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COMMENTARY: The fiasco involving the USS Roosevelt is bad news for global security

USS Theodore Roosevelt.
USS Theodore Roosevelt. US Navy via ABACAPRESS.COM

Picking a day, a week or an event when Donald Trump’s White House may have reached its nadir is impossible. There have been so many of those moments and there will inevitably be many more.

Canadians have understandably been deeply concerned by the Trump presidency’s abortive plan to prevent 3M from sending three million high-quality N95 face masks to Ontario from its plant in China.

Far worse than that, in the raw geopolitical scheme, has been a fiasco that has just played out over six days in Washington and the western Pacific. It culminated in a letter of resignation from Thomas Modly, the acting secretary of the navy, after he called the highly-decorated captain of a frontline U.S. aircraft carrier “stupid” and “naive” some three days after sacking him.

READ MORE: Fired U.S. navy captain gets hero’s goodbye for raising coronavirus alarm on aircraft carrier

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The debacle with Modly, and the firing Tuesday by President Trump of the inspector general responsible for overseeing the $2-trillion COVID-19 economic rescue package, underscored the dysfunction of the Trump presidency amid growing frictions between the political and uniformed leadership in Washington.

What this portends for global security and the defence of U.S. and western interests everywhere is clearly not good.

China, which is seeking to push the U.S. Navy back beyond Taiwan and the Philippines, and Russia, which wants to keep the U.S. Navy surface fleet out of the Arctic, must have been amused at seeing Washington score what soccer commentators call “an own goal.”

This ugly sideshow has exploded at a time when the laser focus of Trump’s presidency should be on the grave public health crisis posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which is ravaging New York City and threatening to do the same to other major U.S. cities such as Detroit, Chicago, New Orleans and Los Angeles.

The first scene in this bizarre six-day, multi-act drama involving Modly and Capt. Brett Crozier of the USS Theodore Roosevelt began last Thursday, when the San Francisco Chronicle revealed that the highly-decorated fighter pilot and nuclear propulsion expert had sent a withering email to the navy brass.

In that note, Crozier had urgently sought permission to offload almost all of the 5,500 sailors on his ship in the U.S. territory of Guam, which lies to the southeast of Japan, and put most them in quarantine after more than 100 of the crew, the captain included, had become infected with the coronavirus.

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READ MORE: Fired U.S. navy Capt. Crozier reportedly tests positive for coronavirus

Modly responded to the email by sacking Crozier over the objections of the senior navy brass who wanted investigators to conduct an inquiry into the leak.

There always seems to be many episodes in Trump’s reality TV-like gong show of a presidency. The second in this tawdry saga came after the Roosevelt’s crew gave Crozier an affectionate goodbye as he walked down the gangplank from their ship for the last time.

Apparently livid at the rapturous applause for the captain, Modly flew 12,700 kilometres from Washington to Guam to personally tell the Roosevelt’s crew that their captain was “too naive or too stupid to be commanding officer of a ship like this.”

After only half an hour on the ground, Modly jumped back on his airplane and spent another 15 hours flying back to Washington. Hours after reaching the capital, Modly defiantly said he stood by “every word” of his address to the crew, including “any profanity that may have been used for emphasis.”

A few hours later Modly did an astonishing volte-face, stating that he wanted to “apologize directly to Captain Crozier, his family, and the entire crew of the Teddy Roosevelt for any pain my remarks may have caused.”

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Click to play video 'Sailors give captain raucous send-off after he is relieved over coronavirus letter' Sailors give captain raucous send-off after he is relieved over coronavirus letter
Sailors give captain raucous send-off after he is relieved over coronavirus letter

Not to be overshadowed, Trump, who decried Crozier’s letter last week as “unnecessary” and “terrible,” put his own personal stamp on the affair on Tuesday. He told journalists that he had been hearing “good things”about the former captain and about Modly and that both of them were “gentlemen.”

A very short time after Trump publicly complimented the gentlemen, Modly, too, was gone.

Trump’s spats with the U.S. military go back several years now and include, among other things, how the president treated the military’s favourite general, Jim Mattis. The encouragement that it will give adversaries cannot be understated.

Though there is a now a lively side debate about the utility of aircraft carriers in the coming age of hypersonic missiles, flat tops remain the key instrument to project U.S. power, especially in the north Atlantic, the Middle East and now, as in the Second World War, in the western Pacific. The biggest and most expensive military platforms ever created (up to $13 billion each) have often been described as “90,000 tons of floating diplomacy.”

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The first question any U.S. president and enemy asks during a security crisis is, “Where are the carriers?” It is such an important consideration that several web sites closely track the movements and battle status of all 11 big U.S. carriers and the eight smaller ones that have been growing in importance lately.

Click to play video 'Coronavirus outbreak: 1000 sailors evacuated off the USS Theodore Roosevelt' Coronavirus outbreak: 1000 sailors evacuated off the USS Theodore Roosevelt
Coronavirus outbreak: 1000 sailors evacuated off the USS Theodore Roosevelt

Days before reaching Guam, the San Diego-based Roosevelt led a show of presence patrol in the South China Sea. It is still near the beginning of what is slated to be a six- or seven-month cruise that will likely once again take it near China or to the Middle East.

Lost in the noise was that Crozier was responding to an extraordinary, detailed coronavirus-related message to the fleet sent early last week by the navy’s second-ranking sailor.

Adm. Richard Burke instructed commanders that “there are times that you will need to push back on operational requirements. There are times that you may need to go to an installation commander for places to house your Sailors because you cannot effectively isolate your personnel. There are times when they may not be able to help.

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“We want these decisions to be fact-based, and not emotionally-driven. If you’re not getting what you need, don’t suffer in silence, get the word up the chain. Above all, and I want you to hear this from me and the CNO (the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Michael Gilday), WE HAVE YOUR BACK. When in doubt, lean forward and lead.”

In other words, Crozier was following a direct order from his superiors when he got in the way of the White House and its choice to run the navy. The captain of the Teddy, who himself was infected with the coronavirus, was apparently not following President Trump’s hotly disputed messaging that his government has the pandemic well under control while his battle group was being shadowed by Chinese warships last week.

Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas