In early February, months-long tensions between the White House and the Pentagon over how to address North Korea spilled out into the public scene. As officials revealed to the New York Times, National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster had demanded that the Pentagon provide a menu of detailed military plans, including a “bloody nose” strike against North Korean nuclear facilities, in order to bring credibility to President Donald Trump’s threats. But the Pentagon, these officials noted, appeared reluctant to deliver on the request, seemingly worried that the White House lacked an appreciation of how quickly a military strike could escalate.
The reality is more nuanced. The Pentagon’s apparent refusal to deliver the White House’s desired military plans most likely derived from a number of factors unrelated to the Department of Defense’s feelings about the president or his foreign policy. In this case, the parameters likely set by the White House—low risk to U.S. forces, low risk to South Korea, low risk in provoking a North Korean response, but high damage to Pyongyang’s nuclear program or broader conventional force—may have simply been untenable. There is, after all, no effective surgical strike option for North Korea, no “bloody nose” that could reliably inflict determinative damage on military facilities without prompting devastating retaliation. The Pentagon always works more slowly than desired in the development of military plans, but ultimately cannot deliver on an impossible request—and is likely disinclined to offer less robust options.
Read the full article in Foreign Affairs.
More from CNAS
CommentaryTrump has three options with North Korea to avoid a dangerous perfect storm in Asia
In the next few weeks, the Korean Peninsula will face a watershed moment -- one which could upend the United States' alliances in northeast Asia and regional stability as a wh...
By Duyeon Kim
CommentaryA fresh approach to peace in Afghanistan
An effective peace process is possible and desirable in Afghanistan. Success, however, will require a careful, step-by-step course to test bona fides, build confidence, reduce...
By Earl Anthony Wayne & Christopher D. Kolenda
CommentaryTrump was right to abandon the Taliban peace deal. Here’s what a good one would look like.
Two months after President Trump declared U.S.-Taliban peace talks “dead,” diplomacy with the Afghan insurgents is reviving. With the administration already having negotiated ...
By David H. Petraeus & Vance Serchuk
VideoWhat does the US want from China? What is its endgame?
Daniel Kliman appears on a BBC News feature to discuss the state of U.S. policy toward China. Listen to the full conversation and more:...
By Daniel Kliman