Can H.R. McMaster Purge Groupthink from the White House?

By: Lauren Prudente, Columnist

Photo Credit: NPR

After Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster was recently chosen by President Trump to fill the position of National Security Advisor (NSA) previously been held by Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, experts in Washington lauded the choice due to McMaster’s extensive military and scholarly achievements. McMaster’s academic experience and past reflections on the corrosive dynamics of civil-military relations during the Vietnam War will be applicable to his new role at the White House and will allow him to dissuade the occurrence of groupthink within the NSC.

A Concern for Groupthink

At a retreat in 2012 with senior officials of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), now former Director Michael Flynn announced to his staff that he was always right, and that they would know if they were right when their views melded to his.[i] Flynn made it clear that at the DIA, dissent was not an option. This thinking followed Flynn during his short-lived tenure as NSA, where he quickly melded with the Administration’s mindset and helped to build a like-minded staff as well.

The NSC staff experienced similar conditions that senior DIA officials working under Flynn endured in 2012. NSC staff members expressed that they were shut out of meetings on their areas of responsibility and were not fully informed about the president’s policies.[ii] There were also concerns about being monitored and not being able to express conflicting ideas or concerns.[iii] These criteria created a troubling climate that bred groupthink.

Groupthink is the tendency for a collection of policymakers to make poor decisions because they are all too concerned about maintaining good relationships with one another.[iv] Individuals may stifle conflicting opinions to avoid disrupting the group consensus, the group may overlook or minimize pertinent information, or they may try to conform to a leader’s already known bias. National Security Advisor McMaster’s deep knowledge of and original scholarship describing groupthink’s dangers should enable him to make a profound impact in the Trump Administration.

McMaster’s Potential Impact

Most news coverage introduces Lt. Gen. McMaster by highlighting his military experience, including his time spent as a commander in the northern Iraqi town of Tal Afar fighting al-Qa’ida. Tal Afar was a counterinsurgency success story. McMaster ensured his troops were adequately trained in Iraqi culture and history and some even received language lessons before being deployed. His acute awareness of what it takes to establish trust with a population enabled him to dispel al-Qa’ida from Tal Afar. However, this may not be his most important experience to lean on in his new role as NSA. His experience as an academic and historian may be even more relevant.

McMaster’s dissertation-turned-book, Dereliction of Duty, is the gold standard for students of civil-military relations. Chapters of it are even required reading for Georgetown’s Security Studies Master’s program. Duty examines Washington’s inefficiencies during the Vietnam conflict and infers that a breakdown in civil-military relations ultimately led to military failure. In the book, McMaster details how the Chairmen and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were cut of the decision-making process; even though they were the top members of the military during a time of war, the President preferred to hear from a tight circle of political advisors.

His book describes the weekly Tuesday lunches that would include Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy. McMaster writes that these lunches “were the ‘heart’ of the national security process, and ‘[the] only men present were those whose advice the president most wanted to hear.’”[v] McMaster continues, “…because the advice that Johnson received represented a coordinated opinion between the secretaries of state and defense, it was unlikely that the president or other civilian advisers would question it.”[vi] These lunches inhibited the exchange of information between the military and civilian leadership and prevented the president from getting all pertinent facts. The groupthink that occurred during the Johnson Administration seriously stifled the flow of information during a time of war.

What’s the Take Away?

Lt. Gen. McMaster has shown himself to be a brave solider, an effective leader, and a respected historian. He deeply understands the importance of learning from history and the ability to question those in power. Under Flynn, the Trump Administration reorganized the NSC, excluding the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) from the Principals Committee and replacing them with political operatives. Those familiar with McMaster’s lessons in Duty would be quick to recognize such polarization works directly against the effective prosecution of civil-military relations.

Lt. Gen. McMaster can be a successful and insightful NSA if members of the president’s inner circle allow him to be. A key thing to look for in the coming weeks is whether McMaster is afforded the proper authority, including the ability to reorganize and staff the NSC as he sees fit. This will likely include reestablishing the CJCS as a member of the Principals Committee and possibly removing individuals whose roles are political in nature.

[i] Matthew Rosenberg, Mark Mazzetti, and Eric Schmitt, “In Trump’s Security Pick, ‘Sharp Elbows’ and No Dissent,” The New York Times, December 3, 2016, accessed February 25, 2017,

[ii] Peter Baker, “McMaster May Reorganize Trump’s Foreign Policy Team Once Again,” The New York Times, February 22, 2017, accessed February 25, 2017,

[iii] Peter Baker, “McMaster May Reorganize Trump’s Foreign Policy Team Once Again,” The New York Times, February 22, 2017, accessed February 25, 2017,

[iv] Richard Moreland, “Review of Groupthink in Government: A Study of Small Grouping and Policy Failure by Paul ‘t Hart,” Political Psychology Vol 17 No 3 (1996)

[v] H.R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997), 89.

[vi] H.R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997), 89.

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