Just when the Trump administration was starting to get some positive reviews for the cruise missile strike on Syria, the president’s endorsement of NATO, and his disavowal of his earlier claim that China was a currency manipulator, it tripped over its own shoelaces again.
With rumors that North Korea was about to stage a nuclear or missile test, the Pentagon announced last week that the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group was heading toward the Korean peninsula. That narrative, which seems to have originated with Pacific Command, was picked up by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, and President Trump himself, who said on April 11, “We’re sending an armada.” All of this was interpreted as a signal that the administration was contemplating military action against North Korea and caused jitters in the region about the possibility of Korean War II breaking out.
As it turns out, the Carl Vinson was not headed to Korea at all. It was steaming in the other direction, toward the Indian Ocean, 3,500 miles away, to conduct planned exercises with the Australian Navy. It is not likely to reach Northwest Asia until next week. The Pentagon knew all this, yet did not set the record straight. The truth was only discovered by the sleuths at Defense News who saw pictures posted by the Navy of the Carl Vinson transiting the Sunda Strait in Indonesia. (It is a sign of how quickly lawmakers are forgotten that few people who have been following the news are aware that the aircraft carrier was named after the “father of the two-ocean navy,” a longtime chairman of the House Naval Affairs and Armed Services Committees.)
There is, of course, a role for tactical deception in warfare—you don’t announce to the enemy the exact timing and location of your attack. But this is something different. It’s a deception that undermines American credibility and for no good reason. It’s not as if it’s easy to hide an aircraft carrier; China and Russia undoubtedly knew where it was the whole time and may well have told North Korea, thereby de facto giving assurance to Kim Jong-un that the U.S. was not, in fact, contemplating military action. Thus the pseudo-deployment did not enhance American deterrence. In fact, it is detracting from it.
The damage is already being done. The Wall Street Journal quoted Hong Joon-pyo, the conservative candidate for South Korea’s presidency, as follows: “What Mr. Trump said was very important for the national security of South Korea. If that was a lie, then during Trump’s term, South Korea will not trust whatever Trump says.” North Korea, meanwhile, is mocking Washington for this “bluff.”
Donald Trump has long had an arm’s length relationship with the truth. In his 1987 book “The Art of the Deal,” he even bragged about his penchant for hyperbole. “People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole,” Trump wrote. “It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.”
But it’s one thing for a real estate developer to exaggerate the number of floors in his new building or the number of apartments that have been sold. It’s another thing for the president to be less than truthful about the deployment of aircraft carriers. That kind of hyperbole damages American credibility and will cause states such as North Korea to doubt whether the president means it when he issues warnings in the future. And that, in turn, could increase the likelihood that, rather than preventing conflict, the U.S. will become embroiled in it.