‘White House’ Frustrated Over Pentagon’s Korea Options

The military options thus far presented for dealing with the DPRK have not been satisfying.

The military options thus far presented for dealing with North Korea have not been satisfying.

WaPo (“White House Wants Pentagon to Offer More Options on North Korea“):

The White House has grown frustrated in recent weeks by what it considers the Pentagon’s reluctance to provide President Trump with options for a military strike against North Korea, according to officials, the latest sign of a deepening split in the administration over how to confront the nuclear-armed regime of Kim Jong-un.

The national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, believes that for Mr. Trump’s warnings to North Korea to be credible, the United States must have well-developed military plans, according to those officials.

But the Pentagon, they say, is worried that the White House is moving too hastily toward military action on the Korean Peninsula that could escalate catastrophically. Giving the president too many options, the officials said, could increase the odds that he will act.

The tensions bubbled to the surface this week with the disclosure that the White House had abandoned plans to nominate a prominent Korea expert, Victor D. Cha, as ambassador to South Korea. Mr. Cha suggested that he was sidelined because he warned administration officials against a “preventive” military strike, which, he later wrote, could spiral “into a war that would likely kill tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Americans.”

But the divisions go back months, officials said. When North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile in July that experts concluded was capable of reaching the West Coast of the United States, the National Security Council convened a conference call that included Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson.

After General McMaster left the room, Mr. Mattis and Mr. Tillerson continued to speak, not realizing that other participants were still on the line. The officials familiar with the matter overheard them complaining about a series of meetings that the National Security Council had set up to consider options for North Korea — signs, Mr. Tillerson said, that it was becoming overly aggressive.

For now, the frustration at the White House appears to be limited to senior officials rather than Mr. Trump himself. But the president has shown impatience with his military leaders on other issues, notably the debate over whether to deploy additional American troops to Afghanistan.

This is an incredibly vague report. As I’ve often noted, the White House is a building; it has no policies or feelings. It is not clear who, other than perhaps McMaster, is voicing frustrations over the Korea options. Given what we know of him, we’d expect Trump himself to be frustrated but the report claims this is not  the case.

I’ve often remarked on one of the major problems with our political structure and culture is that it tends to lead to amateurs being in charge. The presidency is an incredibly difficult job, having responsibility for an enormous range of issues, and yet we tend to fill it with people woefully unprepared for it. Arguably, only two presidents in my lifetime–Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush—came to office with anything close to the right preparation for it. And, while they tend to staff their cabinet with reasonably competent and experienced people, they’re seldom anything like subject matter experts.

It’s not surprising, then, that new administrations are often frustrated by how poor their options are for dealing with a wide variety of problems. While my misapprehensions about Trump’s qualifications and temperament are well documented, he’s hardly the first to think that longstanding issues—the Arab-Israeli crisis, the Afghanistan conflict, nuclear proliferation, etc.—can easily be fixed if only the president were smart, diligent, tough, or courageous enough.

While I’m by no means a Korea expert, all of the Korea experts I have read are unanimous as to the lack of good options. If we could have solved it by military force, we’d have solved it during the George W. Bush administration, which had the DPRK in its “Axis of Evil” and was in the mood for action after 9/11. Further, as the story hints, the Pentagon has a propensity for shading its options to entice civilian leadership to choose their preferred option.

FILED UNDER: National Security, North Korea
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. KM says:

    Trump thinks we can just roll on in and crush our enemies the way we did in WW2. Just kick some asses, old school. He literally has no concept that in the years since, that strategy has cost us Vietnam and other engagements. The world has changed – the weapons we use, the enemies we face and where we will face them. It’s simplistic thinking to assume that just because you have the US military on your side to think you can just crush NK like a bug.

    If we could have solved it by military force, we’d have solved it during the George W. Bush administration

    Oh, earlier then that. If we could have done this by sheer brute force, the Korean War would have been over in months with a clear victory. Americans are overly fond of the idea that we’re asskickers but neglect to note we haven’t really won any military engagements in the last 50 years. We achieve initial objectives (Shock and Awe) but can’t seal the deal. We are sprinters, not marathon runners – if our enemies can survive the initial blow, they just have to hold us off until the public gets bored and wants a new casus belli.




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  2. teve tory says:

    “Several months ago, a foreign policy expert on the international level went to advise Donald Trump. And three times [Trump] asked about the use of nuclear weapons. Three times he asked at one point if we had them why can’t we use them,” Scarborough said on his “Morning Joe” program.

    This fucking idiot.




