It’s safe to say that if Hillary Clinton had ordered the special forces raid in Yemen on January 29th that went so terribly wrong, by now there would be five simultaneous congressional investigations underway, not to mention blanket coverage in the news media. But despite multiple deaths including one American servicemember, Navy SEAL Ryan Owens, White House spokesperson Sean Spicer has insisted that the mission was a smashing success. “The goal of the raid was intelligence gathering,” Spicer said yesterday, “and that’s what we received and that’s what we got. That’s why we can deem it a success.”
Spicer went even further today, asserting that no one should be allowed even to raise questions about the raid. “It’s absolutely a success, and I think anyone that would suggest it’s not a success does a disservice to the life of Chief Ryan Owens,” Spicer said.
That bit of slander toward critics is sadly familiar from previous GOP administrations (though for some reason it’s not an argument Republicans make when Democrats are the ones making the decisions). In case you haven’t followed this story, in the first week of his presidency, Donald Trump approved a raid on an Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) compound in Yemen, and pretty much everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The team encountered strong resistance, Owens was killed, an Osprey aircraft was disabled in a “hard landing” and had to be destroyed so it wouldn’t fall into AQAP’s hands, and according to the Yemeni government, 15 civilians, including at least one child, were killed.
Then, making things worse, the Pentagon released a training video it had seized as evidence of the high-level intelligence the raid produced. But it turned out that the footage was ten years old and had been distributed on the internet some time ago. According to some reports, the true target of the raid was AQAP leader Qasim al-Rimi, who is now gleefully mocking the United States.
The failure has also compromised our ability to conduct further anti-terrorism missions in Yemen. Today the New York Times reported:
Yemen has withdrawn permission for the United States to run Special Operations ground missions against suspected terrorist groups in the country, according to American officials.
In response to the publication of that article, the Yemeni foreign minister said that Yemen had not banned future missions but had asked for a “reassessment” of the raid on the 29th. Either way, it would seem that we’ll have a harder time getting Yemen to approve such missions in the future.
It’s too simplistic to just say, “This was Donald Trump’s fault.” The plan was devised and executed by the military, of course, and every military mission involves risk. But the ultimate decision is the President’s, and it’s his job to factor in all the relevant variables: What are the chances for the mission to succeed? What are the ramifications if it doesn’t? How do I weigh the different strands of information I’m receiving? What are the implications for American foreign policy?
A look at the way this decision was made is not encouraging. While the plan had been circulating within the Pentagon for a few months (there’s some dispute about whether it actually reached the Obama White House), it was approved by President Trump at a dinner that included not only the relevant national security personnel but also his senior adviser Steve Bannon and his son-in-law Jared Kushner. And check out this nugget from a report by NBC News:
After two months of military preparation increasingly focused on the opportunity to capture al-Rimi, Trump was told by Defense Secretary James Mattis and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that his capture would be a “game changer,” according to a senior White House official with direct knowledge of the discussions.
In making their case, they told Trump that they doubted that the Obama administration would have been bold enough to try it, this official said.
Now those are some fellows who knew their audience. This is where it gets troubling. Simply put, we’ve never seen a president who combined complete ignorance with rampaging overconfidence quite the way Trump does. Despite having no experience in military affairs or foreign policy, he claimed during the campaign that “I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me,” and when asked whom he consulted on foreign policy, said, “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lotta things.”
Trump also claimed to have personally devised a secret plan to defeat ISIS that he couldn’t reveal lest the terrorists learn what they were in for, though this was a transparent lie. When the subject came up he would say the most bellicose and simple-minded thing possible, often to the point of literally advocating war crimes: “I would bomb the s–t out of them,” or “I’d bring back waterboarding, and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” or “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families.”
No evidence has emerged since then that Trump has anything other than an infantile conception of what being “strong” means. He continues to express his amazement that General Mattis, despite being an obvious tough guy, is opposed to the use of torture.
So anyone who wants Trump to approve a military mission understands that they need only describe it as tough or strong or bold, and there’s a good chance Trump will be won over. His general cluelessness is also something that the rest of his staff is learning to use for their own ends. Earlier this week the New York Times reported that Trump was angry “that he was not fully briefed on details of the executive order he signed giving his chief strategist a seat on the National Security Council.” So Trump apparently signed an order making Steve Bannon a member of the “principals committee” of the NSC — an unprecedented move — without having any idea what he was doing.
Many have expressed the hope that the people around Trump might be able to rein in his worst instincts and provide a voice of restraint in critical moments. But who exactly is supposed to play that role — and who has the pull with Trump to do it?
This is where things get really frightening: The person with the most pull over Trump is probably Bannon, who remains Trump’s most important adviser. But Bannon doesn’t seem likely to rein in Trump. Bannon harbors a visionary agenda for the United States government. He believes that “there is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global,” a war between Islam and the Christian west. “Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is — and the scale of it, and really the viciousness of it,” he said in a 2014 speech, “will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act.” Those are not the words of a man who will be advising restraint in any given situation.
Bannon is truly a visionary, and Donald Trump was just the vehicle he was waiting for. Bannon sees himself engineering a worldwide clash of civilizations. If that’s what you’re after, you have a very different calculus of risks and rewards than most of us. You may even see outcomes that heighten tensions and increase the possibility of future armed conflicts with adversaries as positive. For instance, if we’re in an inevitable global war against Islam, wouldn’t the success of the Iran nuclear deal in restraining their weapons program be a bad thing? Wouldn’t we be eager to decide they’re violating the agreement so that we can retaliate with a bombing campaign, and kick that global war into gear on our terms?
Let’s hope that never occurs. But there will be many future situations — some as a result of military planning, some in response to sudden developments overseas — where in the White House we’ll have an ignorant, overconfident, impulsive president being pushed along by advisers playing to his worst instincts as they harbor their own grand visions of holy war. This time, bad decision-making led to the death of one Navy Seal, a bunch of civilians, and damaged relations with an ally in the effort against terrorism. Next time it could be a lot bigger and a lot worse.