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Former national security adviser H.R. McMaster weighs in on North Korea, Russia

FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER, AUTHOR, SENIOR FELLOW AT STANFORD, GEN. H.R. MCMASTER:

In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell interviews General H.R. McMaster. A Senior Fellow at both Stanford University's Hoover Institution and its Graduate School of Business. A career U.S. Army officer and National Security Adviser to President Trump, he is also the author of his newly released book titled Battlegrounds: 'The Fight to Defend the Free World.' General McMaster passes along advice on how the next president should handle relations with North Korea's Kim Jong-un, gives his insights on the effectiveness of our handling of Russia, and shares his passion for helping those in Venezuela. 

Listen to this episode on ART19

HIGHLIGHTS:

  • On future North Korea negotiations: "I think it will be important for whoever is sworn in on January 20th that they recognize that we should not repeat the failed pattern of previous efforts, not allow North Korea to draw us into negotiations with an act of aggression and with the demands of big payoff up front just for the privilege of talking with them. To not again, engage in long, drawn out negotiations that delivers a weak agreement that he immediately breaks again."
  • On countering attacks from Russia:  
  • "To deny even his most egregious acts, especially the sustained campaign of cyber enabled information warfare against us. Which is designed to polarize us, to pit us against each other, to reduce our confidence in who we are as a people and in our democratic institutions and principles and processes. Russia is a dangerous threat for these reasons. And the best way to counter the first step is to pull the curtain back on this activity, to educate ourselves about it, to be less susceptible to Russian information. To not be our own worst enemies as I think both political parties have because they compromised principles to score some partisan political points and in doing so, make themselves vulnerable to Russian disinformation and propaganda."
  • On an effective China strategy: 
  • "Take what the Chinese Communist Party sees as sources of weakness potentially for them and turn those into our greatest strengths. What does the party fear? The party fears that the people, the Chinese people, might want to have a say in how they're governed so we should strengthen our democratic processes. The party fears rule of law. We should strengthen rule of law in the United States and with countries that are working to strengthen rule of law in their countries, the party fears freedom of press, freedom of the expression. We need to strengthen our authoritative sources of information and recognize that investigative journalism is a great counter to some of these pernicious strategies that the parties are pursuing. So, I think that part of it is defensive, but part of it is more introspective and trying to maintain our competitive advantages."

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INTELLIGENCE MATTERS: GUEST GEN. H.R. MCMASTER

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H.R. McMaster Ray Kachatorian


PRODUCER: ARIANA FREEMAN

MICHAEL MORRELL: General McMaster, welcome to Intelligence Matters. It is an honor to have you on the show. 

GEN. MCMASTER: Hey Michael, the honor's mine is great to be with you. 

MICHAEL MORRELL: Let me start with a couple of points for our listeners. First, I want to congratulate you on your new book, Battlegrounds: 'The Fight to Defend the Free World.' I've read it. It's terrific. I think it's a must read for anyone interested in national security. And I actually see it as a reference book for understanding the key issues. And I see myself pulling it down off the shelf from time to time. When I'm thinking about something, I want to have to talk about something, when I'm writing something. I think it's a very important contribution to the literature on the threats and challenges we face as a nation. So thank you. Thank you very much for writing it.

GEN. MCMASTER: Well, Michael, thanks so much. I mean it, somebody with your background, experience and knowledge to to endorse it like that. That means a lot to me that you judge it to have been worthwhile. Thank you.

MICHAEL MORRELL: Second, having you with us to talk about your book is a perfect way for us to kick off what is for us,  going to be a new series on the key national security issues facing the United States. The series, which we're going to work very hard to be nonpartisan, will run between the election and the inauguration. And finally, I should mention to my listeners that this episode is going to run the day after the election, but that you and I are taping it the Friday before the election. So you and I have no idea what's going to happen on Election Day. So people should just know that as they're as they're listening to our conversation. And I think that's actually a good thing for our conversation, because what I want to do at the end of the day is get your sense of what is going to face the president who is sworn in on January 20th, no matter who that person happens to be.

MICHAEL MORRELL: H.R. before we get to the individual issues that I want to walk through with you, I'd love to ask you why you decided to write the book that you did. You obviously could have written a very different kind of book. And I'm sure that there were publishers who were encouraging you to do that. But you chose not to do that. You chose to write a very serious look at the threats and challenges that face us as a nation. Why did you take the route that you did?