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  3. Dave Schuler says:

    There haven’t been any good options for decade if ever. Any sort of preventive attack against North Korea would be fomenting the end of the world. China just couldn’t tolerate it.

    If we’re actually defending ourselves, it might be another story. The Chinese have already said that if the North Koreans attack us, they’re on their own.

    Strategic patience is presently our best alternative.




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  4. Matt Bernius says:

    As Daniel Larison and others have pointed out, the following is one of the most concerning parts of these reports:

    The tensions bubbled to the surface this week with the disclosure that the White House had abandoned plans to nominate a prominent Korea expert, Victor D. Cha, as ambassador to South Korea. Mr. Cha suggested that he was sidelined because he warned administration officials against a “preventive” military strike, which, he later wrote, could spiral “into a war that would likely kill tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Americans.”

    Cha is known to be hawkish in general on how to deal with North Korea. If his opposition to a “black eye” strike is the primary reason why he was given the boot, we all should be very concerned.

    It’s a further sign of the loss of power at State (as Tillerson is also, according to reports against any form of military strike). It’s also one hell of an indication that key people *outside* of the State Department are not interested in diplomatic solutions to this issue.




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  5. gVOR08 says:

    Korea is complicated. Hoocudanode.




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  6. MarkedMan says:

    American and European hawks tend to be blinded by a certain kind of naïveté. They think that a demonstration of our toughness will scare the bad actors into submission. But people like Baby Kim live every day of their lives with existential threats to the only two things that would motivate them to act: their life and their power. The people making those threats already have the scary dial at 11. If Kim or Assad were susceptible to threats they would have run screaming from the stage long ago.

    One of the reasons people of good faith believed the Bush/Cheney lies about WMD was because Saddam’s own generals believed it. He was so afraid of internal coups that he continued the charade while a superpower literally assembled an army on his borders. Yet the Western hawks are always certain that if they just rattle the sabres enough, the dictators will back down.




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  7. teve tory says:

    The korean war ended in 1953. It’s been a problem for 65 years.

    “Why can’t we just solve it?”

    Uhhhhh….because Gandalf and Harry Potter don’t actually exist?




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  8. Kathy says:

    I’d say the frustration, whomever it belongs to, stems from the fact there’s no action movie solution for a real world problem. No clever plan or new weapon that will knock out the North’s artillery before it can be used, no way to keep the South from experiencing massive amounts of dead, maimed and wounded, and no way to land an undercover team that can kidnap Kim or turn off his nukes.

    A “good” option would be one that neutralizes the North’s nuclear capability for a lengthy term, while limiting casualties to US forces and South Korean civilians to some tolerable level (that threshold is too easy to reach, though). There may be a way to achieve the first objective, but none to achieve the second.

    That’s why escalating things, even rhetorically, is irresponsible and dangerous.

    A smart, capable leader would be engaging in diplomacy in the region, particularly with South Korea, Japan and China. They’d be making or strengthening alliances, finding out what China wants to pressure Kim, getting other countries on board, etc.

    Kim is doing some of that. Trump can’t get an ambassador to South Korea, or keep from thrashing the US-South Korea trade agreement.




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  9. Kathy says:

    @KM:

    Americans are overly fond of the idea that we’re asskickers but neglect to note we haven’t really won any military engagements in the last 50 years.

    I’d list the Korean War as a partial success, insofar as the South remained free and independent.

    Past that, there was Granada, Panama and Gulf War I. I’d count the Cold War as having been won, but that was not entirely a military conflict.

    It’s hard to solve intractable problems with war, because war is a blunt tool that rarely accomplishes what it sets out to accomplish, and even then the results tend to be ephemeral.




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  10. Andy says:

    Yet another administration finds out their grand yet stupid ideas about the utility of military force are wrong.

    How long until Pres. Trump, like Obama before him, concludes the military is trying to “box” him in?




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  11. Gustopher says:

    Why is no one presenting options like training suicide bombing squirrels to simultaneously take out all of the North Korean leadership?

    That would buy the world about three years of squirrel training time.




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  12. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @Gustopher: Oooh, I like it! Not the suicide bombing squirrels part, that’s just dumb. But I do like the possibility that there are people in the DoD and the Trump admin. that are crazy enough to buy into it and get him to shut up about NK and Kim for 3 years.

    That part’s worth a shot.




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  13. de stijl says:

    @Gustopher:
    @Just ‘nutha ig’nint cracker:

    Not squirrels – FLYING squirrels.

    Flying squirrel operators with bad-ass berets and camo face-paint and beards and kaffeyah scarves and tiny little Rambo knives.

