U.S. President Donald Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis in Norfolk, Virginia, July 22, 2017.
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

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

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  • JULIANNE SMITH is the Director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Previously, she served as the Deputy National Security Advisor to Vice President Joseph Biden.
  • LOREN DEJONGE SCHULMAN is the Deputy Director of Studies and Panetta Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Previously, she held multiple senior staff positions at the National Security Council and Department of Defense.
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