The Trump presidency already appears to be coming unglued in its handling of international relations, or at the minimum, the various people in his administration, including “The Decider” himself, really need to become serious adults before something truly dreadful happens. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look. Carefully.
This past week, newspapers throughout East Asia, Australia and America carried the following in their classified sections: “Lost: one aircraft carrier strike force. Includes over a hundred, nearly new jets and helicopters, destroyers and cruisers, shiploads of munitions, and over five thousand sailors and marines. Answers to the name: CVS Carl Vinson. If spotted, call +1-202-456-1414 and ask to speak with Don or Mike.” Well, okay, such an announcement didn’t really appear, but maybe it should have.
For 10 days, the Trump administration publicly disseminated fraudulent information to the United States population about its reactions to North Korean missile tests and potential nuclear tests. And the same untruths were provided to its allies in the region, including South Korea, as well as, crucially, to the state with which it was having an increasingly tense relationship, i.e. North Korea.
This is the newest example of the thoughtless, slovenly, embarrassing behaviour on the part of the Trump administration in its international posture that its chief progenitor has termed a smoothly running, well-oiled machine. Seems more like a train wreck in the making.
The US-North Korean relationship, such as it is, has been deeply problematic for over 60 years. The usual tenor of things emanating from Pyongyang has included threats to incinerate the US forces in the area in a sea of flame, or to destroy South Korea’s capital, Seoul, or to meet the would-be aggressors and push them back into the sea.
Slightly more restrained, somewhat more civil responses have usually come from the US. These have been that the allies would deal decisively with any efforts by North Korea to violate the Demilitarised Zone with its troops, to denounce in the harshest of terms any new efforts by the North Korean army to tunnel under the DMZ (the author has actually seen some of those after they were discovered and they really did have a breadth wide enough to drive a tank through them) so as to provide potential invasion avenues, or any of a whole raft of other things designed to destabilise the somewhat wobbly armistice. Every time the captain of some trigger-happy North Korean ship fires upon a fishing or patrol boat from the South, the whole cycle of charge, countercharge and countercountercharge starts all over. And then everyone goes one step higher on the alert status board once again.
And this whole messy “dialogue” has largely been unchecked for decades, ever since the active Korean War hostilities ground to a halt. This has been true, save for a brief respite back in the 1990s when it actually looked like the US, acting in concert with South Korea, China and Japan, had reached an agreement with Pyongyang to provide North Korea with guaranteed shipments of fuel oil to keep the lights on there.
This fuel oil was to have been used to run the country’s electric generating power plants, in exchange for promises (with international inspections) by the North that it would not carry out nuclear reactor development that could easily produce the fissile materials needed for atomic weapons. Ultimately, the deal was never consummated, however. Oh well, that was then, this is now. But ever since, things have gone on their merry way.
In the years following that abortive deal with North Korea, and most especially once “The Young Leader”, Kim Jong-un, the third generation of the Kim family to rule that land, took over from his father, missile development has been accelerated, increasingly aiming to create an ICBM that could, potentially at least, reach the US, and certainly South Korea and Japan. More ominously, North Korea has also carried out development and testing of nuclear devices that could eventually become atomic weapons, once they were weaponised, despite UN sanctions aimed at stopping this. “Weaponised” means that the designs of the nuclear devices would be sufficiently scaled down so as to fit atop a missile; that the missile could be launched and fly on course, and that the bomb would explode on target. Presumably, those could be Seoul, Tokyo, or even, say, San Francisco or Los Angeles.
Most recently, the latest round of missile launches by North Korea set teeth on edge in Washington, Seoul and points in-between, of course, as did reported signs that the nuclear testing ground the North Koreans use was being prepared for yet another test. Then, on the 105th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the founder leader of North Korea, the country had one of its patented millions of soldiers, sailors, little children and pretty much everybody else in the nation in mass marches, along with masses of vehicles carrying what appeared to be the latest in North Korean missile models. And then they set off yet another missile model test, presumably this time around an even more powerful model than those already in its armoury. Unfortunately, the explosive effect of this particular missile on potential adversaries was marred just a bit when it exploded only seconds after lift-off, with some rumours doing the rounds that a Stuxnet-style bit of malware from “somewhere” had been bootlegged into the missile’s control systems. Absolutely no one is confirming this, but there hasn’t really been the kind of absolutely, positively, dead earnest, on-a-stack-of-Bibles-no-we-had-nothing-to-do-with-it response, either. So, on that score, who knows about it. Yet.
But the Trump administration also issued a whole sheaf of strong, decisive statements that such missiles and bombs will not be tolerated and that if China – North Korea’s neighbour and solitary “ally” – didn’t do something to put this nasty little genie back in the bottle, America would. The vice president, Mike Pence, was dutifully sent on a visit to South Korea, Japan and Australia to demonstrate American resolve. While he was in Korea, he went up to the standard observation point of the DMZ from the South side so as to scowl fiercely at North Korea for the cameras, almost as he was about to launch into a masculine imitation of The Wizard of Oz’s wicked witch’s curse, “I’ll get you, my pretties!”
