National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster has kept mostly out of the headlines since assuming his position earlier this year, which is unfortunate, as he is uniquely capable among his peers in the administration of communicating foreign policy positions in a palatable, and perhaps less abrasive way than the president himself.
Speaking before the annual meeting of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think-tank, McMaster was asked to expound upon the most urgent threats to national security from abroad. Perhaps not surprisingly, Iran and North Korea topped the list.
With regard to Iran, McMaster described the threat from Iran as a regional and transnational one that is only growing. Because of their direct involvement, the situation in Syria and Iraq is “getting more complicated because of the destructive role Iran is playing in the region,” and that “Iran is feeding this cycle of sectarian conflict to keep the Arab world perpetually weak.” It is not unusual for a national security advisor to cite the threat emanating from Iran, but McMaster made sure to level his criticisms more squarely at the religious leadership in Tehran, who directly control the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, responsible for the covert and overt subversive actions ongoing throughout the Middle East.
But despite clearly describing the threat posed by militias in Syria, of which McMaster said 80% were Iranian proxies, and transnational criminal groups which facilitate weapons transfers to groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon, he stopped short of recommending military action. Instead, the U.S. and its allies should “Pull the curtains back on Iran” to expose their actions abroad.
To McMaster, the United States’ number one threat remains a nuclear-armed North Korea. As their nuclear program advances, and with each successive test, the regime gets closer to the capability of delivering a warhead to U.S. soil. For Trump, that is unacceptable, as is any policy which enables lengthy negotiations which place the North Korean regime on a level playing field with the United States in terms of moral imperative to possess nuclear weapons. But, “what everyone wants is to resolve this without military conflict,” McMaster said. It remains an option, but one that must be avoided. To do so, the administration will leverage the Chinese, due to a “candid recognition that China does have a great deal of control” over the North Korean regime.
His remarks on North Korea will surely help shape the discussion on the issue as South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in visits the United States for the first time as the newly elected leader of that country this week.