Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a curiously short and vague response late Tuesday to North Korea’s latest missile launch.
The U.S. “has spoken enough” on the matter, he said. “We have no further comment.”
Some analysts took this as a tough stance — but wondered how it played with Chinese president Xi Jinping as he prepares to meet with President Donald Trump in Florida.
During the visit, Trump is expected to try to urge Xi to push harder against volatile North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un and his declared nuclear ambitions.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Trump said: “Well, if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will.”
Could the U.S. deal with it one-on-one? “Totally,” Trump said.
But then Gen. John Hyten, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said China was critical to solving the North Korea nuclear challenge.
“Any solution to the North Korean problem has to involve China,” Hyten told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
So if the master plan was to keep everyone guessing through contradictory messages, it succeeded.
It is also possible Tillerson kept his words sparse in deference to presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner’s dominant role in the meetings Thursday and Friday with Xi.
By midday Wednesday — as if hyping the crisis — a senior White House official said ominously: “The clock has now run out and all options are on the table.”
Nobody in the administration was ruling out any options before that, either.
The latest fatalities in Syria brought an even murkier presentation from Washington’s new ruling circle. Following a chemical attack, Trump said: “These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution.
“President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing,” Trump said Tuesday.
But in 2013 the real estate heir issued one of his Twitter messages to Obama: “Do NOT attack Syria, fix U.S.A.”
Repeatedly, over the following year or so, Trump repeated this position, declaring “Syria is NOT our problem.”
At the time, that seemed to fit well with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s alliance with Assad and Trump’s affinity for Putin.
In 2015, Trump added in a TV interview: “You have Russia that’s now there. Russia’s on the side of Assad, and Russia wants to get rid of ISIS as much as we do, if not more, because they don’t want them coming into Russia.
“Let Syria and ISIS fight. Why do we care?”
The question now is whether Trump takes the same tack in office that he did from the sidelines.
A third statement on the security front also had observers guessing at the new president’s wider intentions.
Eclipsed in all the saber-rattling: controversial adviser Steve Bannon’s removal from the National Security Council, where Trump placed him in January.
Inside the Beltway it was perceived as an intramural win for National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, who’s been looking to shore up his role in the administration.