This isn’t merely a failure of nerve, it’s a failure of intelligence and a failure to keep operational secrets. The White House had a “playbook,” agreed to by O, Hagel, and John Kerry, on how to rattle its saber at North Korea during the next crisis without rattling it so much that NK would get spooked and do something rash. E.g., first comes some B-52 flights over South Korea, then the B-2s make a cameo, then the F-22s, and so forth. Problem one: Kim’s gone further in his bellicosity than U.S. analysts expected and now they’re unsure if they know where his personal red line is. Problem two: The deployment of two destroyers last weekend to the Pacific wasn’t part of the “playbook” and wasn’t supposed to be publicized. That was a bona fide strategic move, not a show of muscle-flexing designed for North Korean and international consumption. But then the news leaked and the Navy confirmed it, which turned the deployment into an inadvertent, potentially war-sparking audible.
One screw-up on top of another, so now it’s time to cool things off before someone gets nuked.
Officials said publicizing the destroyers risked ratcheting up tensions with the North more than the White House had intended. Likewise, they said, White House officials became upset because the disclosure wasn’t in keeping with the orchestrated rollout it had sought to control.
The White House has put the next steps in the playbook on hold while it assesses the North’s posture, officials say, though the administration hasn’t ruled out future shows of force. On Tuesday, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said the U.S. wanted to lower the “temperature” on the peninsula…
[W]ithin the administration, some officials voiced concern about unintended consequences of provoking North Korea [by following an escalation “playbook”]. Some of these officials questioned the faith the White House and Pentagon placed in the intelligence agencies, which have a mixed record of predicting North Korean behavior.
However, few objections were raised at the highest levels during the meetings, according to participants—unlike in other Obama administration deliberations about using military force abroad, including Libya, Northwest Africa and Syria, that have been marked by protracted debates. President Barack Obama gave the green light to proceed with the playbook, these people said.
The unspoken risk: What’s the effect on Kim’s already unpredictable behavior now that he knows the U.S. is willing to tear up its “playbook” for fear of pushing him too far? Does that encourage him to be bolder? Or is this Journal story the White House’s way of making it easier for him to climb down? The WSJ’s sources are “U.S. officials” — important ones too, if they’re privy to what went on during meetings “at the highest levels.” Could be that Obama wanted this leaked as an olive branch to NK: The U.S. will eat shinola publicly for having been a little too aggressive towards Kim, whereupon Kim can declare moral victory and step back from the brink with South Korea. It’s a way to let him save face while retreating. “Look how the Americans tremble!” We’ll see if North Korea’s propaganda mill has any fun with it today. They sure have been having fun lately.
Exit question: How long before China instigates a coup to put someone in the North Korean military who’s more predictable in charge?