GEN. MCMASTER: Well, Michael, thank you. I served in the Army for thirty four years. So as I transitioned to what is my only second career in my adult life, I made out probably quite predictably, a mission statement for myself. And that was in my second career to try to deepen our understanding of the most crucial challenges we face as a way to better inform the American people about foreign policy and national security issues, and with the hope that if we learn more about these challenges that we face, we can demand better. Demand a better foreign policy from our elected leaders. But then also, I hope that the book and the work that I'm doing around the book will help bring Americans back together. Right. Because I don't think any of these issues should be partisan in nature. What I'm hoping for is that a deeper understanding of these challenges we face. And I think what should be our common commitment to try to build a better future for generations to come will help bring our country back together, at least around foreign policy and national security issues.

MICHAEL MORRELL: H.R., what are the main themes of the book? What do you want readers to walk away remembering?

GEN. MCMASTER: Well, what are the themes that runs through the book is this idea of strategic narcissism. I think this is one of the reasons why our competence, our ability to compete, at least in the post-Cold War period, has been significantly diminished. And by strategic narcissism, I mean, our tendency to define the world only in relation to us and then to assume that what we decide to do or decide not to do is decisive to achieving a favorable outcome. And of course, you know, Michael, with your long experience with intelligence, this is flawed because it's self-referential and it doesn't acknowledge, you know, the degree to which others have agency and influence and authorship over the future. So the book is then an argument, an argument for cultivating with my friend and great historian Zachary Shore has termed strategic empathy. And this is an effort, an effort to understand better what drives and constrains the other. Especially adversaries, rivals and enemies and what drives and constrains the other often times is ideology and emotion and aspirations. So the theme in the book that also is important is an effort to understand how the recent past produced the present as the first step in making a projection into the future. So the book is an argument for the understanding of history and appreciation for the complex causality of events and a focus on understanding these crucial challenges we're facing from the perspective from the perspective of others.

MICHAEL MORRELL: You know, that's one of the that's one of the main jobs of the intelligence community. Right? Is to is to give our decision makers the point of view of the other guy. The guy sitting across the table from you, the guy sitting across the battlefield from you. But what's the other guy thinking? What are his constraints? What are his interests? And that's extraordinarily important. Right?

GEN. MCMASTER:  Of course, it's not a new idea. It goes back to Sun Tzu, but I think it's we started to neglect the importance of this, especially in the post-Cold War period, a period that I describe as a period of over optimism. Over optimism that led to complacency and a bit of hubris. And this over optimism was in large measure a set up, I think a set of for significant disappointments in the two thousands disappointments, of course, associated with the mass murder attacks of September 11th, 2001, but also the unanticipated length and difficulty of wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq and, of course, followed by a financial crisis. And so I think it was in the two thousands that this emotional impetus behind our foreign policy shifted from overoptimism to pessimism and from maybe a tendency to under appreciate the risks and costs of action, to a tendency to underappreciate the risks and costs of inaction. And I think that strategic narcissism is the cause, really, in both cases.

MICHAEL MORRELL: You know, the other thing that strikes me when you talk about the importance of history is I always thought sitting in deputies meetings that it would have been incredibly valuable to actually take a few minutes and every deputies meetings or principals meetings to talk about the history of the issue, just to review how you got from point A to point B, and we never did that in multiple administrations in which I served, but I always thought that that would have been really valuable.

GEN. MCMASTER:  Well, Michael, you're absolutely right about that. I'll tell you, one of the one of the great gifts I had, I think before earlier my career was the opportunity to read things, study and write history. And the first book I wrote was Dereliction of Duty, which is a story about how and why Vietnam became an American war. 

And one of the lessons I learned from the study of that history was that it was important to understand problems and challenges holistically before leaping into action. When I came in as national security adviser, I did my best to at least avoid making the same mistakes and we put in place a principle small group framing session. I know that's a mouthful, but as we developed these strategies for the most crucial challenges we were facing, we began with this framing session that was organized around a five page paper that included only really the description of the challenge. How we got to where we are, a bit of the history of it, and then an inventory of our vital interests that were at stake, view of that challenge through the lens of those vital interests and draft overarching goals and more specific objectives, followed by assumptions. 

