Analysis

The Scary Slapstick of Trump and the Lost Armada in North Korea

Hypocritical Republicans raised hell about every Obama misstep but they turn a blind eye to their president’s far greater faults

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is still considered one of the more trustworthy and reliable pillars of President Donald Trump’s national security policies, but he arrived in Israel on Thursday with a small cloud hanging over his head. It’s true that the White House has sustained the most criticism over Trump’s false assertion last week that a naval strike force was on its way to North Korea, but the Pentagon, the National Security Agency and the U.S. military’s Pacific Command also played a pivotal role in that embarrassing mishap. Trump’s chaotic and capricious ways, analysts warned, are starting to rub off on far more experienced and professional figures in his administration, including Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.

FILE PHOTO: This December 8, 2014 file photo shows the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) preparing for flight operations in the Arabian Gulf.
MC2 SCOTT FENAROLI/AFP

The incident would be hilarious if it wasn’t so disturbing, something like Bozo the Clown sparks World War III. While Mattis, McMaster and Trump were boasting that the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier and accompanying guided missile destroyers were moving towards Pyongyang to deter North Korean leader Kim Jong Un from carrying out a nuclear test, said armada was actually going the other way, not north but south and not in the direction of North Korea but toward Indonesia and Australia instead. And in true slapstick fashion, it was the PR department of the U.S. Navy that inadvertently spilled the beans when it proudly published a photo of the Carl Vinson moving through the Sunda Strait, between the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra, 3,500 miles and many nautical days away from North Korea and its deterrence.

It’s true that during World War II the U.S. deployed a so-called Ghost Army, which was charged with impersonating other Allied units in order to divert the Germany Army and foil its battle plans, but this case was not intentional operational deception or, according to most U.S. media reports, a willful lie, either. The fault lies with the general mayhem that characterizes the Trump administration, especially the absence of hundreds of top- and middle-level officials whose job it is to check facts and coordinate between the various arms of the administration. Add to this the undeniable fact that Trump is prone to shooting from the hip and believing that it’s enough for him to say something in public for it to immediately be true.

A missile is paraded across the Kim Il Sung Square during a military parade, in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 15, 2017.
Wong Maye-E/AP

Trump’s embarrassing foul-up with the Carl Vinson was hardly enough to curb the enthusiasm expressed by many leaders and media commentators in the Middle East ever since the president approved the launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles in retaliation for Syrian chemical attack in Iblid, but in the Far East it only added another layer of concern to an anxiety that could soon turn to panic. In our neck of the woods Trump is being portrayed as the hunk who resuscitated U.S. deterrence after eight year of Barack Obama’s flaccid leadership, but in Tokyo they’re still trying to decipher his moves, in Beijing they’re calculating a response to his threats and in Seoul they view him as “Unpredictable. Unhinged. And Dangerous,” as the Associated Press reported. And that was before Trump decreed, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, that Korea was once a part of China. 

While Israeli leaders are thinking of ways to leverage the Tomahawk attack on Syria into an open confrontation with Iran, even if that means a conflagration with Hezbollah and its missiles, in the South Korean capital they are worried that a rash move by the novice American president could force North Korea to launch an attack on the South, the brunt of which would be borne by Seoul. The South Korean capital, which could suffer a devastating blow from North Korean missiles and long range mortars, is less than 35 miles away from the North Korean border, almost twice as far as Haifa is to the Lebanese border but half as distant as Tel Aviv.

Israelis continue to admire Trump’s gung-ho posturing, at least until he submits a comprehensive plan for peace with the Palestinians, despite the fact that beside missiles on Syria and nice words from his ambassador to the UN, he’s done very little. But that’s nothing compared to the shameless hypocrisy shown by most members of his Republican Party, who are behaving like the fabled Three Monkeys: They don’t see, they don’t hear and they certainly don’t react. It isn’t hard to imagine what they would do to Obama if he had told the Journal how he had boasted to the president of China about the “very powerful” armada on its way to the north when it was actually cruising along on its way to the south. Republican Senators would wail against Obama’s catastrophic amateurism, House committee chairmen would vie to be first in line in setting up hard-hitting investigation panels and Fox News would go out of its mind with rage at the insult and injury heaped on America’s stature and good name.

Unfortunately for Trump, the predominately white, archconservative and insanely partisan news network is preoccupied now with other scandals involving, not coincidentally, sexual harassment with occasional overtones of racial bigotry. After Roger Ailes’ departure, Fox bade farewell this week to its number one broadcaster Bill O’Reilly and his ratings-rich prime time television show. He’s a good man, Trump said of his fellow harasser, and that was no coincidence either.

The rhetorical query “what would they have done if it was Obama” is pertinent, of course, for a long line of controversies, scandals and other sins of commission and omission that have dogged Trump since his inauguration. The Republicans would have torn Obama to shreds if he had kowtowed to Vladimir Putin as Trump has, if so many of his top advisers were found to have financial ties to the Kremlin, if he had badmouthed NATO or insulted the prime minister of Australia or picked a fight with Mexico for no good reason. They would have been beside themselves with indignation if Obama had reneged on his promise to publish his tax returns, appointed his relatives to senior White House positions, arrogantly ignored blatant conflicts of interest between his private and public affairs, spent millions of dollars on his wife’s home away from home at Trump Tower in Manhattan or on weekend jaunts to his Florida palace or taken a five million dollar donation from George Soros, say, rather than Sheldon Adelson, for his inauguration ceremony. They mocked Obama, after all, for letting the country burn while he played golf but they’ve got nothing to say when Trump plays more golf in a month than Obama did in a whole year. And they would have burned the White House down along with its occupants if Obama had uttered even a fraction of the 400 lies and misstatements recorded by the Washington Post in the 90+ days since his inauguration.

It was Rufus Miles, loyal public servant to three American presidents, who coined the law that says, “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” It was originally meant to describe the influence of positions and organizations on the viewpoints of bureaucrats, but it is applicable in politics as well. It is especially true of the turbulent right, in Israel as well as the U.S., which have rage and resentment in running through their veins and for whom the enthusiasm to denounce corruption and other misdeeds is totally dependent on the identity of their perpetrator. Imagine if a leftist Member of Knesset had rudely shouted and crudely insulted bereaved parents of fallen soldiers as Likud MK’s David Bitan and Micky Zohar did this week in the Knesset. The police would have had to recruit a new unit just to safeguard their lives while right-wingers, from the prime minister on down, would continue to stoke public rage for weeks on end.

Trump’s problem is that his ego is so huge and his experience so limited and his knowledge so non-existent and his lies so frequent and his nepotism so blatant and his failures until now so prominent that even the Republican sense of relief and redemption that Obama or Hillary Clinton aren’t president as well as the GOP’s instinctual defense of their leader aren’t enough to revive his fallen approval ratings, which are still at a historical low. The bombing in Syria seems to have at least slowed down the descent, and in some polls, even reverse the downward trend. This could give Trump, who craves public approval, the motivation to try and improve his luck by using military force, as he did in Syria, or in threat to use it, as he did with the navy armada, which is sure to reach North Korean shores some day in the near future.

It’s not inconceivable, therefore, that the future of the world will soon depend on the ability of a few American generals to retrain Trump’s enthusiasm for the military ploy toy that boosts his ratings. Among these Guardians of the Galaxy one can count Mattis, who earned the nickname Mad Dog, given to him by the press by virtue of sentences such as "be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet" and "a good soldier follows orders, but a true warrior wears his enemy's skin like a poncho.” Sleep well.

James Mattis speaking with reporters after arriving in Israel, April 20, 2017.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters