McMaster's strategy to bloody North Korea's nose makes sense as a bluff, but a retired lieutenant colonel says that "what H.R. says you can take to the bank."
President Donald Trump's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, seems to think the US's military and nuclear supremacy over North Korea cannot deter its leader, 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 James 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, sometimes surpassed only by Trump.
Even before becoming Trump's national security adviser, McMaster has stood at the forefront of piecing together a comprehensive US military strategy for the post-Cold War era.
While traditional thinking since the fall of the Soviet Union has centered on 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 last month when introducing the US's new national security strategy.
McMaster also wrote an article last year for the Association of the US Army's magazine 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 that those adversaries "often act below the threshold that would elicit a concerted response from the US and our allies," also saying 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 offering a muddled response — refusing for years to provide lethal aid 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 proved 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, 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.
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."
He added: "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 experts think North Korea would launch a nuclear attack on the US, as it would be a suicide mission, North Korea has been found to have flouted sanctions by transferring weapons and nuclear technology to US enemies.
One solution that's increasingly discussed and apparently 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 willing to risk a war to protect its interests. But Friedman quotes John Nagl, a retired lieutenant colonel who worked extensively with McMaster, as saying that's unlikely.
"What H.R. says you can take to the bank," Nagl said.