Assumptions about the degree to which we and like-minded partners have agency or influence over this challenge. Then an inventory of obstacles to progress and opportunities that we could exploit. And that's it. Then we had a discussion about the nature of the challenge. First, the policy coordinating committee, which, you know, are the real workers who are going to work on this project. They're listening in. So they're getting, they're hearing at the cabinet level, a discussion about the nature of the problem and then a refinement of it. Once that part of the meeting was done, then we shifted to a discussion of what are your ideas? How do we integrate the elements of national power and efforts of like-minded partners to overcome these obstacles and exploit these opportunities? Then they got to hear the Treasury secretary say what we have. We have economic and financial tools available. But those ought to be combined with diplomacy and maybe law enforcement efforts. And then you get this rich discussion that then the policy coordinating committee can really run with. So I think that, I hope that's a process that will be sustained. I don't think my successor hung onto it. It will have to be resurrected at some point if it is deemed as useful by a future national security adviser.

MICHAEL MORRELL: I'm Michael Morrell today, we have with us H.R. McMaster, a Senior Fellow at both Stanford University's Hoover Institution and its Graduate School of Business. A career U.S. Army officer and national security adviser to President Trump. OK, so what I'd love to do is go through the individual issues. And what I'd like to do is just throw one out, get you to frame it. What's the threat or challenge that we face? What's the history? How did we get here? What's our interest that's at stake? And how do you think we as a nation need to go about dealing with it? Let's start with the big one. Let's start with the big enchilada, China.

GEN. MCMASTER: I think China is a great example of strategic narcissism at work, and especially this assumption that we clung to for too long, that China, having been welcomed into the international order, would play by the rules, would liberalize its economy, and as it prospered, it would liberalize its form of government. Of course, that's not true. That's not true because we undervalue the degree to which emotions and ideology drive and constrain the Chinese Communist Party. And what I would argue in battlegrounds is that the party is driven mainly by fear, fear of losing its exclusive grip on power and an associated ambition. The ambition to achieve national rejuvenation for China to take center stage in the world again after the tragedy, as they portrayed as the century of humiliation. It is that combination of fear and aspiration that is driving the party's effort to extend and tighten its exclusive grip on power internally.

This is why there are over a million people in concentration camps in Xinjiang and there's a campaign of cultural genocide ongoing. 

This is why the party is extending their repressive arm to Hong Kong and perfecting their technologically enabled Orwellian surveillance police state. This is what we're seeing and then what is even more troubling, I think, is the parties now effort to export its authoritarian mercantilist model. 

Through a number of strategies that aim to create servile relationships with countries and then ultimately through economic means, as well as the growth in the People's Liberation Army's capabilities to establish areas of privacy across the new Pacific region that exclude the United States and then it challenged the United States in the free world globally. If China succeeds, I mean, our world will be less free, less prosperous and less safe. So the stakes are high and it's past time for us to recognize the need to compete effectively against this this very integrated and pernicious form of aggression that the parties engaged in.

MICHAEL MORRELL: What would an effective China strategy look like to you?

GEN. MCMASTER: Well, I think the Trump administration, if it gets credit for anything, should get credit for a fundamental shift in our policy toward China. One that was long overdue and one that I think is fundamentally sound and this is the idea that we have to compete. And it was under the strategy of of cooperation and engagement that the Chinese Communist Party was emboldened. Competition doesn't need to lead to confrontation. In fact, quite the opposite. And I think we have returned to arenas of competition involving countering more effectively China's campaign of sustained industrial espionage against us, countering a range of China's unfair trade and economic practices, doing so in large measure through effective international cooperation, for example, establishing better standards for infrastructure investment internationally, the law enforcement actions and investigations that have gone on against APT10. 

The main hacking arm of the Chinese Communist Party, I think have been very effective as well, combined with sanctions and other actions against the aggressive arms of the party. But really, I think the most important thing for us to do, and I argue this in a chapter battlegrounds entitled Turning Weakness into Strength is to take what the Chinese Communist Party sees as sources of weakness potentially for them and turn those into our greatest strengths. What does the party fear? The party fears that the people, the Chinese people, might want to have a say in how they're governed so we should strengthen our democratic processes. The party fears rule of law. We should strengthen rule of law in the United States and with countries that are working to strengthen rule of law in their countries, the party fears freedom of press, freedom of the expression. We need to strengthen our authoritative sources of information and recognize that investigative journalism is a great counter to some of these pernicious strategies that the parties are pursuing. So I think that part of it is defensive, but part of it is more introspective and trying to maintain our competitive advantages.

