Home/Daniel Larison/North Korea and McMaster’s Deterrence Dishonesty

North Korea and McMaster’s Deterrence Dishonesty

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H.R. McMaster said something yesterday on This Week that is every bit as dangerous as Trump’s incendiary rhetoric last week. The more striking thing is how dishonest it is:

STEPHANOPOULOS: But your predecessor Susan Rice wrote this week that the U.S. could tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea the same way we tolerated nuclear weapons in the Soviet Union far more during the Cold War. Is she right?

MCMASTER: No, she’s not right. And I think the reason she’s not right is that the classical deterrence theory, how does that apply to a regime like the regime in North Korea? [bold mine-DL] A regime that engages in unspeakable brutality against its own people? A regime that poses a continuous threat to the its neighbors in the region and now may pose a threat, direct threat, to the United States with weapons of mass destruction? A regime that imprisons and murders anyone who seems to oppose that regime, including members of his own family, using sarin nerve gase (sic) — gas in a public airport?

As McMaster must know, none of the things he mentions here has anything to do with whether the North Korean government can be effectively deterred from using its nuclear arsenal. He is trying to claim that the North Korean leadership is not primarily concerned with self-preservation, but nothing he cites here bears that out. Other nuclear-armed regimes have similarly engaged in “unspeakable brutality” against their own people and posed direct threats to the U.S., but they have refrained from using nuclear weapons against the U.S. and its allies because they believed that they would invite their own destruction if they did so. North Korea’s government acquired nuclear weapons in order to secure its own survival, so it should be relatively easy to deter them from using those weapons. Aside from the worrisome echoes of the Bush administration’s pre-invasion rhetoric about the Iraqi government, the alarming thing about this statement is that Trump’s National Security Advisor either doesn’t understand how deterrence works or is flatly lying to the public about the nature of the threat in order to lay the groundwork for launching an illegal and disastrous attack.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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