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The White House’s ‘bloody nose’ strategy on North Korea sounds Trumpian. So why do his aides hate it?

President Trump harshly criticized North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un on Sept. 19, calling him "Rocket Man" and threatening to "totally destroy North Korea." (Video: The Washington Post)

No phrase is more closely associated with the Trump administration’s North Korea strategy than “bloody nose.”

The two words, captured in news articles and cited by people close to the administration, have quickly become shorthand for all manner of preemptive strikes designed to demonstrate American resolve and prevent Pyongyang from developing nuclear weapons that can hit the United States.

There’s just one problem: Trump administration officials have insisted repeatedly — in classified briefings to Congress and in public testimony — that they’ve never said it, don’t like it and would never support it.

“The phrase has never, ever been uttered by anyone in the White House,” said a senior administration official involved in Asia policy.

Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho) echoed those sentiments last week at an international security conference in Munich: “There is no bloody nose policy. Nobody knows where it came from.”

And yet the White House can’t shake it. The evocative phrase echoes the punchy, macho language President Trump has employed to threaten to “totally destroy” North Korea and taunt its leader Kim Jong Un as “Little Rocket Man” on Twitter.

Kim Jong Un’s North Korea: Life inside the totalitarian state

The president has made clear from his first days in office that neutralizing the North Korea threat is his top national security priority. More recently the idea of a “bloody nose strike” has sparked worries in Washington and Seoul that a war may be imminent — even as the North Koreans on Sunday indicated that they were open to talks with the Trump administration. Foreign diplomats and Beltway analysts are comparing notes from meetings with senior Trump officials to figure out how serious the White House is about an attack.

The Post's David Nakamura says plans for Cha to be Trump's ambassador to South Korea fell apart in January, leaving South Korea to wonder what happens next. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

On Friday, Trump probably added to their fears. “If the sanctions don’t work, we’ll have to go to phase 2,” the president said ominously at a news conference with Australia’s prime minister. “Phase 2 may be a very rough thing. It may be very, very unfortunate for the world.”

In a sign of the White House’s conflicting opinions on North Korea, White House aides privately express frustration that the bloody nose phrase has caught on so widely and so quickly. Such talk “should have petered out,” the administration official said. The White House, he cautioned, does “not want to give the impression of a gathering snowball toward [military] conflict.”

Theories abound to explain the phrase’s staying power. Some foreign policy experts insist that the White House denials are simply disingenuous. “They are playing semantics here,” said Thomas Wright, a foreign relations analyst at the Brookings Institution. Even as the Trump administration denies a pinprick strike designed to bloody North Korea’s nose, Wright said, it still seems to view preventive military strikes on the country’s nuclear program — and the catastrophic response from Pyongyang that might ensue — as a legitimate option.

Others said that the Trump administration’s strategy, which it describes as “maximum pressure and engagement,” is so murky that it is barely distinguishable from those of previous presidents. “The administration is trying to pretend that it’s different,” said Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. “If you take them at their word . . . [all] you are left with is this bellicose language stuff.”

“Bloody nose” seems to better capture what’s going on in Trump’s head than the actual words of senior administration officials.

The phrase is on its way to joining the pantheon of other memorable foreign policy idioms that have set expectations for military action and — for better or worse — come to define presidential policies.

The Obama administration was never able to part company with “leading from behind,” which a senior White House official used to describe the president’s approach to Libya and then became a catchall for critics who disliked the president’s cautious approach to using military force.

During George W. Bush’s presidency, “shock and awe” served as an unfortunate shorthand to describe plans for a quick victory in Baghdad. Instead, Bush and the Iraqis were stuck with the bog of an insurgency.

The nearest analogy to “bloody nose” may be to the Kennedy administration’s secret plans to destroy China’s nuclear program in the early 1960s. In classified documents, senior Pentagon and White House officials talked about “strangling the baby in the cradle.” Ultimately, they decided that the risks of a big war with China were too high.

Senior Trump administration officials were so bothered by the “bloody nose” phrase earlier this year that they set out to trace its origins. The first usage seems to have been in the headline of a Dec. 20 article in the Daily Telegraph.

The idea, according to one former U.S. official cited in the Telegraph article, was to “punch the North Koreans in the nose” to get Kim’s attention. Around the same time foreign policy experts in Washington were growing increasingly alarmed at the prospect of a preventive U.S. strike.

In a scathing two-page memo to colleagues, John J. Hamre, a former top Pentagon official and president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, reported that a senior Trump administration official told him, “We are running out of time on North Korea.”

Hamre, who had worked on the North Korea problem during the Clinton administration, insisted that such talk was reckless. “We are talking like frightened little rabbits, afraid of the lone wolf in the forest,” he wrote. “Everyone in Washington should just calm down.”

Six days later, H.R. McMaster, the president’s national security adviser, warned publicly that new sanctions imposed on the North “might be our last best chance to avoid military conflict.”

Trump administration unveils sanctions aimed at starving North Korea of resources

Confusion about the Trump administration’s precise policy and exactly what constitutes a “bloody nose strike” added to the uncertainty. In Washington, the phrase initially referred to a discrete and targeted attack designed to send a message that the United States was serious, rather than destroy North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

By contrast, a much larger “preventive strike” would seek to set back or cripple the program.

Either option could provoke a war, anger Beijing or shred the United States’ relationships with its closest allies in Seoul and Tokyo, who have made it clear that they view the risk of a North Korean counterattack as too great.

“If they are going to use force, then they really need to explain what they are going to do and why they think it will work,” Wright said. “It’s really weird that they are not discussing it.”

The lack of public discussion could be a sign that the administration’s talk of military action is a bluff. Those who think the administration is seriously considering a “bloody nose” or preventive strike point to the dropping in January of Victor Cha, a former George W. Bush administration official, as the presumptive nominee to be U.S. ambassador to South Korea.

Cha had reportedly expressed private opposition to White House officials over the idea of a strike. Writing in The Washington Post after his nomination was derailed, Cha disparaged the idea that the United States could demonstrate its seriousness by giving “the mercurial Kim a bloody nose.”

“There is a point at which hope must give in to logic,” Cha wrote. “If we believe that Kim is undeterrable without such a strike, how can we also believe that a strike will deter him from responding in kind?”

Unable to shake the “bloody nose” label, a frustrated McMaster has jokingly told aides to get to work on a “stubbed toe” strategy to complement existing plans.

Victor Cha: Giving North Korea a ‘bloody nose’ carries a huge risk to Americans

South Korea’s president urges both Washington and Pyongyang to be pragmatic

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