MICHAEL MORRELL: This is Intelligence Matters. I'm Michael Morrell. We're talking with former national security adviser H.R. McMaster. So Russia, how do you think about Russia?

GEN. MCMASTER: Well, Russia is a significant threat to us because Putin again, is examining the assumptions of previous policies. Putin is not going to become like the Grinch on Christmas Eve. Right, his heart is not going to get too big as the size gets bigger and he's not going to decide, OK, well maybe the future of Russia does lie more with the West and treat the United States and Europe and others differently. Putin is driven by a sense of honor lost after the breakup of the Soviet Union. He is also driven by this associated desire to restore Russia to national greatness. He's also cognizant, though, of the fact that he cannot compete with this on our own terms. And so what his theory of victory is, is to drag us all down and then to be the last man standing and the means that he's using to do this. I describe the Chinese approach of cooption, coercion and concealment. And I use alliteration in the Russian chapters as well. 

It is a campaign of disruption, disinformation and denial to try to disrupt us, to disrupt our effective governance, to disrupt us economically and to use economic coercion when he can, such as he has done in Europe effectively from time to time and with energy dependence. Then to deny even his most egregious acts, especially the sustained campaign of cyber enabled information warfare against us, which is designed to polarize us, to pit us against each other, to reduce our confidence in who we are as a people and in our democratic institutions and principles and processes. Russia is a dangerous threat for for these reasons. And the best way to counter the first step is to pull the curtain back on this activity, to educate ourselves about it, to be less susceptible to Russian information, to not be our own worst enemies, as I think both political parties in many instances have because they compromise and they compromised our principles to score some partisan political points and in doing so, make themselves vulnerable to Russian disinformation and propaganda.

MICHAEL MORRELL: Then what about raising the cost to him of doing this? Is that an option here in terms of deterring him?

GEN. MCMASTER: Absolutely. This is what I advocated for in battlegrounds is that we have to impose costs on the Kremlin, on Putin, that exceed those that he factors in at the beginning of his decision making process. It was my last day really in an Oval Office meeting, it was the day that President Trump decided to impose significant costs on Russia in response to the attempted  poisoning, murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter with with a banned military grade nerve agent and an act that put thousands of UK citizens at risk. And it was at that on that occasion that we expelled you over 60 undeclared intelligence agents that hits Putin where it matters. Because these are agents that were critical to his sustained campaign of subversion against us. And we impose significant costs, additional costs on Russia through sanctions and other actions, the closing of the San Francisco consulate, as you know, Michael, was a major intelligence collection platform for the Russians here in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area. So, that was significant and I think that sent a strong message. Now, after Navalny's poisoning, I'd like to see us do the same thing, you know, and as he's infiltrating more little green men now into Belarus and as he continues to enable the serial episodes of mass homicide, that is the Syrian civil war, to support Hawthorne's way perpetuating violence in Libya. 

MICHAEL MORRELL: I'm Michael Morell. We're talking with H.R. McMaster, Former National Security Adviser to President Trump and author of the just published book Battlegrounds: 'The Fight to Defend the Free World.' By the way, if you missed any of today's show, you can listen to it as a podcast. Just search Intelligence Matters wherever you get your podcasts. Let's talk about North Korea. Give us your sense on North Korea?

GEN. MCMASTER: Well, thanks, Michael. Of course, it's important for us to recognize going in right that North Korea is the only communist hereditary dictatorship in the world. And it is the nature of the Kim family regime that we have to take into account when we're considering the danger that the regime poses to the world if it does possess the most destructive weapons on Earth. The Kim family regime is driven mainly by this drive to remain in power. It is, of course, known as the hermit kingdom. It is a gulag state that fears any kind of opening to the world. And it is a regime that across now three generations of dictators has been committed to unifying the Korean peninsula under the so-called red banner. And I think as we look at North Korea's pursuit of the most destructive weapons on Earth, we have to be at least open to the possibility that it wants those weapons to coerce the United States off the peninsula as the first step in the forcible reunification of the peninsula. And, of course, that would that would be the form of a destructive war.

