Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Do you guys actually talk to each other?

Last week, we heard the U.S. was sending the U.S.S. Carl Vinson and its escorts to the Sea of Japan. Everybody assumed this was both a response to North Korea's aggressive rhetoric concerning its nuclear weapons program, and in anticipation of what was suspected would be an underground nuclear test, a show of strength to the world commemorating Kim il-Sung's birthday.

Turns out most of us were wrong on multiple counts. North Korea in fact tried to conduct a missile test (the missile blew up almost immediately after launch), and hasn't conducted another nuclear detonation (so far). What was really surprising, though, was that the Carl Vinson strike force wasn't racing for the Sea of Japan; in fact, it was heading for long-scheduled "joint exercises with the Australian Navy in the Indian Ocean, 3,500 miles southwest of the Korean Peninsula".

How did we — and by "we", I mean the whole world outside of the Carl Vinson strike force — get the idea that the carrier group was off to waters near North Korea?

It might have been due to the statements from Sean Spicer, the White House spokesperson; James Mattis, the Secretary of Defense; and H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser. Oh, and something Dear Leader Donnie himself said: "We're sending an armada".

Administration statements that turn out to be at odds with reality are nothing new. Nevertheless, every time one is issued, the question must be asked, "Did they lie, or are they clueless?"

The Times piece suggests that the Defense Department screwed up.

White House officials said Tuesday that they had been relying on guidance from the Defense Department. Officials there described a glitch-ridden sequence of events, from an ill-timed announcement of the deployment by the military’s Pacific Command to a partially erroneous explanation by the defense secretary, Jim Mattis — all of which perpetuated the false narrative that a flotilla was racing toward the waters off North Korea.
In spite of the smoke coming from numerous suspected misdeeds by this Administration, I'm prepared to believe that the Administration didn't intend to mislead or lie to us. Yet that doesn't comfort me.

Even if you like this President's oft-asserted intention not to telegraph his moves, you want the head fakes to be intentional, not accidental twitches. The Commander-in-Chief has a responsibility not to blunder the nation into conflict. And any way you cut it, this was a blunder of rather scary proportions, even if conflict didn't materialize as a result (or hasn't materialized, yet).

Suppose the Administration decided a deterrent action was needed. Presumably one or more of the national security adviser, the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs gave the President the available options. He chose to send the Carl Vinson and its strike group. The President, the national security adviser, the Secretary of Defense and the White House spokesperson all assumed the strike group was on its way pursuant to the President's decision. That, however, wasn't the case. Why didn't the Navy get the message? Wasn't the Commander-in-Chief's order relayed?

Consider a different scenario. Again, the Administration decided deterrent action was needed, but in the consideration of options, someone — the Secretary of Defense and/or the Joint Chiefs are the obvious candidates — mentioned that the Carl Vinson strike group would be available. Whoever brought this up either forgot to mention the exercises with the Australians, or assumed the President and his advisers knew that the strike group wouldn't be available until after those exercises. Who failed to ensure the Administration understood what would happen, and when it would happen?

A third possibility is, the Administration wanted to take action but hadn't had a chance to consider the options. Somebody (and in this scenario I have no idea who) heard the Carl Vinson strike group was steaming in the Pacific, perhaps even that it was headed toward North Korea or the Sea of Japan. (I haven't followed the Carl Vinson's movements so I have no idea where it was when it started for the joint exercises. Was it headed west from Hawaii or south from Japan, for instance? I wish I knew.) The Administration assumed the carrier's movement was in response to somebody's order — either the President's, or, in the case of the President himself, the Secretary of Defense's or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs' or perhaps just a suitably aggressive strike force commander's. (I don't pretend to know what might be going through our Dear Leader's head, but by now I'm ready to let my imagination run wild.) In this case, each man who isn't President probably sighed and assumed he'd been left out of some decision loop (again) involving, well, not him. The President — well, maybe he assumed Jared anticipated his needs.

(A fourth option is that the Administration hadn't thought about taking deterrent action, but once somebody found out the Carl Vinson was steaming, the Oval Office thought it was a great idea to tell the world the carrier was sending a message to North Korea. This scenario is so shambolic and inept, I'd prefer not to consider it.)

Any way you cut it, what we have here is a failure to communicate. And it's not funny. It's scary. How much confidence can we have that when we really need it, the U.S. military will be fully under the control of this Administration? I was worried Dear Leader would aggressively lead us into armed conflict, but now I'm worried he will be completely useless in a crisis that actually requires military action. It doesn't have to be a war, either. If the Navy needs to provide humanitarian aid (and under Dear Leader I assume it'll be someplace along the U.S. coastline, not elsewhere in the world), will this Administration have its lines of communication sufficiently unscrambled to get the deed done?

It's not just lines of communication with (or within) the military, either. Duhbya was rightly criticized for botching the response to Hurricane Katrina, due in part to having the hapless neophyte Michael D. Brown in charge of FEMA. Does Dear Leader know how to get FEMA moving if need be? Does he even know what FEMA is and what it does?

Duhbya's screwup (again, rightly) was seen as proof that if you have contempt for government, you cannot govern competently. Dear Leader has at least as much contempt for the functions and agencies of government as Duhbya did, and Dear Leader clearly has failed to get even the military to march in step with him. Is it his fault? The military's? The DoD's? I don't know, and neither do you. Worse, I suspect Donald Trump doesn't know, either.

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