By Sam McDonald

Retired general and former White House national security advisor H.R. McMaster said the global threats facing the United States are deadly serious, but not reason to despair about America’s prospects on the world stage.

In an Oct. 12 address at Old Dominion University, he called for a foreign policy course correction, one that he believes can lead to strength, peace and prosperity.

Speaking to an audience of nearly 600 at ODU’s Webb University Center as part of the Waldo Family Lecture Series on International Relations, McMaster described the dangers of what he called strategic narcissism, assuming your adversaries are mostly focused on you.

“It doesn’t consider that these people … may have aspirations and goals in mind that are far beyond anything that’s a reaction to us,” he said. “It’s actually a profoundly arrogant way to think about the world.”

This strain of narcissism is a recipe for failure — in war and other high-stakes competitions.

The antidote, McMaster said, is strategic empathy, working to see complex challenges from the perspective of the other.

His theories are based on careful study of past conflicts. McMaster holds a Ph.D. in military history. Today, he is the Fouad and Michelle Ajami Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is also the Bernard and Susan Liautaud Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute and a lecturer at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.

Understanding the motivations of adversaries will help our nation set clear, achievable foreign policy goals.

“In recent years, we’ve had this phrase creep into our lexicon — a responsible end (to conflicts),” McMaster said. “I used to box. I never got into the ring and said, ‘I want to bring this match to a responsible end.’

“When we have determined enemies, there really is no substitute for winning.”

McMaster, who has first-hand knowledge of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, witnessed the price of fuzzy objectives and flawed assumptions.

Today, politicians debate whether the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq was worthwhile. “I think we should discuss more who the heck thought it would be easy?” McMaster said. “And why did they think it would be easy?”

It was clear to officers on the ground in Iraq that leaders were taking a short-term approach to a long-term problem, McMaster said.

“You can’t take the George Costanza approach to war and leave on a high note,” he said. “You have to consolidate your gains, get to a sustainable political outcome.” Bad assumptions lengthened the wars and made them more costly, he said.

McMaster’s hour-long talk was non-partisan. Although he served in Republican Donald Trump’s White House, he highlighted the wins and losses of presidents from both parties.

Speaking at ODU just days after Hamas fighters from Gaza rampaged through Israeli border towns killing more than 1,000, McMaster said humanity must unite to confront extremism.

Americans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan were not surprised by the Hamas attack, he said. “We’ve seen that evil up close. It demands that we all stand together with tremendous resolve.”

McMaster said Israel’s fight with Hamas underscores the importance of strategic empathy. Whether the issue is Russia, China or the Middle East, the key, he said, is to understand the emotion and ideology that drives and constrains the adversary.

Answering audience questions at the end of his talk, McMaster said education can help cure the bitter divisiveness that plagues our political culture.

He hopes that young people can celebrate the United States’ founding ideals while also seeing where we have fallen short.

Be proud, he suggested, but recognize that there’s much work left to be done.

 “Let’s get after it,” McMaster said.