“The biggest problem with Washington is that they’re wedded to a status quo that no longer exists.” That was my introduction to Douglas Macgregor’s worldview during a late-2018 interview.
Macgregor believes what he says, but a lot has changed since then, too. For one, he has been appointed the next U.S. ambassador to Germany, an appointment that should not surprise anyone. What should surprise both the president’s supporters and detractors is that it has taken so long.
Since the 2016 election, President Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed a desire to cease the “endless wars” and pare down or even fully withdraw troops from Germany and South Korea. These are lofty aims, but, at least regarding Germany, Trump might finally have his man. Macgregor would succeed Richard Grenell, who vacated the position on June 1, 2020.
Macgregor Has a Glowing Resume
While many of Trump’s appointees have been panned for lacking qualifications, Philadelphia native Macgregor is unquestionably qualified for an ambassadorship. He possesses a lifetime of familiarity with Germany, beginning as an exchange student in the 11th grade and achieving fluency in the language. He went again in 1974 as an exchange cadet while attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and then served with forward-deployed units in West Germany during the late-Cold War years.
He next served in Operation Desert Storm as an operations officer, supervising the actions of, among others, then-Capt. H.R. McMaster, who later became Trump’s national security adviser. During the Battle of 73 Easting, Macgregor oversaw the destruction of large portions of Iraq’s Republican Guard, an action perceived as having decisively degraded Saddam Hussein’s fighting ability.
After Desert Storm, Macgregor cultivated a reputation in the service as an excellent but controversial warfighter. His calls for drastic military reform put him at odds with top leadership, unsurprising given that the current defense apparatus is the product of more than a half-century of virtually unquestioned commitment and investment by thousands of policymakers and steady cash flow.
The price for rocking the boat was perpetual staff jobs with no operational command assignments, the kind that would have led to stars pinned to Macgregor’s shoulders. He remained influential, however, serving under Gen. Wesley Clark in Europe as a planner during the 1999 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) intervention in Serbia. Clark later described Macgregor as “one of my closest advisers.”
After a tour at the Pentagon, where he participated in planning for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Macgregor retired but remained active as a consultant. Ever the historian, his latest book, “Margin of Victory,” was published in 2016, and he has made frequent Fox News and radio show appearances.
Macgregor has remained a staunch supporter of Trump, largely because of the president’s foreign policy and immigration views. Like Trump, Macgregor favors withdrawing completely from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and avoiding further military adventures abroad. He is a NATO skeptic and believes it’s past time for Europe and South Korea to defend themselves without American assistance. To top it off, he is also in favor of secure borders and has suggested militarization to deal with the influx of drug cartels, human trafficking, and illegal immigration.
Macgregor Gets His Turn
For Macgregor, the appointment to the ambassadorship is something of a career high-water mark. He was passed on twice as a candidate for national security adviser. Earlier this year, he was a finalist for undersecretary of defense for policy, which went to another Fox News regular, retired Army Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata. These rejections might prove a blessing in disguise, however, given Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s purported opposition to Macgregor’s appointment and how the door has now opened to a position that grants greater clout on the world stage.
Critics, such as fellow retired Army colonel and anti-interventionist Andrew Bacevich, describe him as perhaps too blunt for having it out against top military brass. Others say he lacks a worldview, but it is not clear they have followed Macgregor through the years.
He has consistently opposed not only U.S. military organization and warfighting habits, but also the hyper-interventionist, world-policing addiction Washington cannot seem to kick. Even Trump, despite all his pronouncements, has found it nearly impossible to do something as simple as removing a small number of troops from a small swath of the Syrian desert.
Trump has not surrounded himself with the like-minded, either. Instead, he has courted figures who might not qualify as card-carrying members of the establishment but espouse hardline, hawkish views. John Bolton is the most notorious example. This makes Macgregor’s appointment even more remarkable. After three years of hiring figures opposed to his preferences, Trump has at least one person who agrees with him.
More importantly, Macgregor, unlike other retired officers, is no partisan ideologue. Through my conversations with him, I sense he is the embodiment of what Samuel Huntington described as “conservative realism.” Macgregor is pessimistic, historically inclined, nationalistic, militaristic, pacifist, and instrumentalist, all at once. Like any professional soldier, he is motivated by a passion for defending the country and a belief that America is better served when it does not try to save the world or go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.
It’s a Tough Road Ahead
Fluency in German, familiarity with Germany thanks to years spent there both in his youth and throughout his career, positive rapport with his European counterparts during staff assignments — what’s not to like?
Yet Macgregor faces a difficult road to confirmation. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee comprises inveterate Republican hawks such as Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubio, although a likely ally exists in libertarian-minded Rand Paul. Even the Democratic Party remains steeped in the globalist, liberal internationalism of the Clinton and Obama years. If leftists do not oppose Macgregor’s noninterventionism, they will certainly oppose his nationalism and devotion to America First.
If confirmed, Macgregor will swim among sharks. Status quo-maintainer Esper and hardline Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will undoubtedly oppose him. He will not find a confidant in national security adviser Robert O’Brien, once described as “Bolton lite.”
Although the chief of the Israeli Defense Forces General Staff made his 2003 book, “Transformation Under Fire,” required reading last year and Macgregor traveled to Israel this year to advise the military forces, the retired colonel does not view the Washington-Jerusalem relationship (nor any bilateral relationship) as sacrosanct, instead preferring an association grounded in realpolitik, a belief sure to raise consternation within the administration.
But Macgregor will have the president’s ear, a most certain measure of influence. This leaves one final question: With fewer than 100 days until the election and Trump’s re-election questionable, will Macgregor’s appointment and confirmation even matter? Is it too little, too late?
Whatever the case, it suggests Trump might still have his head in the game.