When President Trump tapped Lt. Gen, H.R. McMaster to take over the national security advisor role from Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the foreign policy establishment in Washington exhaled in deep relief. McMaster was a known commodity in town. Even progressive Democrats were thrilled by Trump’s appointment with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) described McMaster as, “A certified, card-carrying grownup and very, very respected military officer by his peers.”
That much is still true. Lt. Gen. McMaster still holds a positive reputation among the bi-partisan consensus in elite foreign policy circles. Their approval notwithstanding, his gung-ho attitude can sometimes get him into trouble, as it did last Friday when he made a dangerous and irresponsible suggestion that preventative military force against a nuclear-armed North Korea was still a serious option on the table.
At a time when the hostile war of words between Washington and Pyongyang could use a cooling off period, McMaster’s attraction to a war vocabulary—in a room full of cameras and microphones no less—isn't a helpful way to de-escalate. However, what's even more confounding is McMaster’s insistence that time is running out or that we are at the end of the road.
While the U.S. does have a military option that could be utilized––the Pentagon updates war plans in specific regions, dealing with specific contingencies, all the time––it would be the height of recklessness to authorize the use of force on the Korean Peninsula. A strategy of deterrence and containment, in contrast, would not only buy more time but has proven workable with every nuclear adversary that the United States has confronted. Kim Jong-un has shown no signs he is suicidal and every sign that he cares predominately—perhaps exclusively—about the preservation of his regime. Deterrence—and the threat of a preemptive military strike and his assured destruction—provides us time to employ our robust economic and diplomatic power to achieve the nation’s security objectives.
Lest we forget our history, containment was an effective U.S. policy throughout the Cold War against two dominant communist powers—the Soviet Union and China—that were far more formidable militarily than the Kim regime could ever hope to be. Just as it would have been a disaster to rush into a preventive war when the Soviets were testing and improving their nuclear and ballistic missile programs, ordering the U.S. Air Force to bomb North Korea’s weapons facilities without expending all the other alternatives would be a U.S. foreign policy blunder of epic proportions. It would likely bring about the very thing we are trying to avoid: nuclear war.
As an acclaimed military man, McMaster appears to have forgotten the basic concept of mutually assured destruction––the notion that one nuclear state will do everything in their power to avoid an armed conflict with another due to the massive nuclear holocaust that would most likely result. While North Korea does not pose an existential nuclear threat to the U.S., the Kim dynasty’s nuclear stockpile is still sizable enough (estimates vary from as low as 20 to as high as 60) to cause death and destruction. The “military option” McMaster referenced would all but guarantee the loss of tens of thousands of lives within Kim Jong-un’s range.
That is an unacceptably high cost when an attack on U.S. interests is not imminent.
But even assuming the U.S. were foolishly willing to sacrifice that much, including fracturing our alliance, it is worth noting how quickly a small, surgical military operation against Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile facilities could spiral out of control. Seoul, a city that dwarfs Los Angeles, would be enveloped into a “sea of fire.” Indeed, there is no military scenario whereby Kim Jong-un does not target the South Korean capital––and maybe even the Japanese capital––after U.S. warships or aircraft deliver the first payload.
A paranoid dictator, it is wise to de-escalate rather than further threaten Kim Jong-un, which only offers him added incentive to retain and expand his nuclear capability. Bright lines are important when it comes to deterrence, so Kim must not doubt that the U.S. is willing to annihilate his regime if he were to launch a nuclear or conventional attack on U.S. interests. However, comments from the president that threaten to “totally destroy” North Korea for something below that threshold serve only to narrow our diplomatic options.
We cannot be certain how many casualties would occur, but all estimates in the public domain point to a humanitarian calamity. Retired Brig. Gen. Rob Givens, former deputy assistant chief of staff for operations for U.S. Forces-Korea, now with Defense Priorities, predicted that “North Korean forces will most likely level much of Seoul using the 11,000 pieces of artillery and rockets they have deployed within range of this city.”
U.S. cruise missile attacks and airstrikes from F-35 and B-1B aircraft would trigger North Korea to counterstrike and level parts of South Korea’s capital with artillery. Washington and Seoul would respond to those bombardments with an enlarged target set, utilizing nearby U.S. Navy and Air Force assets. And in response, Pyongyang would have no reason to hold off on sending intermediate and ICBM-range missiles to megacities and U.S. bases in Japan, and perhaps Americans in Guam.
So yes, Lt. Gen. McMaster is right that the U.S. does indeed have military options at hand, but he is wrong when he claims we have run out of time to address our problems with North Korea. To consider these war plans as anything other than the absolute last resort, will result in serious repercussions that will bring about the very thing we are trying to avoid: catastrophic, and perhaps nuclear, war with North Korea. That is not in America’s national security interests.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.