The Trump White House and the Pentagon were either deliberately deceiving the American people last week, or they were so incompetent that they just didn’t know what they were doing. It’s likely a combination of both. Amy Davidson of the New Yorker reports, Donald Trump, North Korea, and the case of the phantom armada:
Some degree of delusion always has to be factored in with Donald Trump: when he referred to “the aircraft carriers” and, in another interview, with Fox Business, said that “we are sending an armada, very powerful,” he was widely understood to be referring to a single aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Carl Vinson, and its support ships. In fairness, the Vinson would have been powerful and provocative enough—if it had, in fact, been speeding toward the Korean Peninsula, or the Sea of Japan, or even just the Pacific Ocean, which it was not. It was in the Indian Ocean, headed in the opposite direction, for exercises with what might be described as the Australian Armada. Just when you think you see the contours of Trump’s phantom menace, he comes up with a Phantom Fleet.
[T]he movements of a carrier group can’t be so hard to conceal, except, perhaps, from the people in charge of America’s foreign policy. Trump wasn’t alone on this one; it’s not a case of him just causing trouble with his phone and Twitter account, rambling about bad hombres. As the timeline makes clear, it’s even worse. (The Wall Street Journal and the Times have good versions.) On April 9th, three days before Trump’s Wall Street Journal interview, the Navy had said that it had ordered the Vinson “to sail north”; H. R. McMaster, the national-security adviser, reiterated that news on the same day, framing it as a response to North Korea’s own provocative moves. Secretary of Defense James Mattis followed that up on April 11th by saying that the Indian Ocean exercises were off, and said that the Vinson was “just on her way up there.” That was false. The next day, the Navy said again that the Vinson had been “ordered north”; it added that the effects of that deployment on “other previously scheduled activities are still being assessed during the transit.” The Pentagon is now trying to sell that last bit as a quiet correction of Mattis, which the press mysteriously missed—but that is, simply put, ridiculous. For one thing, there’s the phrase “during the transit,” which assumes that transit had begun. Or is the idea that the Vinson was on its way to the Sea of Japan, in the sense that we are all on our way from cradle to grave, or that Trump is in transit from the Oval Office to choosing items for the gift shop in his Presidential library? A lot can happen in between.
And, even if the Navy meant to correct Mattis and McMaster, it might have noticed that the President also got it wrong, and that various Administration officials, including, inevitably, “Baghdad Sean” Spicer, responded to questions about the Vinson not with clarifications of its movements but with mini-discourses—in Spicer’s case, about how the North Koreans should not be allowed to ever have a bomb that they already do have. The most Trumpian response may have come from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who, as the Washington Post noted in a roundup, said, at a press conference in Moscow, that the Vinson was “routinely in the Pacific,” but that was just because the Pacific was the kind of place it tended to be, because it “sails up and down,” and that “there is no particular objective in its current course”—as if carrier group commanders were meandering mariners on pleasure cruises. Tillerson added that he “would not read anything into the Vinson’s current locations”; that was on the same day that Trump, in his interview, demanded that all too much be read into the ship’s location.
This had been part of the problem from the start: even if the Vinson had been where the White House said that it was, the Administration spoke about its mission in ways that were incoherent. The contradictions, the infighting, the muddling of motives, and the diplomatic recklessness of the Administration can be so distracting that it is possible to miss the fact that a fleet is in the wrong ocean. Where does the triage begin—with the facts or the follies? And, meanwhile, what, exactly, was Xi supposed to tell the Koreans? The White House and the Pentagon were either deliberately deceiving the American people and setting up our partners, and potential partners, for a shared mortification, or they just don’t know what they are doing. Or both. This was a group effort in humiliation.
The real location of the Vinson finally became clear on Tuesday, not because the Administration decided to treat the American people like adults and correct the story head-on but because Defense News, a specialized publication, noticed that the Navy had put out a picture of the Vinson crossing the Sunda Strait, between Java and Sumatra—and thirty-five hundred miles from the Korean Peninsula—with a dateline of April 15th. Defense News confirmed the position and the date with its military sources, and noted, “Off the record, several officials expressed wonderment at the persistent reports that the Vinson was already nearing Korea.” Indeed, at that point, there were persistent reports that the United States and North Korea were nearing a shooting war. And is that any wonder?
