One of the most worrisome aspects of the Obama administration’s foreign policy is the effective inconsistency of its “information” posture. The crisis on the Korean peninsula is a case in point. Most Americans are probably under the impression that the USS George Washington carrier group is being sent as a show of force in response to North Korea’s provocative shelling incident on 23 November. But the naval exercise the carrier group is heading for has been scheduled for months.
Following the sinking of the frigate Cheonan in March, the US and South Korea agreed to an intensified slate of military exercises. The first of the newly planned drills took place in July. George Washington is now heading for another of those additional drills, scheduled to run from 28 November to 1 December. According to Stars and Stripes, the spokesman for the US Forces Korea (USFK) command, speaking on Wednesday, was careful to downplay the timing:
USFK said in a news release that the exercise was “defensive in nature and planned well before yesterday’s unprovoked military attack.”
“These (exercises) are not a direct reaction,” USFK spokesman David Oten said. “Basically, they’re unrelated.”
Speaking the same day, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley split the difference between that bald statement from the military and the narrative the media are running with:
…we believe we have a strategy that involves continuing to cooperate with and protect our allies, whether it’s South Korea or Japan or others. We continue to look for ways of bolstering the capabilities so that we can address any provocations that North Korea may continue to do. That’s one of the reasons why we’ve had a series of military exercises with South Korea this year. It’s why the Pentagon announced – the President announced yesterday that the George Washington will be teaming up with South Korean military forces for an exercise coming up in the next few days.
This peculiar ambiguity is heightened by the fact that a maritime exercise is not the most pertinent kind to advertise as a show of force, given the immediate military problem. Missile-defense drills, artillery training, and strike training by the US and South Korean air forces would be more relevant. There has been no announcement of such drills. It appears that the Obama administration is simply content to have the previously scheduled George Washington deployment interpreted as a show of force, probably viewing it as calibrated to be non-provocative in light of its lesser relevance to the most recent flare-up.
A carrier group is a lot of firepower to sling around in this ambiguous manner. China continues to object to a carrier deployment in the Yellow Sea; on both of the previous occasions when the US had such deployments planned this year, we backed off and kept George Washington out of the area (see here and here). Perhaps Team Obama is now using the Yellow Sea threat as leverage with the Chinese to get them to rein in Kim Jong-Il. That isn’t as clever as it might look: we should never use our policy on maritime claims and freedom of the seas as a bargaining chip. If you’re willing to bargain it away, it isn’t principle – and everyone knows it.
Overly clever, seemingly calculated ambiguities like the ones in the present posture on Korea are a big part of the Obama administration’s image problem with its counterparts abroad. The unfortunate impression is of a toddler being devious: his every move obvious to the adult observer, but the toddler himself unaware of being under knowledgeable surveillance.
It’s worth paying attention to the methods and the development of events here, because this is how it happens. The responsible, order-keeping powers never announce a policy of behaving foolishly or inviting challenges and chaos. They manage to interpolate and calculate justifications for everything they do, without apparently breaking with the policies of the past. But through ambivalence, temporizing, grandstanding, and prioritizing their usually-unwarranted fears of “being provocative” over everything else, they undermine the stability of situations that have long required maintaining a steady strain on the lines.
In a metaphorical sense, Obama is giving the lines of Far Eastern security an unpredictable jerk now and then – and letting them go slack at other times. It’s the blank fact of the US troop presence, conferred on Obama by his predecessors, that is holding Kim Jong-Il in check at the moment. Consider this final proposition as well: if China has the power to rein in Kim, and if she actually wants to, wouldn’t she have done so already? Why would it take US bargaining (or pressure) to induce China to do something she wants to do anyway?