And the “coup de grace” for this show of determination was that the Trump administration then announced that the aircraft carrier, the Carl Vinson, and its entire strike force were now steaming at flank speed (oops, sorry, remembered that one from some old World War II movie) to take up positions off the Korean Peninsula. That ratcheted things up a couple of notches, right there. The point of the task force was presumably to be in a spot to carry out that “or else” threat from the Trumpster’s lips, if yet more missiles were launched, or if more nuclear weapons were tested, or if Kim Jong-un pulled another nasty face towards his antagonist or staged yet another mass march.
And concurrently with this decisive naval movement, the US then fired those cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield in order to demonstrate great anger over the al-Assad’s regime’s horrible use of sarin gas against civilians. And then the American forces used one of those massive conventional bombs, a MOAB, at an underground Taliban base in south-eastern Afghanistan. These also had the dual purpose of getting The Young Leader’s attention now firmly focused on things vis-à-vis the US.
There was only one problem, one little fly in this particular ointment. The whole carrier group was spotted passing through the Sunda Straits, thousands of kilometres to the south of the Korean Peninsula, on its way to a previously scheduled joint naval exercise with the Aussies. Oops. Now that particular bit of seascape is a busy sea lane and – on a particularly good day and with a modest pair of binoculars in hand – one can see from Java to Sumatra, with the infamous volcanic island of Krakatoa in between those two much bigger islands. (The writer has seen this himself.)
That is hardly the place to be, given all the shipping, fishing boats and the millions of people who live within a hundred kilometres of the place, if the plan is to hide a massive carrier group away from prying eyes. And yet, the Trump administration continued to engage in this deception, until pictures of the ships in the Straits began to surface. Caught in the act, the Trump administration eventually ‘fessed up and announced that the ships were, now, finally, headed to their station off Korea, and that they would be there in a few days or so. (Perhaps Trump thinks these things move at light speed, like the Starship Enterprise, instead of their more stately top speed of around 35 knots.)
Now perhaps the idea was to confound Kim Jong-un and his troops about US intentions, although it is unlikely the Russians and/or the Chinese did not know the ships’ whereabouts, or that they might not have dropped a discrete note to Kim about it, just to keep him in check a bit. Or, conceivably, the whole thing was to demonstrate that the Trump administration was engaged in a thoroughly sophisticated, wonderfully designed, careful act of strategic ambiguity, all put into place to thoroughly confuse those pesky North Koreans and keep them off balance, and wondering if – and when – the Americans would do what they have threatened to do, i.e., that “or else” bit. This has echoes of the old Nixonian version of strategic ambiguity that was sometimes jocularly labelled “the mad man theory”. Yes, very funny, that bit about making people wonder if a crazy man had control of the nukes, but that’s the Dr Strangelove-ian world of the nuclear strategist.
The problem is that this charade has done several other things. First it has thoroughly annoyed the South Koreans who must now be wondering exactly what the Americans are going to do when they say one thing, don’t confide with their allies about the truth of things, and thereby allow the population of South Korea to be discomfited about the real strategic circumstances of their lives and security, right on the eve of a presidential election to replace a recently impeached and jailed president. One wonders, too, what the Japanese, Chinese, and Russians are going to make of all this.
But the other devastating outcome has been to do yet more damage to any remaining belief that the Trump administration actually knows what it is doing. Given the fact that it still has not even nominated hundreds of names to fill all the positions below the various secretaries of cabinet posts, the capability of this administration to co-ordinate anything is now thoroughly suspect. And that can only make carrying out cogent foreign policy actions that much more difficult. It will make co-ordination with allies that much more troubled and it will make communicating, explaining and laying out the administration’s strategic vision to the nation’s citizenry even more problematic.
And this is precisely the kind of thing that leads to mistakes in dealing with troubled parts of the globe with decisions that are glibly made, ad hoc, off-the-cuff, and without any real deliberation or analysis. (Just the other day, there was yet another example of this slovenliness. The world could watch in astonishment as Trump’s secretary of state announced Iran had been a bad boy over the P5+1 nuclear accord, even as the actual State Department had virtually simultaneously announced that Iran was, much to their surprise, generally living up to its side of the agreement so far.) It is well past time for someone to give the man in the Oval Office a good talking to about what his job really is, besides extolling the chocolate cake at Mar-a-Lago, or sneaking off to play golf at one of his own courses every weekend. DM
Photo: US President Donald J. Trump delivers remarks prior to signing the Memorandum Regarding the Investigation Pursuant to Section 232(B) of the Trade Expansion Act during a ceremony in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 20 April 2017. The act directs Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to investigate whether steel imports into the US should be blocked on national security grounds. EPA/SHAWN THEW
"Man is by nature a political animal" ~ Aristotle