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. 

Such friction between the National Security Council (NSC) and the Pentagon, however, particularly when it comes to military planning, is not unique to this administration. In fact, past administrations have routinely found themselves at similar odds with the Defense Department when their lofty goals met with Pentagon practicality and perfectionism. Both agencies have distinct roles to play in the development of military options, but neither plays their part exactly as the other might wish. Each has been known to overstep the boundaries of their respective authorities, take an unhelpful and combative “we know best” attitude, and talk past each other. Both agencies have also been known to interpret typical miscommunication and bureaucratic regular order as disrespect, or even, as Peter Feaver calls it, in his studies of civil-military relations, the “shirking” of responsibility.

One doesn’t have to go too far back in time to find variations on the same theme. When President Barack Obama asked the Pentagon to map out a potential plan for intervention in Syria during the conflict’s early stages, he received only one proposal, and it wasn’t the one he or his national security staff were hoping for—namely, an opportunity to shape the conflict with minimal risk to U.S. personnel. When the White House asked for other options, it appeared from its perspective as if the Defense Department kept delivering the same plan, one that required the deployment of thousands of troops. In turn, while the National Security Council staff felt the Pentagon was hiding something or boxing them in, Pentagon planners were frustrated by the administration’s tendency to set maximalist political goals and then waver when the true cost of such objectives was laid out. A cyclical debate of “what do you want to do?” and “well, what can you do?” resulted in little more than animosity in the Situation Room.

As frustration grows between the Pentagon and the White House, both are dragging out a dangerous game. Absent palatable options from the Pentagon, the White House may be inclined to develop its own and insist that Mattis and Dunford flesh them out.

In the run-up to the Iraq War, George W. Bush’s White House had its own share of conflict with the Pentagon over troop numbers and plans, particularly over the approach to stabilizing Iraq. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld rejected the military’s robust plan for post-conflict stabilization; he and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, publicly rebuked then-Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki for suggesting to Congress that it would be necessary to send “[s]omething on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers.” In the end, the United States tragically underestimated the requirements for stabilizing the country, and seriously damaged its attempts at reconciliation and recovery in Iraq.

The Clinton administration also found itself divided over military planning, particularly during the Balkan Wars. In 1993, President Bill Clinton’s top national security advisers met in the Situation Room to examine options for freeing the Sarajevo airport from Serbian artillery. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, stressed the need for overwhelming force, but noted that it would force the United States into spending billions of dollars and deploying thousands of soldiers. Madeleine Albright, then U.N. Ambassador, having heard similar warnings before, which at least in her mind were fueling U.S. inaction, grew agitated and famously asked Powell, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”

One could write books (and many have) about episodes like these, in which civilian leaders grow impatient with military planners’ inflexibility and military planners become frustrated by civilian leaders who ask for plans that aren’t militarily viable. Some level of tension is normal and inevitable, and even healthy. Outside commentators should not necessarily read a slow-moving Pentagon as insubordinate, or a frustrated White House as unreasonable. Military planning takes time, more time than civilians appreciate. Political leaders are rarely trained in the byzantine process and vocabulary of developing such plans, and thus frequently ask for the wrong thing. Uniformed men and women feel more comfortable delivering what they view as the single best option. The White House prefers the flexibility of a range.

Although an obvious solution might be to establish clear expectations of what can be done and offer training to both incoming political appointees and military personnel on how to interact with each other, administrations usually opt to muddle through with unfortunate compromises. As an example, the president may start his day asking to receive military options on a particular situation by the end of the day, but the Pentagon can’t develop anything they consider to be “best military advice” for weeks, if not months. Given the tight deadline, it is usually the NSC staff who draft the memo. They tend to have little understanding of military planning or the military in general, unless they have been detailed from the Pentagon. That makes for some tough civilian-military conversations—and some even worse military options. Such dynamics shaped occasional debates around U.S. commitments in Afghanistan and Libya, to no one’s ultimate satisfaction.

But the fault isn’t always on the side of the NSC. Military planners don’t always understand or appreciate political goals and geostrategic tradeoffs. Sometimes they do box civilians in with their lack of interest in iterating or collaborating. Sometimes the world doesn’t fit nicely into ways, means, and ends. And sometimes the ideal military solution would cause substantial tension or riffs with key political allies in and out of the United States.

Several early commenters anticipated that McMaster, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, and, early on, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, all military men, would improve this dynamic by understanding the battle rhythms, constraints, and vocabulary of the Pentagon. But by giving the president multiple avenues from which to receive preliminary military advice, these appointments have almost certainly complicated an already complex process. The president regularly refers to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Kelly, and McMaster as “his generals” and seems to have little understanding of the responsibility of civilian control or the substantial analytic apparatus behind the military advice of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford. Such role reversals still frustrate Trump. Last summer, for example, McMaster found himself the lead advocate of a strategy to substantially increase the U.S. military’s presence in Afghanistan. But rather than act as a neutral arbiter, McMaster reportedly pushed his own options and found himself occasionally at odds with the rest of the NSC and the president himself—consequentially delaying Trump’s Afghanistan strategy. 

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a banquet for contributors of the recent rocket launch, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on February 15, 2016.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a banquet for contributors of the recent rocket launch, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on February 15, 2016. 

As frustration grows between the Pentagon and the White House, both are dragging out a dangerous game. Absent palatable options from the Pentagon, the White House may be inclined to develop its own and insist that Mattis and Dunford flesh them out. As the saying goes in the Pentagon: If you want it bad, you get it bad. The Defense Department will ultimately salute and execute even those presidentially-approved plans it knows to be flawed. Alternatively, with another push from the NSC, the Pentagon’s planning machine may crank out some options, outpacing any possible diplomatic track, and strengthening the inevitability of a kinetic approach. 

Ultimately, it’s not the tension between the NSC and the Pentagon that’s plaguing the administration’s North Korea strategy. It’s that the White House doesn’t have one or that it outlines the parameters of a new one every few days. Yes, McMaster has the right to ask the Pentagon for plans. But he also desperately needs a functioning interagency process that can craft a viable and sustainable strategy, cabinet members that stay on message, a fully-staffed State Department, a U.S. ambassador in South Korea, and an open channel with our allies, who seem increasingly frustrated as they try to decode U.S. policy and presidential tweets. Whether one is sitting in the State Department, Seoul, or Pyongyang, it’s hard to know what the White House actually wants.

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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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