The absurd theatrics of the Trump administration continue apace. Friday, April 15 was the day that the world was expecting a nuclear test by North Korea because that is the anniversary of the birthday of the founder of that country Kim Il Sung, who also happens to be the grandfather of the current leader, a glorious example of despotic nepotism that we are seeing on a smaller scale in the US with dynastic tendencies of the Bush and Clinton families and even more crudely now with the Trump family. The current leader Kim Jong-Un likes to demonstrate some military power on these days.
I was at a dinner party that evening and, as often happens these days with people addicted to their phones, someone checked it during the evening and announced that the US had sent an aircraft carrier fleet to the ocean around North Korea, presumably as a show of force.
On 11 April, the defence secretary, James Mattis, said the Vinson was “on her way up” to the peninsula. The White House spokesman, Sean Spicer, said “when you a see a carrier group steaming into an area like that [it] is clearly a huge deterrence”.
The following day, Donald Trump said: “We are sending an armada. Very powerful.”
The sending of an aircraft carrier fleet has become a routine way for US presidents to project power and show that they mean business, though it rarely seems to result in anything. But that’s ok. It is better to have warships sailing all over the globe doing nothing than firing missiles. With ships it takes a long time to get anywhere and with luck the crisis would be defused by the time they get to the trouble spot. But with the Trump administration, one cannot be sanguine that this will be another case of mere saber-rattling and I was concerned that the presence of the US fleet in waters close to North Korea could result is some incident that triggered a wider conflict.
But it turns out that the aircraft carrier Vinson was not only nowhere near North Korea, it was not even headed there at the time, instead going in a different direction towards Australia to engage in joint exercises. It looked like Donald Trump did not know where his ships were and the ships did not know that they were supposed to be headed to North Korea. (Here’s a timeline of the sequence of events.)
In Washington, officials are facing questions and criticism over the location and original course of the Vinson flotilla, after it was photographed 3,500 miles away from North Korea, sailing south in the Sunda Strait at a time officials said it was sailing north.
And of course the White House is now blaming others, because why that is what they do.
Press secretary Sean Spicer said Wednesday the White House does not bear responsibility for public statements indicating that a U.S. aircraft carrier was headed for the Korean Peninsula earlier this month when it was, in fact, sailing in the opposite direction.
All questions as to why the USS Carl Vinson and its accompanying strike group were photographed traveling south past Indonesia after U.S. officials said the vessels would be deployed in the waters off the Korean Peninsula should be directed to the Pentagon and U.S. Pacific Command, Spicer said.
So not only was this political-military theater, it was bad theater and South Koreans don’t seem to be amused.
Kevin Drum writes that this episode raises a lot of questions about who is giving instructions>.
Of course the White House bears no responsibility. Just because Donald Trump is the commander-in-chief doesn’t mean the buck stops with him.
But I still want to know something: Who gave the order for the Carl Vinson to steam toward North Korea? Was it Trump? What order did he give? Was that order carried out? Or was it someone else’s decision entirely?
This is, admittedly, something of a gotcha question, but it’s also a real question. The chain of command starts with Trump, and we all have a stake in how well it’s working. This particular mistake—if mistake it was—was fairly harmless. That might not always be the case.
We have become drearily used to the ‘fog of war’ excuse when it comes to the US committing atrocities in some country. Are we now going to hear ‘fog of bureaucracy’ when this kind of confused decision-making results in more serious consequences?