Why President Trump must not apply ‘prophylactic offense’ to North Korea
President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) was usually more interested in delivering tirades than seeking advice, but in February 1968 LBJ needed answers. According to Gen. William Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. Forces in Vietnam, the unanticipated Tet Offensive had transformed the Vietnam War. If LBJ wanted to win the war in Vietnam, Westmoreland and the Joint Chiefs insisted they needed 200,000 more troops.
Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson was a key adviser to the president, a thoughtful man who saw himself as a public servant, not as a public figure. After listening for years to general officers who promised success in Vietnam was just around the corner, Acheson was disgusted, but not surprised. “With all due respect, Mr. President,” Acheson advised LBJ, “The Joint Chiefs of Staff don’t know what they are talking about.”
President Trump would do well to heed Dean Acheson’s advice today. The assertions made by Mr. Trump’s generals that “time is running out” for North Korea sound a lot like a national military strategy of “prophylactic offense.” In other words, attack the opponent before the opponent has the chance to strike.
In theory prophylactic offense sounds macho and appealing, but in Northeast Asia it’s dangerous. North Korea is really a large concentration camp populated by millions of starving desperate people including its own soldiers, but its Stalinist leadership would welcome an attack by Washington.
The reason is simple: An attack out of the blue by Washington would drive Beijing into a pointless and self-defeating war (that Beijing wants to avoid) with Washington, thus rescuing North Korea from certain extinction. Russia, North Korea’s only remaining supporter would be the only power to benefit from such a conflict.
The point, Mr. President, is that North Korea is not the greatest danger to the United States. The greatest danger is that advisers in uniform who promise military success will instead blunder into a major war with an American military establishment that is poorly organized, exhausted and unready for action against the modern armed forces of regional powers in Northeast Asia, Eastern Europe or the Near East.
Worse, American military action would occur at a time when America’s economic recovery hangs by a thread and, thanks to two decades of uncontrolled immigration from the developing world, America’s national cohesion is weaker than at any time in its history since 1861. Recent events in Charlottesville are also symptomatic of the divisions that plague America.
It would behoove President Trump to follow the instincts of Candidate Trump. Recognize that for Americans the mystique of “righteous military action” in Afghanistan and Iraq, conceived in the aftermath of 911 has completely worn off. Keep in mind that despite every possible military advantage in more than a decade of desultory battles with weak Arab and Afghan insurgents — opponents without armies, air forces or air defenses — Mr. Bush’s and Mr. Obama’s generals, like LBJ’s generals, offered rosy predictions, but consistently failed to deliver success in the “global war on terror.”
Today American public support for a powerful national defense establishment is strong, but Americans will not support an open-ended war in Northeast Asia when its government has not identified attainable strategic aims worthy of sacrifice. To date, such a strategic formulation does not exist and there is little reason to expect generals whose only experience of war is against weak insurgent enemies to do so now.
Americans accept the burden of preserving the peace by maintaining the world’s most powerful military establishment. However, Americans want a military strategy that maintains the military power to win a war that Americans are compelled to fight, but otherwise constrains the use of American military power within constitutional parameters.
History teaches that political and military leaders who argue for military action are always convinced that the resulting war will be short and decisive.
Yet, the military and political leaders fail to conduct an accurate self-assessment of the nation’s strengths and weaknesses. In the end, the national capability to employ military power, rather than the valid strategic requirement to use force, tends to dominate national security decision-making.
Without leadership from you, Mr. President, the aforementioned strategy you advocated as candidate and the will to execute it will not emerge. The first step on the road to positive change is to heed Dean Acheson’s advice. LBJ waited too long to heed it. Don’t repeat his mistake.
• Douglas Macgregor, a retired U.S. Army colonel and decorated combat veteran, is the author of “Margin of Victory” (Naval Institute Press, 2016).