proud of our democratic institutions and how they stood up. This is often missed. We ought to be more optimistic. Think about what Vice President (Mike) Pence did and think about the speech that Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell made. (McConnell later said, “The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the President and other powerful people.”)
The investigation that’s ongoing is immensely important to understand why that happened. I hope they take a broader approach, and they consider why people felt so disenfranchised that they thought they were so easily convinced that their vote didn’t matter. Maybe we can conclude that we can ensure that every American who should vote can vote, but also increase the transparency and accountability of our system so that there’s no room any more for these conspiracy theories and for this demagoguery.