As of last week Rick Waddell, a two-star general in the Army Reserve, is the second senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the Trump administration’s National Security Council (NSC). His is the top White House position with policymaking responsibility for Latin America and the Caribbean, managing the activities of the State Department, the Defense Department, and other agencies. (History has shown that how well NSC’s small staff truly manages those departments’ activities varies a lot.)
He replaces Craig Deare, a scholar of security in Mexico who served during Gen. Michael Flynn’s brief tenure as national security advisor. Deare was dismissed after superiors discovered that he made critical comments about the Trump White House’s foreign policy in an off-the-record meeting with think-tank personnel (attended by WOLA’s executive director, who leaked nothing).
Like Deare, Waddell is a defense academic, a fellow at the National Defense University (NDU) Institute for National Strategic Studies, and director of the NDU “Capstone” course for one-star generals and other military education programs. He has an International Relations PhD from Columbia and attended Oxford as a Rhodes scholar.
As a staff officer, he spent much of the 2000s in Iraq and Afghanistan, occasionally commanding troops. He is no stranger to the National Security Council, where he was the senior director for European affairs during the George W. Bush administration.
I don’t recall ever meeting Gen. Waddell, though he has some knowledge of Latin America. He had a recent stint at U.S. Southern Command as deputy commander for reserve affairs, and as a civilian businessman, he spent many years in Brazil.
Scraps found online indicate closeness to Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s new national security advisor. In 2007, both McMaster and Waddell served on a 24-member group that helped Gen. David Petraeus come up with a new campaign plan for Iraq—what would come to be known as the “surge.” (Waddell makes a pugnacious case for the surge in a 2006 note posted to the conservative Power Line blog.)
Waddell has written three books that I haven’t read, and unfortunately they’re not available at the DC Public Library (though one is available for $2.99 as a Kindle book). They indicate an abiding interest in low-intensity conflict, which makes sense for an officer who advised Gen. Petraeus, the principal author of the Army’s much-praised 2006 counterinsurgency field manual, alongside noted counterinsurgency theorists like David Kilcullen.
One of his books, In War’s Shadow (2011), focuses on a low-intensity battle that took place along the Honduras-Nicaragua border in 1986, when Nicaraguan Sandinista troops fighting Contra rebels entered Honduran territory while in hot pursuit. The Sandinistas found themselves outflanked, with the U.S.-backed Honduran Army on one side and the U.S.-backed Contras on the other. “Far from being the ineffective force portrayed in the media,” Waddell’s excerpt notes, “the contras were kicking butt.”
(I was in high school at the time, but I don’t recall many critiques of the Contras’ military prowess. The critiques centered on their poor human rights record, the illegal ways that the Reagan administration aided them after Congress prohibited it, and the larger question of why the United States was seeking the violent overthrow of a government that began with a broad base of support and whose radicalization could have been prevented.)
With Waddell’s addition to the Trump team, most of the named and confirmed officials responsible for Latin America policy right now are military: McMaster and Waddell, Gen. John Kelly at Homeland Security, and Adm. Kurt Tidd at U.S. Southern Command. There is still no nominee for assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, or for deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere affairs. No USAID administrator, or assistant administrator for Western Hemisphere. For now, the brass is minding the store.