    So adorable. So deadly.




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  14. michael reynolds says:

    @Kathy:

    I’d say the frustration, whomever it belongs to, stems from the fact there’s no action movie solution for a real world problem. No clever plan or new weapon that will knock out the North’s artillery before it can be used, no way to keep the South from experiencing massive amounts of dead, maimed and wounded, and no way to land an undercover team that can kidnap Kim or turn off his nukes.

    Bingo. Getting fictional heroes into and out of seemingly impossible situations is my core competence. But within my fictional universe I’m God. Of course I can find the way out of impossible situations, I created the situation. The reason stuff works in fiction is because obviously we wouldn’t write ourselves into a corner we can’t get out of? Right? Duh?

    In reality no one is God, they’re all just half-blind, half-smart players in a really dangerous game.




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  15. de stijl says:

    @michael reynolds:

    So TV and movies and games and books and comics are lying to me?

    No Watchmen? No Dark Tower? No Call Of Duty? No S.H.I.E.L.D.?

    As folks have noted before me in this thread, it is astounding that adults with important posts in government can look at real-life geo-political situations and just think that since we have the most powerful military, every diplomatic contretemps can magically be solved if we just remove our kid gloves and send the “operators” in with some fancy / techy overwatch.

    Enemies are stupid, have no tactical or strategic vision, blowback does not exist, what happens in Iraq stays in Iraq, no country other than our own has internal constituencies that must be cajoled.

    Seriously, no one in the Dubya world could imagine that invading Iraq would encourage a Sunni resistance and strengthen Iran (the next door neighbor they had been at war with for decades.)

    It’s hubris + magical thinking. And it’s not just the opiood addicted rubes; it’s also so-called “pro”s who think that a goal is the same thing as a plan.




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  16. de stijl says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I’m 6/7 ths of the way through re-reading King’s The Dark Tower series.

    OMFG! So much deus ex machina!

    We’re in a plot jam, so let’s just invent a new un-foretold power for one or all of the protagonists to use. I’m at the point of the story where is just raining deus ex machina like every other page.

    There’s nothing wrong with that technique in this genre and context, and I know where he’s going with the story and I know what is at the top floor of the Dark Tower and I approve of how it wraps back to the very first sentence in the first book. I liked that “ending.”

    I can’t complain; it’s King. Complaining would be like complaining that Elvis Costello is too verbally clever in his early lyrics.

    (BTW, I’m not dissing him. He is a cracker-jack story-teller, and sometimes clean. He shows and tells too much when he’s between beats, but he can knock it out of the park on characters. Every now and again, he can write the f*ck out of a sentence. “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” That, alone, kicks ass in every universe.

    For the popular / story writer of the last 40 years, we could have done a lot worse that Stephen King.




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  17. michael reynolds says:

    @de stijl:
    I am really opposed to deus ex machina solutions. I’ve never knowingly written one. I’ve written plenty of randomness but only to reflect reality and fwck with the reader, never to solve a plot problem.

    But as to Mr. King, he is the writer I admire most. He’s the guy I want to be when I grow up. Also, he gave me a blurb. Good guy.




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  18. de stijl says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Mr. King, he is the writer I admire most.

    He has been very, very good in his own way for a very, very long time. In Pet Cemetary, his depiction of the death of Gage was indelibly effective. It was incredibly moving. It was heartfelt; there was no sterile navel-gazing. That was pure empathy. The utter horror of the death of your child was real on the page, and then in your head. (I’m not crying, you’re the one who’s crying!)

    That was from 1983…

    I don’t really compare him to other writers, but to musicians / song-writers. Paul Westerberg, especially.

    he gave me a blurb

    That’s so frickin’ cool, I don’t even know how to tell you how awesome that is. Congrats!




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  19. de stijl says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Imagine an alternate reality where there was no Stephen King, and Dean Koontz was the preeminent popular writer of the last 30 years…

    [shudders]




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  20. rachel says:

    @Andy: But the worry is that Orangymandius hasn’t realized this yet and might not until it’s too late.




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  21. michael reynolds says:

    @de stijl:

    That’s so frickin’ cool, I don’t even know how to tell you how awesome that is. Congrats!

    He gave me a blurb for the GONE series, then gave me a shout-out in Entertainment Weekly for a villain of mine he admired. And when the 6th (and final) book in the series came out he actually tweeted the final line verbatim. My big literary ‘moments’ are first book published, first time on the NYT list, Stephen Freaking King calling my stuff, ‘great literature,’ and then Mr. King’s tweet. I am not a fan boy by nature, but I get genuinely emotional about his support. Pretty much like God reaching down from heaven to pat a small town priest on the head. Validation from on high.




