President Trump was blunt and explicit about his plans for confronting North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong Un.
“We are sending an armada … very powerful,” he warned in an interview more than a week ago, his voice dire and grave. “We have submarines … vvverrry powerful, far more powerful than the aircraft carrier, that I can tell you. And we have the best military people on earth. And I will say this: (Kim) is doing the wrong thing. He is making a big mistake.”
That stress on the presence of submarines in this “very powerful armada” was not accidental. In terms of conventional munitions, an aircraft carrier and its strike group would be far more lethal than submarines. However, the submarines in question carry nuclear-armed missiles that carrier groups typically do not. If the North Koreans tried anything rash, Trump wanted them to know that U.S. forces would be right off their shores, ready to take punitive action.
Other administration officials made similar noises. “All options are on the table,” as Vice President Mike Pence said in a visit to the region. “North Korea would do well not to test his resolve.” Trump even informed Chinese President Xi Jinping that the armada was on its way, again stressing the presence of nuclear-armed submarines and asking that North Korean leaders be notified as well.
The only problem is that none of it was true. The initial announcement of the deployment of the USS Carl Vinson and its carrier group to the waters off North Korea was made more than 10 days ago, yet actual orders for the move were never issued. There was no armada — no submarines, no aircraft carrier — steaming toward the Sea of Japan and North Korea, as Trump had claimed. The Vinson and its carrier group were actually off the Australian coast, some 3,500 miles away. From there they began to sail east-southeast — not northwest, toward the Korean Peninsula — a fact that wasn’t revealed until April 15, when the U.S. Navy itself published a photograph of the Vinson as it made its way through the Sunda Strait into the Indian Ocean.
Not surprisingly, news of the Vanished Armada has been greeted with glee by North Korea, which called it all an American bluff, and with alarm by South Korea and other U.S. allies who thought they had backup when in fact they did not.
“What Mr. Trump said was very important for the national security of South Korea,” a top candidate for South Korean president told the Wall Street Journal. “If that was a lie, then during Trump’s term, South Korea will not trust whatever Trump says.”
There’s a lot of that going around.
In this particular case, incompetence is probably a more accurate explanation than willful deception, but it’s also more troubling. When a president uses a high-profile, high-stakes pronouncement about a nuclear armada to try to intimidate a foe, when other major powers and our allies are also told about the armada’s deployment, it would seem pretty basic stuff to actually carry the bluff through, just in case. Xi and other world leaders had access to satellite data; they certainly knew about the conflict between Trump’s words and American actions long before the rest of us did.
It’s explicable only as a total breakdown of communication between the commander in chief and the Pentagon and as a failure to coordinate message and action at the most basic level. And if they can’t manage that kind of stuff now, in the relative calm of peacetime, it doesn’t bode well when things get more dicey.