GEN. MCMASTER: It's also important, I think, for us to recognize that it is highly unlikely that North Korea wants nuclear weapons just to deter us. North Korea already had a very significant deterrence capability with its conventional weapons. And the fact that it's so many thousands of artillery pieces are within the range of of Seoul, South Korea. And then also, I think it's important to recognize that every act of aggression on the Korean peninsula since the North invaded the South in June of 1950 has been initiated by the north. The other aspect of this problem, Michael, that is very important to consider is that if North Korea gets the weapon is recognized as a as a nuclear power, like who doesn't get one after that? Right. This Japan starts to have conversation with South Korea. By the way, North Korea never met a weapon it didn't try to sell to somebody excluding its nuclear program until the Israeli Defense Force bombed that facility in 2007. So it's very dangerous. I think it's dangerous as well because of the ideology that drives this regime. It's a warped ideology. This is the Zushi ideology which has turned deprivation into a sign of virtue and racial superiority. And the North Korean people have gone through generations of brainwashing. So this is a big problem, Michael. I think that the approach that is in place now, the strategy of maximum pressure, it's the best course of action. I think we have to test the thesis that maximum pressure can convince Kim Jong un that he is safer without the weapons than he is with them. I think it will be important for whoever is sworn in on January 20th that they recognize that we should not repeat the failed pattern of previous efforts, not allow North Korea to draw us into negotiations with an act of aggression and with the demands of big payoff up front just for the privilege of talking with them. To not again, engage in long, drawn out negotiations that delivers a weak agreement that he immediately breaks again.

MICHAEL MORRELL: You've said something here that I think is really important, because I think the conventional wisdom is that he wants these weapons for deterrence. Right. That he's worried about us attacking him. But you're arguing that it's more than that. That this gets to the heart of what North Korea has always wanted, which is to reunify the peninsula, which I think is a really important point here that changes how you think about how you have to deal with him?

GEN. MCMASTER: This is an argument, Michael, for strategic empathy. Right? To view these complex challenges from the perspective of the other and unless you do that,  you're susceptible to mirror imaging. And, of course, my research for the book, Dereliction of Duty, you know that sensitized me to this. It was in the run up to the Vietnam War where some of those who were planning the Vietnam strategy development, the strategy actually referred to the reasonable man theory of English common law and assumed that Ho Chi Minh would respond as the theoretical reasonable man. Would respond without taking into consideration the role that culture and ideology played in driving and constraining the North Vietnamese leadership.

MICHAEL MORRELL: Do you think at the end of the day it's possible to convince him that he would be better off, that he would be more secure without these weapons?

GEN. MCMASTER: I do think it's possible, and the reason I think it's possible because we've never really put maximum pressure on the north. And so we have this opportunity now thanks really to the tremendous work by Ambassador Nikki Haley when she was at the U.N. As you know, Michael, these U.N. Security Council sanctions on North Korea are unprecedented and reach. The key now, though, is to enforce them. Of course, the key country that needs to enforce them is China. And I think if China doesn't enforce them, if China continues to be complicit with illicit financial flows into and out of the country, to continue to provide energy and other materials to the north that are limited by these sanctions. Then I think it's time for us to consider secondary sanctions and maybe on Chinese financial institutions.

GEN. MCMASTER: I think as we see the smuggling of coal and the transshipment of coal and oil and fuel, I think that under Article two, I think the president could use Article two authority to interdict those ships. As you know, Michael, this is something we can't really talk about. There are other means of putting pressure on the north. I think that we haven't done it yet. I think we have to at least test the thesis because the alternatives are so bleak of either accepting North Korea as a nuclear power and coping with that threat or a war. Right. That would be very costly, I think it's worth pursuing.

MICHAEL MORRELL: We still have more to discuss with General McMaster and we'll be right back with our final segment. 

MICHAEL MORRELL: We're back with more intelligence matters, I'm Michael Morrell. Our guest is H.R. McMaster, Senior Fellow at both Stanford University's Hoover Institution and its Graduate School of Business. So, sir, let me ask you about another tough one, Iran.

GEN. MCMASTER: On Iran, what I tell the story of in Battlegrounds, Michael, is we have to view the problem of Iran with two fundamental considerations foremost in our minds. The first is the ideology of the revolution and how that drives Iranian leadership and the Iranian leadership is the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. We have this fantasy I think that the reformers, the Republicans, within Iraq are going to prevail. They lost, the revolutionaries are in charge. The hardliners are in charge. And whenever they put this forward, the shop window of Minister Zarif, their Foreign Minister or President Rouhani, that's all you're getting is the shop window. That ideology is it drives the Iranian regime to continue its four decade long proxy war against the Great Satan, the United States, the little Satan, Israel, the Arab monarchies and the West broadly. And so we have to consider the ideology of the regime and and this 40 year long proxy war.

