Why Trump’s national security adviser thinks it might soon be time to bomb North Korea

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with his new National Security Adviser Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster after making the announcement at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida U.S. February 20, 2017.

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U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with his new National Security Adviser Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster after making the announcement at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida U.S. February 20, 2017.
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REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

  • President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, has consistently expressed hawkish views on North Korea and is reportedly pushing for a “bloody nose” strike against the Kim regime.
  • McMaster has a foreign policy vision that calls for the US to reverse decades of waning power by standing up to adversaries like Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran.
  • The US has been steadily declining in international efficacy and absorbing a constant stream of foreign policy losses, but has managed to avoid a major war.
  • McMaster’s “bloody nose” idea could stop the erosion of US power, but it could also start a major war.

President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, seems to think that the US’s complete military and nuclear supremacy over North Korea cannot deter Kim Jong Un from attacking the US, and that a strike is needed to stop him.

It also appears that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis are the key figures holding Trump back from taking McMaster’s advice.

McMaster, who led the US’s counterinsurgency strategy in the Iraq War of the early 2000s, frequently provides some of the most hawkish US statements on North Korea, only sometimes surpassed by Trump himself.

McMaster, even before he became Trump’s national security adviser, has stood at the forefront of piecing together a comprehensive US military strategy for the post-Cold War era.

McMaster thinks traditional deterrence has failed

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un guides a target-striking contest of the special operation forces of the Korean People's Army (KPA) to occupy islands in this undated picture provided by KCNA in Pyongyang on August 25, 2017.

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un guides a target-striking contest of the special operation forces of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) to occupy islands in this undated picture provided by KCNA in Pyongyang on August 25, 2017.
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KCNA via Reuters

While traditional thinking since the fall of the Soviet Union has centered around maintaining a peaceful status quo and world order, McMaster has likened today’s situation to 1914 and chastised the security community for taking a “holiday from history” and allowing the US’s power and influence to decline while focusing on expensive defense projects.

“Geopolitics are back and are back with a vengeance,” McMaster said when introducing the US’s new national security strategy.

McMaster also cowrote an article at the Association of the US Army in which he said that “hostile, revisionist powers – Russia, China, North Korea and Iran – annex territory, intimidate our allies, develop nuclear weapons, and use proxies under the cover of modernized conventional militaries.”

McMaster asserted the US’s adversaries named above “often act below the threshold that would elicit a concerted response from US and our allies,” also noting in his 2016 speech to the Virginia Military Institute that the “hostile actors do not operate in isolation from one another.”

“They watch and assess American actions and responses across the globe,” he said. “They calibrate their actions.”

Essentially, McMaster posits that when the world sees Russia waging hybrid warfare in Ukraine and the Baltics and the US offers a muddled response, refusing for years to provide lethal aide to Ukraine, China, Iran, and North Korea become emboldened. While the US struggles to patrol China’s massive land grab in the South China Sea or combat Iran’s growing influence and use of proxy militias in Syria, North Korea assesses – correctly so far – that it can continue to defy the US without punishment.

North Korea, in particular, has proven adept at “salami-slicing,” or advancing its interests against US demands in such small steps that no one provocation is enough for the US to initiate a war.

Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran have all acted against US interests despite the US’s nuclear arsenal and in what some would call defiance of traditional deterrence.

The US has seen its power in the Pacific, eastern Europe, and the Middle East decline exponentially as China, Russia, and Iran rise, but the strategy of tolerating a constant stream of slights has kept the US out of major conflicts. McMaster may want to change that.

Make America fight again

South Korean marines participate in a U.S.-South Korea joint landing operation drill as Amphibious assault vehicles of the South Korean Marine Corps throw smoke bombs in Pohang March 30, 2015. The drill is part of the two countries' annual military training called Foal Eagle, which runs from March 2 to April 24.

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South Korean marines participate in a U.S.-South Korea joint landing operation drill as Amphibious assault vehicles of the South Korean Marine Corps throw smoke bombs in Pohang March 30, 2015. The drill is part of the two countries’ annual military training called Foal Eagle, which runs from March 2 to April 24.
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REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

McMaster has indicated that standing up for US interests and punishing its adversaries may be more important than avoiding a massive war.

Asked about the North Korean crisis by the BBC in December, McMaster said “we’re not committed to a peaceful resolution, we’re committed to a resolution,” adding that “we have to be prepared if necessary to compel the denuclearization of North Korea without the cooperation of that regime.”

McMaster has openly questioned whether deterrence will work on North Korea. While few think North Korea would launch a nuclear attack on the US, as it would be a suicide mission, North Korea has transferred weapons and nuclear technology to US enemies. North Korea has also killed hundreds of US and South Korean civilians.

One solution that’s increasingly discussed, and apparently is one of McMaster’s ideas, is to teach North Korea a lesson with force. The “bloody nose” strategy, whereby the US carries out a limited strike on North Korea in response to some provocation, could achieve this.

Striking North Korea risks a major conflict that could quickly go nuclear. China, or even Russia, may get involved. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, could die.

As Uri Friedman points out in The Atlantic, McMaster’s strategy would make a lot of sense as a bluff to convince US enemies that the country is now serious and willing to risk major wars to protect its interests, but Friedman quotes John Nagl, a retired Lt. Col who worked extensively with McMaster as saying that’s unlikely.

“What H.R. says you can take to the bank,” said Nagl.