0310 GMT January 16, 2018
No less a top official than President Trump himself had been saying over the past week that the strike group was deployed to the Korean Peninsula amid rising tensions with North Korea. “We are sending an armada, very powerful,” tweeted Trump, attempting to look strong in the face of increased military nuclear activities by North Korea.
The pronouncements about the dispatching of the vessels — comprising the large Carl Vinson aircraft carrier and several support vessels — along with North Korean counter-threats worked to significantly ratchet up tensions.
Several regional countries, including North Korean ally China and adversary Japan, called for restraint. China even made an unprecedented offer to protect North Korea in the future if Pyongyang agreed to give up its military nuclear program, which had initially provided the pretext for hyped-up US rhetoric. China also suspended flights to Pyongyang.
To all of these countries and to observers the world over, war looked increasingly likely.
Except that it wasn’t.
On Monday, the US Navy raised eyebrows when it posted a photo of the Carl Vinson on its website with a caption that said the strike group was “on a scheduled... deployment” to take part in a joint drill with the Australian Navy in the Indian Ocean.
That would be more than 5,600 kilometers southwest of the Korean Peninsula, where US officials claimed the vessels had been dispatched to.
White House officials were subsequently contacted by the media for explanations but declined to comment, referring all inquiries to the Defense Department, where, it came to light, officials had been making decisions of their own in the absence of close coordination with the White House.
The strike group had in fact been deployed toward the Western Pacific, but to its southwest — for the scheduled drill with Australia — instead of the north, where the Korean Peninsula is located.
The strike group had reportedly been given an order with general wording to head to the Western Pacific but had not been given specifics to head to the north. It therefore proceeded according to schedule even as White House officials were speaking of a dispatch to the Korean Peninsula.
Apart from President Trump, an array of other senior officials, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster and others, had been busy touting the dispatch as a well-timed strong signal to North Korea.
Other Pentagon officials, themselves caught in the confusion in the absence of specific orders, kept silent even as the media buzzed with headlines on the story. By the time the president posted the “armada” tweet, the Pentagon officials established that it would too late to want to correct the White House narrative.
Now, as the story has unfolded, the US government has taken action to correct the missteps, finally ordering the strike group to head north toward the Korean Peninsula. But the embarrassment is likely to persist.
Such confusion caused by a lack of coordinated policy has not been a new feature of the young Trump administration. It began before he took office, with a messy transition that continues to take its toll on governance. Infighting, firings, a failure to fill key cabinet positions, policy reversals, and a disregard for protocol have also all been constant features of the White House since Trump took office in January.
But the latest debacle involving the strike group, which came after all the ostensibly tough posturing against North Korea, may be the first to take ironic proportions.