Trump rattles Pentagon with Korea war games decision

President Trump’s decision this week to cancel large-scale joint military exercises with South Korea rattled Pentagon officials, who did not anticipate the news or have a strong role at the summit itself, according to defense experts. 

The surprise declaration, which came after Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, is an apparent concession to Pyongyang, which has claimed the drills are merely a pretext for a strike on the North.

After the announcement, news soon leaked of government officials scrambling aboard Air Force One to alert allied countries and partners of the change, with South Korea even left out of the loop.

Barry Pavel, a national security expert at the Atlantic Council think tank, highlighted the lack of defense officials on the trip, which he said was one indication the White House surprised the Pentagon.


If the decision had been planned, “you would have had defense officials there supporting the president,” said Pavel.

Instead, the Pentagon had only one representative at the summit, Randall Schriver, assistant secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs and the Defense Department’s liaison with the State Department.

Pavel also noted that any mention of the military exercises was missing from the prepared document signed by Trump and Kim at the summit. The document only reaffirmed Pyongyang’s commitment to denuclearization in exchange for unspecified security guarantees by the U.S.

“Obviously it was a surprise, otherwise it would be addressed in the agreed statement, one would expect,” Pavel said.

The Pentagon, though, has pushed back at the perception it was caught flat-footed, insisting Defense Secretary James Mattis was consulted and not surprised by the move.

“The secretary is in full alignment with the president to meet his goal which is denuclearization of the peninsula,” Pentagon chief spokeswoman Dana White told CNN.

A source close to top Pentagon leadership, though, said it’s likely only three or four top officials knew of the plan to suspend drills.

“It’s hard to say the whole Pentagon was surprised,” the source said. “The Pentagon rank and file, there are huge differences between what information is shared. People in the middle don’t know, people below them certainly don’t either.”

The Defense Department has also done little else to silence talk that Trump’s declaration was largely unexpected. There has been no public statement contradicting the speculation and no new guidance on the semi-annual military exercises, held roughly every March and August.

Defense secretaries typically are not in the room at presidential summits, “but Mattis also wasn’t there in spirit,” said Michael Green, an Asia-Pacific expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

There are also questions about Mattis’s support for the policy and input.

Two weeks before the summit, Mattis had spoken at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual security summit in Singapore, where he pledged to support Asian allies.

But after Trump’s curveball, “I haven’t seen Secretary Mattis gone out and try to reassure anyone,” Green said.

The Pentagon did release statements Thursday that said Mattis spoke with his South Korean counterpart on “their mutual support to ongoing diplomatic efforts, to include how we are working together to fulfill the President’s guidance on U.S.-ROK combined military exercises,” according to White. 

In a separate phone call the same day, Mattis also spoke with Japan’s defense minister to reaffirm “its ironclad defense commitments to Japan and its determination to maintain the readiness of its forces in the region,” White said in a statement.

The public silence is uncanny, Green said, as Mattis has previously tamped down controversial statements from Trump.

“I haven’t seen that this time,” Green told The Hill.

Pavel said he didn’t think Mattis had lost influence compared to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or national security adviser John Bolton, who largely led talks at the summit.

“I wouldn’t take it that far,” he said. “I think Mattis still has quite a bit of influence with the president, but you can’t stop the president from making the comments he does.”

The source close to Pentagon leadership echoed the sentiment and pushed back on any idea that Mattis was out of the loop.

“Mattis might not think it’s a good idea to stop the exercises, but there’s not a lot of defense things that he’s not read in on. I think he’s well respected within the Cabinet,” the source said.

Lawmakers also have split opinions on whether the Pentagon had input into the decision to suspend Korean military exercises.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), who met with Mattis while in Singapore earlier this month, said he does “not detect from [Mattis] or other leadership in the Pentagon a concern that they’ve been left out” of the plan.

“As Secretary Mattis loves to talk about, his military efforts are in support of the diplomatic approaches. And also a strong military makes diplomacy work better,” Thornberry told reporters this week.

Rep. Rueben Gallego (D-Ariz.), however, said he’s heard from people at the Pentagon “that they were caught off guard, which is bonkers.”

Gallego also said he was concerned by the lack of consultation with South Korean allies.

“It’s a show of bad faith when you do these kinds of moves,” he said.

The fallout could also affect U.S. ties with other allies beyond South Korea.

Trump’s move has also led some to worry U.S. military exercises could be suspended in Europe as Russian aggression looms.

“Allies are very concerned and it’s not just South Korea,” Pavel said.

“There’s a NATO summit coming up in four weeks, so I know for a fact — because I’ve had a senior European defense official ask me the question … ‘how worried should we be about the same issue, the same measure being taken in Europe?’ ”

Tags Donald Trump James Mattis Mac Thornberry Mike Pompeo
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