Frustrations at the White House and the Pentagon

Why They Can't Seem to See Eye to Eye on North Korea

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 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

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