The Vinson now really, truly is sailing toward the Korean Pacific, or at least the Western Pacific. [ It still hasn’t arrived.]
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Trump may believe that carrier movements are no different from marketing ploys, and require as little truth-telling, but North Korea is a real and dangerous country. The Trump Administration is dealing with a regime whose capacity for self-deceiving self-aggrandizement exceeds its own. Each may play on the other’s daydreams, and each can make them explode.
US President Donald Trump said he was sending “an armada” to Korean waters to potentially deal with threats from Pyongyang.
But its no-show has caused some South Koreans to question his leadership and strategy regarding their unpredictable neighbor in the north.
And as the country prepares to vote for a new president on May 9, the claim could have far-reaching implications for the two countries’ relations.
“What Mr. Trump said was very important for the national security of South Korea,” Presidential candidate Hong Joon-pyo told the Wall Street Journal.
“If that was a lie, then during Trump’s term, South Korea will not trust whatever Trump says,” said Hong, who is currently trailing in the polls.
South Korean media also seized on the conflicting reports on Trump’s “armada” — led by the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson.
One newspaper headline called it Trump’s “Carl Vinson lie,” and speculated that the Russian and Chinese leaders must have had a good laugh at its absence.
Meant to present a robust defense against a potential nuclear test by Pyongyang, the report likened the bluff to North Korea’s shows of force, where “fake missiles” are paraded through the streets of the North Korean capital.
“Like North Korea, which is often accused of displaying fake missiles during military parades, is the United States, too, now employing ‘bluffing’ as its North Korea policy?” it asked.
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“I understand strategic ambiguity for military authorities. However, it’s different (for a) political leader,” Yang Moo-jin, of the University of North Korean Studies, told CNN.
“Trump, (Vice President Mike) Pence and (Secretary of Defense James) Mattis all used this to raise tension and pressure North Korea. Strong nations’ power comes from transparency, not the opposite.
“How does the US expect South Koreans to trust the US when its leader bluffs and exaggerates? South Koreans’ feelings were hurt considerably by remarks by the leader of a close ally.”
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The bluff — if that is what it was — comes at a precarious time for South Korean politics — in less than a month, the country will go to the polls to elect a replacement for impeached President Park Geun-hye.
In addition to the comments about US-South Korea relations made by Hong, the presidential candidate from Park’s ruling party, the confusion over the US’ response to the potential nuclear tests has led to questions about how much the government and the military knew about the location of the Vinson and its group.
Questions about what this means in the context of the election, where Pyongyang’s increased belligerence has been a key election talking point, abound.
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Some of Trump’s comments have also rankled in South Korea. He told the Wall Street Journal — after getting a primer on regional geopolitics from Chinese President Xi Jinping — that the Korean peninsula “actually used to be part of China.”
South Korea’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, in a daily briefing Thursday, announced the government’s response to the comments.
“The Ministry is in the process of checking facts with both the US and China through various diplomatic channels,” the ministry’s spokesperson Cho June-hyuck said.
“The international community unequivocally acknowledges that Korea was never a part of China in its thousands of years of history that no one can deny the fact,” he added.
The Washington Post’s fact checker says “Trump’s phrasing that the Korean Peninsula “actually used to be a part of China” may be his SparkNotes version, not a verbatim account of Xi’s history lesson. (The two spoke through interpreters.)” Trump’s claim that Korea ‘actually used to be a part of China’:
We’re not going to rate Trump’s claim, since it’s unclear whether Trump was actually quoting Xi or instead misunderstood what he was told. But his flippant reference to the Chinese-centric version of Sino-Korean relations was careless, at best.
If Trump was actually referring to the tributary system between Korea and China, then he left out a significant amount of context that distorted the relationship between them. Korea and China have long been intertwined, geopolitically and culturally. But Korea, or even Goguryeo, was not a spinoff of China, as he made it seem.
Korea has its own unique roots and history. It would be worthwhile for the president to get his history lesson from Korean experts, perhaps at the State Department, rather than potentially self-serving accounts from foreign leaders.
This man-child idiot has the launch codes for nuclear weapons. As Dana Milbank of the Post writes, Dear Kim Jong Un: Watch out for Trump. He’s even crazier than you.
It has often been said that one would have to be crazy to start a nuclear war. We now have two crazy people with access to nukes threatening each other. What could possibly go wrong?