From LeMay to McMaster: The Pentagon’s Difficult Relationship with Deterrence

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December 29, 2017
Joshua Pollack

The following is an excerpt from War On The Rocks

In some of the more memorable remarks of his tenure as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster has ruled out the idea of keeping Kim Jong Un in check through nuclear deterrence. In August, he rhetorically asked, “the classical deterrence theory, how does that apply to a regime like the regime in North Korea?”

If there were any doubt about the answer, McMaster declared in October that the president is “not going to accept this regime threatening the United States with nuclear weapons. There are those who would say, well, why not accept and deter. Well, accept and deter is unacceptable.”

These remarks lend added force to T. Negeen Pegahi’s keenly observed essay on the decline of deterrence in U.S. national security strategy — a phenomenon that, if anything, she understates. Furthermore, the underlying aversion to the concept is not new. As Joshua Rovner has discussed, America’s historic pattern has been to embrace deterrence only grudgingly and belatedly. This, too, may be an understatement.

Who actually subscribes to the strategy of deterrence, as it is understood by academic theorists? Among defense policymakers, few do, and few ever have. Judging by the number of references to “deterrence” and “strategic stability” in policy documents, one might assume otherwise. But words are supple. Whatever purposes might be imagined for nuclear weapons, it is hard to justify such extraordinary power to destroy in anything but defensive-sounding terms. In truth, what is routinely called the “nuclear deterrent” is not necessarily meant for deterrence alone.

This resort to euphemism is hardly unique to deterrence. In the United States, we are accustomed to fighting our wars abroad, but we still call the big building with five sides “the Department of Defense.” And it’s exactly there, in the Pentagon, that the reasoning of the nuclear strategists has never really been accepted.

Read the full article at War On The Rocks

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