President Trump’s first consequential action as commander-in-chief was to authorize a special operations raid in Yemen. Here is a short summary of what we know about that raid:
It was planned during the Obama administration. Trump authorized the raid over dinner, and did not observe the raid in the situation room. The raid itself was not a success. No significant intelligence was recovered. The targets were warned of the raid. The primary target was not there. A $75 million US aircraft had to be destroyed after a hard landing. An unknown number of civilians (some children) were killed, including the 8-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki (former head of AQAP). Three US commandos were wounded, and one – Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens – was killed.
The President and his military advisors are not infallible. Even carefully planned operations will run into unexpected problems. It is unfair to suggest that a different President would have been able to prevent the failures of the raid. But, when it comes time to talk about accountability (and blame), that’s not really the point – especially when American soldiers are in harm’s way. As former presidents know, they alone are responsible for the consequences of military actions. The alternative – dodging blame – puts the men and women in our military at risk. In other words, if the President doesn’t feel the consequences, we cannot expect he will give these decisions the careful thought they demand.
Unfortunately, the President has not been held accountable for this first, costly action. He and his staff have done all they can to avoid blame. First, the administration called the raid a resounding success. After details of the raid’s many failures came to light, Republicans (including John McCain, former POW) called for an investigation. Trump responded by saying McCain “emboldens the enemy! He’s been losing so long he doesn’t know how to win anymore.” Sean Spicer demanded McCain apologize to Owen’s father. In fact, Owen’s father refused to meet with Trump after learning the details of the raid, and also called for an investigation. After these public statements, the President then seemed to stipulate that the raid was a failure, but then laid the blame on the Joint-Chiefs, saying “they lost Ryan” – while emphasizing that the operation was planned prior to his time in office. In a careless statement in his budget speech yesterday, he implied that American soldiers no longer “fight to win.”
It may be helpful to lay out how this could have been handled. In the immediate aftermath of the raid, Sean Spicer could have provided the media with all the details they now know because officials with knowledge of the raid refused to remain silent. The President himself, could have made a simple statement acknowledging the failures, while emphasizing the importance of the mission. They could have provided details of the planning to members of Congress for review. Before the raid occurred, the President could have had a decision-making process in place that involved more “formal” consideration of military operations. He could have observed the raid in the situation room – as many Presidents aware of the consequences of their decisions have chosen to. All of these actions would indicate that the President accepts full responsibility for his decisions.
The President is very good at holding the attention of news organizations. New and important stories are frequent. Tomorrow, the press will likely turn its attention to whatever was said in tonight’s address to Congress, to the pending revision of the immigration ban, or to the President’s changing stance on “amnesty.” Moreover, Democrats will likely move on to criticizing the president over issues more likely to mobilize their base.
But none of this changes the fact that, over dinner, the President authorized a failed operation that resulted in the death of a US serviceman, and then shifted the blame. True leadership shoulders the weight of its decisions. The public must demand that from their President.