GEN. MCMASTER: What I argue for in the book is to force the Iranian regime to make a choice. You can either be treated like a normal nation or you can continue to wage this proxy war, to support terrorist organizations and keep the Middle East enmeshed in this perpetual state of sectarian civil war. The choice is yours, and to impose that choice, I think what we should not do is lift the arms embargo to the regime. What we should not do is lift any of the sanctions. In fact, we should impose the costs on the regime to constrain the resources they have available to continue their proxy wars against us, but then also ultimately maybe to convince the Iranian people. That they ought to have a government in place and I'm not talking about like a 2003 regime change, but a government in place that shifts away from its permanent hostility to the United States, Israel and the West. I think that's the only path that I see forward. I think our policies ought to aim to effect that change in the regimes permanent hostility. And until it does any agreement with them, it can't be trusted and any agreement with them that allows them to escape. Making that choice like the Iran nuclear deal did, I think is to our disadvantage.

MICHAEL MORRELL: So you don't see the regime changing policy on its own. Do you think that has to be forced internally by the Iranian people? Is that fair?

GEN. MCMASTER: Well, Michael, I think on Iran, it's important to keep two considerations in mind in crafting a strategy toward Iran. First of all, that it's the ideology of the regime that drives their hostile behavior toward us. And we have to recognize that it's the Supreme Leader, it's the Guardian Council, its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, who are in charge. Right. There was a struggle, you know, across the history of Iran since the revolution in 1979 between the Republicans and the revolutionaries. Hey, the revolutionaries won. And and we have to recognize that the second consideration is that this regime has waged a four decade long proxy war against the Great Satan, us, the little Satan, Israel, the Arab monarchies and the West generally. We have to craft our strategy in recognition of this regime's permanent hostility to us. Of course, I think the best way to approach it in the title of the chapter in Battlegrounds is forcing a choice, forcing the regime to make a choice of either being a responsible nation and then being treated as such or suffering the consequences. And this is why I think it's very important to keep the arms embargo in place. I think it's very important to keep the sanctions in place on the regime to, in the short term, reduce the resources it has available to wage this proxy war and in the long term, hopefully convince the Iranian people to demand a change in the nature of the government such that it ceases as permanent hostility.

MICHAEL MORRELL: Okay, Islamic extremism, it's waned a bit in the threat, but it's still there. From West Africa, to the Middle East, to South Asia, to Southeast Asia. How do you think about that problem long term? 

GEN. MCMASTER: I think the reason that we haven't had another attack on the scale of the most devastating terrorist attack in history of September 11th, 2001, is our tremendous intelligence professionals, our diplomats, our military who's been engaged against this threat from jihadist terrorist organizations since 9/11. What I'm concerned about, Michael, is that these groups, I think are more dangerous today than they were maybe even on September 10th, 2001. And that's because, of course, those who committed the mass murder attacks against us on 9/11 were the mujahideen alumni of the resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Well, now the al-Qaida alumni, the ISIS alumni, the Lashkar-e-Taiba alumni are orders of magnitude greater and they have access to more and more destructive capabilities. And the reason we've been safe is because we've been engaged and now we have this narrative of ending endless wars and disengaging. Well, I think what Americans need to know is that we are engaged so we can enable others to bear the brunt of this fight. I mean, this disengagement from Afghanistan, I think is a tragedy. The way that we've gone about this, I think we should recognize the sacrifices of our longest war and in particular that 10 of our courageous servicemen, soldiers, gave their lives for our country, our security this year. But we have to also recognize that 30 Afghan soldiers and police a day die defending the freedoms that they've enjoyed since the defeat of the Taliban in 2001 a removal of the Taliban from power. So I think that we need to make a sustained argument to the American people for engagement with this problem of jihadist terrorism. Because if we don't, Michael, we'll go back to 1998. Remember when we after the embassy bombings, we fired a few cruise missiles and called it a day. Right, that didn't work out.

MICHAEL MORRELL: The last issue I want to ask you about is Venezuela, which I know you care about. My understanding is that when you arrived at the White House, you were going over the issues and you kind of stumbled on Venezuela and said, hey, you know what's going on there? That doesn't look like we're paying attention to this, talk about Venezuela and why it's important?

