Joint Publication 5-0/Joint Operation Planning defines strategic communication as:
Focused United States Government efforts to understand and engage key audiences to create, strengthen, or preserve conditions favorable for the advancement of United States Government interests, policies, and objectives through the use of coordinated programs, plans, themes, messages, and products synchronized with the actions of all instruments of national power.
The misstatements and miscommunications regarding where the USS Carl Vinson Task Force is and what it is doing have made US strategic communication, both in general and in regard to the DPRK, much, much harder and much more problematic.
I think, however, that the Occam’s Razor explanation for what happened is the most likely one. Here’s what I think happened:
- Admiral Harris, Commander US Pacific Command (USPACOM), informed Secretary of Defense Mattis that he had issued a Fragmentary Order cancelling the Carl Vinson Task Force’s port call in Australia and redirecting the strike group to the Sea of Japan to show the colors.
- The DOD notified the White House – most likely either through the Liaison Officer or through the National Security Staff.
- A copy of the Fragmentary Order was filed.
- Secretary Mattis misspoke on 11 April, because he hadn’t actually seen the FRAGORD, that the Carl Vinson Task Force was headed immediately to the Sea of Japan.
- The President was briefed, without any specific details, because no one on the National Security Staff had them, that the Carl Vinson Task Force was headed to the Sea of Japan.
- The President stated the Carl Vinson Task Force was headed to the Sea of Japan in his Fox Business News interview.
- The Carl Vinson Task Force steamed south from Singapore, as ordered, to take part in a scheduled exercise with the Australian Navy.
- As is often the case, the US Navy, through the Public Affairs Office, released pictures of the Carl Vinson Task Force passing through the Sunda Strait – 3,500 miles from the Sea of Japan off of the Korean peninsula.
Talking Points Memo has a full timeline at this link.
How did all this miscommunication happen? Simply put – there are almost no political appointees at the Pentagon (or anywhere else in the US government) right now. Secretary of Defense is, essentially, working without a team. He has no deputy, under, assistant deputy, and deputy assistant secretaries, nor does he have any directors, deputy directors, and/or special assistants at the Department of Defense – though several designees have been named for some of these positions. He also does not have any Service Secretaries in place – though we have have three designated nominees. And none of the deputy, under, assistant deputy, and deputy assistant secretaries, nor does he have any directors, deputy directors, and/or special assistants at each of the Services. All the Secretary of Defense has is whichever Trump campaign and transition personnel are on the DOD and Service Beachhead Teams – none of whom have been chosen by Secretary Mattis. Right now you have a DOD Secretary, the DOD and Service Beachhead Teams from the transition, and then the career civil servants (both Senior Executives and General Schedule) and uniformed military personnel. Basically the entire layer of politically appointed managers, senior to junior, are completely missing. As a result, things are going to fall between the cracks, such as the exact nature of Admiral Harris’s FRAGORD to reposition the Carl Vinson Task Force.
Aside from the bog standard embarrassment of having the President, the Secretary of Defense (a retired USMC 4 Star), and the White House Press Secretary (a US Navy Reserve Commander) not knowing where a carrier strike group is, this is also a significant strategic communication problem. This morning the Associated Press reported (h/t and via: Talking Points Memo) that both our Asian-Pacific partners and competitors are disconcerted and wary given the President and the Administration’s seeming inability to communicate accurate information.
Many South Koreans are using those words to describe the president of their most important ally, rather than the leader of their archrival to the North. They worry that President Donald Trump’s tough, unorthodox talk about North Korea’s nuclear program is boosting already-high animosity between the rival Koreas.
The Kyunghyang Shinmun newspaper said recently that Trump is playing a “dangerous card” with his verbal threats, risking a miscalculation by Pyongyang and a war on the peninsula.
What the US is currently strategically communicating in regard to the ongoing DPRK nuclear weapon and missile development programs is not exactly inspiring confidence on the Korean Peninsula.
The strategic communication problem goes beyond this. Earlier today the US State Department certified Iran’s compliance under the P5+1 negotiated agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). At the same time Secretary Tillerson notified Speaker Ryan that the US would undertake a comprehensive review of the agreement and that:
…the National Security Council-led interagency review of the agreement will evaluate whether it “is vital to the national security interests of the United States.”
During his press conference this afternoon, Secretary Tillerson answered MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell’s question about why the US would want to unilaterally abrogate the agreement if it is working and Iran is complying/in compliance. Secretary Tillerson responded that:
MODERATOR: We’ll take a few questions. Andrea Mitchell.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, by your own letter to the Speaker of the House, Iran is complying with the terms of the nuclear deal. If you break out of that deal, won’t that send a signal to North Korea and other rogue nations that the U.S. can’t be trusted to keep its end of the bargain? And Iran is already being sanctioned for its terrorism, for its missile (inaudible) by the U.S. Is another option – one that many Republicans on the Hill have suggested – to increase those sanctions to punish Iran for those behaviors?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, Andrea, I think it’s important in any conversation on the JCPOA – and I think this was one of the mistakes in how that agreement was put together, is that it completely ignored all of the other serious threats that Iran poses, and I just went through a few of those with you. And that’s why our view is that we have to look at Iran in a very comprehensive way in terms of the threat it poses in all areas, of the region and the world, and the JCPOA is just one element of that. And so we are going to review completely the JCPOA itself. As I said, it really does not achieve the objective. It is another example of buying off a power who has nuclear ambitions; we buy them off for a short period of time and then someone has to deal with it later. We just don’t —
QUESTION: So should we break out of it?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: We just don’t see that that’s a prudent way to be dealing with Iran, certainly not in the context of all of their other disruptive activities.
This part of Mitchell’s question is exceedingly important:
If you break out of that deal, won’t that send a signal to North Korea and other rogue nations that the U.S. can’t be trusted to keep its end of the bargain?
The US unilaterally abrogating the JCPOA would be self defeating and a significant example of strategic malpractice. It would be self defeating because the result of unilateral abrogation will be that our P5+1 partners will not join us – there is too much money at stake for them in dealing with Iran. Meaning we’ll be going it alone. That the other parties to the agreement will keep it in place, and will not back our reinstatement of sanctions, means that unilateral abrogation will have zero effect. Moreover, it gives Iran the excuse to 1) beat up on us in the court of global public opinion, 2) put space between us and our allies and partners, and 3) potentially restart their nuclear development program. And it will increase the PRC’s claim that it should be seen as a global rule maker to balance an increasingly erratic and feckless United States, especially in the Asian-Pacific Area of Operations. The strategic malpractice fully comes in, however, with the strategic message this will transmit. We will essentially be telling everyone that “the US’s word is no good, that the US cannot be trusted to live up to its agreements”. And, as a result, you’ll see more states doing what the DPRK is doing – trying to develop a nuclear deterrent – to protect themselves from us as we will be see as an erratic threat to global order and the global system.