The real question, about Obama’s apparent military response to the North Korean sinking of South Korea’s navy ship, is how we are supposed to tell the difference between that response and the stuff that was going to happen anyway.
I’m betting, of course, that we’ll be given clues by the mainstream media, as we have been in the last 24 hours. ABC, for example, provided us with this priceless subheader:
President Obama Orders U.S. Military to Work With South Korea
…which sounds kind of vaguely energetic, until we recall that the US military has been doing nothing but work with South Korea for over five decades. There is no nation’s military with which we are more closely embedded or with which we work more closely every day. We have had a joint operational staff with South Korea since 1968, and have called it a “Combined Forces Command” – CFC – since 1978. Our forces have been so intertwined that under Bush, both parties agreed that we could back it off a little and disestablish the CFC, in favor of separate command staffs, in 2012. (That plan may be revisited in view of recent events.)
We plan with South Korea. We conduct exercises with South Korea, often. We share the operational responsibility for patrolling South Korea’s borders and conducting surveillance against North Korea. We have, of course, 28,000 troops in South Korea. US forces in Korea have been at a higher “DEFCON” – defense readiness condition – than the rest of the US military throughout most of the lives of most of the people who are alive today. Much of what our forces stationed in Japan do is focused on the Korean peninsula.
The reality is that we have maintained 24/365 readiness to respond immediately to North Korea for the last 57 years – never relaxing, never standing down, never ceasing vigilance – because we are under a UN-brokered, US-guaranteed armistice on the Korean peninsula, not in a condition of peace. Ordering the US military to work with South Korea is like ordering Eisenhower to work with the British invasion force on D-Day.
The US has, of course, announced that we will be conducting naval exercises with South Korea later this year, presumably as a show of force in the wake of the South Korean ship’s sinking. We actually hold such exercises pretty often. Perhaps we’ve scheduled an extra set of exercises for 2010, but there’s a good chance that whatever the drills amount to was scheduled anyway.
Naval exercises with South Korea tend to bring out the worst in Kim Jong-Il too. Recent naval drills with the South Korean navy have an interesting history. Kim engaged in hysterical rhetoric over the Key Resolve/Foal Eagle Exercise in March 2008, a joint-service exercise in which the USS Nimitz Carrier Strike Group participated. He scrambled afterward to send a volley of missiles into the Yellow Sea the same week he expelled South Korean managers from the Koreas’ joint industrial park in Kaesong.
In March 2009 USS John C Stennis, another Nimitz-class carrier, joined Key Resolve/Foal Eagle along with her strike group. The 5 April 2009 Taepo Dong test launch (the one that enlivened Obama’s historic speech on nuclear disarmament in Prague) was announced during this exercise, amid Kim’s furious saber-rattling. (Russia responded to the exercise by overflying Stennis.)
In October 2009 USS George Washington became the first foreign aircraft carrier to operate west of the Korean peninsula, in the Yellow Sea, since the Korean War. North Korea rattled the saber with wild rhetoric during this joint US-South Korean naval exercise, punctuated it with the test launching of five short-range missiles off her East coast, and followed the US-South Korean exercise with a November incursion into South Korea’s waters that resulted in an exchange of naval fire and the North Korean ship’s retreat in flames.
(China took note of this very unusual carrier presence in the Yellow Sea – which had quite a pointed quality to it, since, as readers may remember, 2009 was the year of Chinese harassment of American surveillance ships in the South China Sea and Yellow Sea. As this Chinese military blogger suggests, China viewed her navy’s subsequent series of goodwill visits in Latin America – to Ecuador, Peru, and Chile – as a signal that China could put warships in our back yard too. (Warning: blog post obviously sent through online-translator meat-grinder beforehand.) We should note that China’s navy has made visits to Latin America before; these were not unprecedented.)
The year 2010 saw a reduction in force level and live action for the Foal Eagle exercise series. It took place, as usual, in March, but there was no aircraft carrier participation. The US Navy’s sent its Seventh Fleet flagship, USS Blue Ridge. According to the US Navy spokesman, the reduction in force level for the 2010 exercise was due to (unelaborated) operational reasons.
So there is a robust recent history of high-profile naval exercises with South Korea, and it’s encouraging to see that President Obama plans to continue them. I’m all for naval exercises. It would be even more encouraging if the ones we’re conducting seemed to be emblematic of a coherent regional strategy – as they could be if, for example, Obama articulated one.
But aren’t we also sending F-22 Raptors to Guam? Yes, we are. They’re going to Guam as part of a rotational scheme by which air superiority fighters are kept deployed to the Western Pacific. We’ve been deploying F-22s to WESTPAC since 2007, when the first squadrons of them were dispatched to Guam and Kadena Air Base in Japan. The Raptor squadrons are elements of the Pacific Command’s “theater security package,” or TSP. The last F-22s deployed to Guam in January 2010.
The sense among many in the blogosphere is accurate: that there’s more rhetorical flourish than military meaning in the Obama response in Korea. That’s the case so far, at any rate. If the continuation of our regularly scheduled military activities, conducted under the flag of a “response,” provokes North Korea more than usual, Obama may then have to look into doing something his vice president might call really effing big.
Another consideration, however, is that what the US already does in and around Korea on a regular basis is enough – is deliberately designed to be enough – to respond promptly, with overwhelming force, to North Korean provocations short of an actual mass invasion. Nothing appears to suggest that such an invasion is imminent, and it is highly unlikely. Our baseline posture is sufficient to address whatever Kim is likely to do.
So the MSM’s depiction of Obama as “acting military about this problem” – the best formulation I can come up with – is actually misleading. The sad thing is that the media professionals themselves either don’t know any better, or are cooperating in presenting the continuation of our normal, elevated-alert military posture in Korea as something extra-specially responsive to the Cheonan sinking. Maybe we will institute meaningful changes in the coming days, but nothing reported so far looks like that’s happening now. Meanwhile, it would be clear to everyone that Obama intends to maintain the long, uninterrupted vigilance of US forces in the Far East, keep stability on the Korean peninsula, and not let Kim Jong-Il spring any surprises on us, if he’d just say so.
Cross-posted at Hot Air.