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  22. de stijl says:

    @michael reynolds:

    It could be that he’s just stalking you.

    (Can you insert a wink emoji here, or do I just have to satisfy myself with the 😉 thingie?) [Update – hey, it worked! It didn’t show up as just text. Good job, OTB!]

    then gave me a shout-out in Entertainment Weekly for a villain of mine he admired

    That’s the best validation ever.

    And when the 6th (and final) book in the series came out he actually tweeted the final line verbatim.

    I take it back. Actually, that is the best validation ever.

    Stephen Freaking King calling my stuff, ‘great literature,’

    Now I have to take it back again. That is the ultimate validation.




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  23. michael reynolds says:

    @de stijl:
    It’s pathetic but big old, cynical, mean me gets teary. Most creatives suffer from imposter syndrome. I went from cleaning toilets to being praised by Stephen King.




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  24. de stijl says:

    Speaking of emojis, whoever first did the text shrug emoji a la:
    ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
    deserves mega kudos.

    No one ever in the world did it before her, and no one has done it since. We all just Google “shrug emoji” and then copy / paste.

    She had a vision, she had to download a bunch of funky math / sciencey font sets, and then she just friggin nailed it.

    There should be a new HTML tag where you type “shrug” with the appropriate HTML syntax and then it displays as ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ and then the inventor gal gets a dollar.




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  25. de stijl says:

    @michael reynolds:

    When I was a young ‘un I got sent to the grandparents’ farm during summer break.

    I didn’t clean toilets.

    I used a snow shovel to push the 12 hour accumulated poop & pee of a dozen yearling heifers into this strange chain-driven poop conveyor belt thingie that pushed the poop / pee to a 50 yard * 50 yard poop / pee lagoon with elevated berms or dikes surrounding. I could gauge the area, but not the volume because I don’t even want to think about how deep it was.

    And I shoveled it again in the evening and again the next morning and so on.

    Then I had to feed the younger calves.

    They got a 50/50 mix of regular milk and calf formula mixed with water in a ~ 2 quart bottle with a screw-on fake rubber udder at the end. There were 10 or so calves in each pen, and you can only hold two bottles of their milk / formula stuff. So you try to pick out two calves and feed them. The other little bastards are milling about and bellowing and head butting the calves getting fed and they are head butting you because you’re not feeding them, and you have to remember which ones you’d fed and which ones still needed to be fed.

    It was like 28 Days Later only with cute, baby cows.

    And you move on to next pair and the other little f*ckers who’d already had a full bottle are still bellowing and head-butting you on top of the super aggro dicks who haven’t even had a taste yet.

    Juvenile cows are little f*cking bastards, each and every one. Now, I enjoy veal entirely guilt-free with great vigor and immense satisfaction. Baby cows are utter dicks.

    Then come late August I got shipped back to south Minneapolis and my buds would ask where I’d been and I would just say that I was visiting my grandparents, not that I’d reeked of sh*t for he last three months. God forbid.

    Oh I forgot, reproduction. Apparently, if you don’t have a bull, you have to pay a guy to come to your barn with semen. He puts on a arm condom.

    Literally. An arm condom.

    No kidding.

    He hoovers up some bull spunk in a container (and how, exactly, did this gentleman come to be in possession of said bull spunk – how was it collected?), and the he goes in. Like, past the elbow deep. The cow bellows like she’s been stabbed repeatedly. She is being fisted by a dude without her consent. It’s very rapey, but it’s a cow, and ten seconds later she just eats some more hay and then poops. A ten year old should not be the person who is tasked with holding the cows tail up and out of the way during that process. Just sayin’.

    Also, dairy cattle are bred to produce milk and, secondarily, meat after their milk / calving days are past. They are not bred to calve properly. About half the time they need help in the birthing process. You have to pull the calf out of the mother by force. You have to grab the calf’s hind legs and pull it out of her because she cannot fully expel her calf. I did that for the first time when I was eleven. It wasn’t asked of me before because I was too small and weak last summer. If you’re strong enough to hump full hay bales around, you’re strong enough to pull a calf out.

    It’s astounding that I can sexual relations at all.

    —-

    @michael reynolds:

    I laugh at your paltry “cleaning toilets” anecdote. I laugh heartily, I tell you. I laugh hard and well. I laugh in a well-lit place ignorant of Hemingway.




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