GEN. MCMASTER: Well, it's immensely important because this is a humanitarian catastrophe in Venezuela. It's a humanitarian catastrophe that's brought on by an authoritarian regime that is denying the Venezuelan people a say in how they're governed. When we looked at the problem and the nature of the Maduro regime and the Chavista movement, we concluded that this was, again, a corrupt government that is using criminalized patronage networks to effect control of its people. It uses these motorcycle gangs and militias to overwhelm any kind of opposition. It ended the Constitution. So we said what's should our goal be? Our goal should be to work with others, to work with like-minded countries, to effect a restoration of constitutional rule in Venezuela. And to do that, we felt as if we had to pursue three objectives. One of those objectives would be to try to strengthen the opposition. Right. To help the opposition come together. I think you saw that with the rise of Bolsonaro. You know, who was really from the people. You know, he's not a member of the Caracas Polo Club, for example. I think he's somebody who can gain some traction with those who have been disadvantaged now so significantly under Chávez, and now Maduro.

GEN. MCMASTER: The second objective would be for the people to be able to attribute their grievances back to the government, not to blame the Yankees, you know, for example. And the third related to that would be to try to galvanize really popular support for restoration of constitutional government. I think the measures we put in place were sound. Of course, they have proven inadequate. And I think we thought that economic sanctions would maybe have a significant effect. But the reason they haven't had a bigger effect is there's a huge black market, illicit economy that's run by Maduro. He uses that to sustain this criminalized patronage network and these gangs of thugs who really prevent any real opposition from gaining traction. But I think I'm proud of what we did in this period of time. We worked very closely with partners, especially in the Western Hemisphere, Mexico, under the foreign minister of the great Luis Videgaray, who was a wonderful partner, took a leading role in much of the work that we did. We try'd to get the Organization of American States and others to do more. But it was really the community of like-minded nations Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Panama, Argentina. We worked very closely together on this problem and I think remain committed to trying to effect a restoration of constitutional government in Venezuela.

MICHAEL MORRELL: You've been fantastic with your time. I just want to ask you two more questions, we have a couple of minutes left, so we'll need to be quick here.

MICHAEL MORRELL: The first is that in order to deal with all of these problems that you've talked about, you know, we need a healthy national security toolkit. Healthy diplomacy, healthy intelligence capabilities, healthy military capabilities. What's your assessment sort of overall of where we are with our national security toolkit?

GEN. MCMASTER: I think we're in good shape thanks to the extremely dedicated civil servants and military professionals, intelligence professionals who we have across our government. But I think what is needed more than anything is a higher degree of what I argue in Battlegrounds is, strategic competence, and that's the ability to integrate the elements of national power so that they're applied in a way that are synergistic. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I think at times we get it right, but most often we get it wrong. And our approach to these complex problems is fragmented. It's inconsistent. It's as I mentioned, you know, based on flawed assumptions about the nature of the problem. I think what I would like to see as well these days is even more of a concerted effort to foster multinational cooperation as I write in Battlegrounds. I mean, none of these problems are solvable by any one country. So it's very important for us to create the right venues for us to come together. Not only to work on a discrete issue or event together, but really to think about these complex challenges. To frame them together and then to apply our competitive advantages between our like minded countries. So that we do have a synergistic effect and and so that we can build a better future for generations to come.

MICHAEL MORRELL: The last question, I think anybody who's listened to the podcast up to this point is going to think, wow, that is a hard, tough list. I wonder at the end of the day, if you're optimistic or if you are pessimistic that we're going to get this right going forward.

GEN. MCMASTER: Michael, I'm optimistic about it. I'm optimistic about it even as we emerge from this  triple crisis. Of the pandemic, the recession associated with it and the divides in our society, laid bare by George Floyds murder and the protests and civil unrest that followed it. I think what's great about our democracy is we are self-correcting. The American people have a say in how they're governed. They can demand better. And the reason I wrote Battlegrounds is I think if the American people understand these challenges, they will demand a better foreign policy from from our elected leaders. You know, our founders knew that our democracy was going to require continuous nurturing. It's still true today. And I believe that we do have significant problems at home. But we also have to confront these challenges abroad because we know from the COVID-19 pandemic that problems that develop abroad can only be dealt with at an exorbitant price once they reach our shores. So the argument of battlegrounds is an argument for sustained engagement with the world.

MICHAEL MORRELL: The book is Battlegrounds: 'The Fight to Defend the Free World.' The author is H.R. McMaster. General, thank you very much for joining us today.

GEN. MCMASTER: Michael, thank you for the privilege of being with you. And thanks for your service. 

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