WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary James Mattis has a few favorite sayings, one of which is that he is “never surprised, I surprise others.”
He did his best Tuesday to embrace that bromide in the tsunami of surprise that followed President Donald Trump’s announcement that U.S. troops could be leaving South Korea if things go well in talks with North Korea — and that the various annual military exercises aimed at keeping U.S., South Korean and allied forces ready for battle were actually “provocative.”
Provocative — as in the very word they were called repeatedly when being denounced over the years from North Korea and China.
“In so doing, he apparently caught both the South Korean government and the U.S. military command in South Korea by surprise,” Victor Cha, who holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C, told reporters Tuesday. “Stopping the joint exercises has been a long-term goal for North Korea and China. Trump delivered it while getting nothing in return beyond the same generalities that North Korea has been offering since the early 1990s.”
No military likes to be caught by surprise, ambushed and put on the defensive — especially by its commander.
“The Department of Defense welcomes the positive news coming out of the summit and fully supports the ongoing, diplomatically-led efforts with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” Pentagon spokesperson Dana White said in a statement.
“Our alliances remain ironclad, and ensure peace and stability in the region. The Presidential summit outcome is the first step along the path to the goal: complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and a free and open Indo-Pacific,” she said.
Television networks were given the word Tuesday that Mattis actually knew about the suggestion of troop withdrawals and was okay with that bargaining chip. Trump’s offering up of a troop withdrawal came about 12 hours after Mattis had insisted — during a visit with Pentagon reporters — that U.S. troop withdrawals from South Korea are not likely to be on the Singapore summit agenda.
“Yeah, I sure would” know if troop levels were an agenda item, Mattis told reporters Monday. “Right now the U.S. and South Korea are not engaged (on troop reduction or withdrawal talk) and we’re the only ones who make up our mind on this. “We’re not engaged in any reduction of U.S. forces talks and I think we all wait until after (the summit) settles and we go forward.”
The U.S. has about 25,000 troops stationed in South Korea at the moment. One estimate puts the cost of maintaining that force at $1.5 billion a year; half of that amount is paid by the South Korean government.
“We have not had a President talk about pulling troops home in half a century,” Michael Green, CSIS’ senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair, told reporters. “It is a pretty unprecedented statement since the history of World War Two.”
Green said Trump’s statements “paints a picture of a president who is willing to cut out our allies,” something China would like to see in Asia. It will leave U.S. allies wondering what else of their interests and equities” Trump will put on the table to get a deal, he said.
“The Pentagon didn’t know this was coming. And he then goes on to say that someday he’d like to get our troops out of Asia, that’s an astonishing development, and one that will add no leverage for Secretary Pompeo follow-up efforts — quite the contrary,” Green said. “If our alliances are getting weaker and we’re not going to do military exercises, where is the pressure?
“But on another level, it’s a real heartwarming development for Moscow and Beijing, which have wanted to weaken American influence in Asia and globally by having our alliances unravel.”
The use of the phrases “war games” and “provocative” were “music to China’s ear,” said Bonnie Glazer, senior adviser for Asia and director of the China Power Project at CSIS.
“It’s a win for China to have these exercises ended,” Glazer told reporters. “It was absolutely astonishing to hear President Trump refer to these military exercises with the South Koreans as war games, as provocative, using language that is very much out of Pyongyang’s playbook. And when Trump said ‘I want to get our soldiers out,’ I am sure that that is music to China’s ears.”
The Ministry of National Defense in Seoul made no effort to hide how it was blindsided by Trumps’a announcement. In a statement, it said it will request “clarification” from Washington.
In a statement to Bloomberg News, the office of South Korean President Moon Jae-in said, “At this point, we need to know President Trump’s exact meaning or intentions. However we think that it is crucial to pursue various solutions for better dialogue.”
Another round of military exercises is planned for later this year.
“USFK (U.S. Forces Korea) has received no updated guidance on execution or cessation of training exercises — to include this fall’s schedule Ulchi Freedom Guardian,” Lt. Col. Jennifer Lovett said in a statement to the media.
“In coordination with our ROK (Republic of Korea) partners, we will continue with our current military posture until we receive updated guidance from the Department of Defense and/or Indo-Pacific Command,” she said.
The U.S. is also likely to continue joint military exercises with Japan, and nuclear-capable B-52 bombers are expected to continue training flights to and from Guam — both key elements of readiness for the Indo-Pacific forces.
Readiness has been a mantra buzzword by Mattis and others as it sought — and found — larger infusions of cash from Congress. The reduction in training through the services because of a lack of funds has been cast by some as a reason behind many of the mishaps and accidents that have occurred over the past few years with ships and planes.
“There is still this lurking concern that the president really doesn’t value the alliances and doesn’t value the commitments, the troop commitments which could certainly undercut alliance equities of Japan and South Korea if these things become negotiating chips with the North Korean leader,” Cha told reporters.