“It's absolutely a success, and I think anyone who would suggest it's not a success does disservice to the life of Chief Ryan Owens,” Spicer said at Wednesday's daily briefing. “He fought knowing what was at stake in that mission. And anybody who would suggest otherwise doesn't fully appreciate how successful that mission was.”
Spicer made the comments just a day after Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called the operation a “failure.” Asked whether his comments were intended for McCain, Spicer said his statement was “very clear.”
He added: “I think anybody who undermines the success of that raid owes an apology and [does a] disservice to the life of Chief Owens.”
The comments also set a remarkable standard for when criticism of military operations is allowed or justified. Spicer seemed to be saying that, if someone dies, criticism of an operation is beyond the pale. The problem with that standard is that it would foreclose criticism of lots of major military operations — and especially ones for which criticism may be warranted, given that death is often but not always the result of failed operations.
What's more, Spicer himself last week acknowledged that very same reality.
“With respect to Yemen, I think it's hard to ever say something was successful when you lose a life,” he said Thursday, adding: "… And so you never want to call something a success, 100 percent, when someone is hurt or killed, and that was the case here.”
Spicer's comments for some brought to mind the 2012 Benghazi, Libya, attacks, in which four Americans died, and about which the GOP spent years raising questions, seeking to examine then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's actions. While not a military operation or raid, Benghazi is clearly an example of a failure resulting in the deaths of Americans and — according to the GOP — required multiple investigations.
A more direct parallel may be the criticism of the Iraq War a decade ago. As Democrats soured on the war, Republicans cast their opposition as being tantamount to opposing the troops. And Democrats arguably helped the GOP's cause when they attempted to end the war by cutting off its funding, which Republicans said the troops needed to protect themselves.
Among the self-proclaimed critics of the Iraq War, of course, has been Trump.
Owens died in a Jan. 28 intelligence-gathering operation, in which Navy SEALs and troops from the United Arab Emirates traded fire with al-Qaeda fighters. Yemen is conducting its own review of the raid.
McCain said Tuesday that the mission was a “failure,” though he later softened his statement somewhat. “I would not describe any operation that results in the loss of American life as a success,” he said.
Spicer's new standard seems to be the opposite: That an operation that results in the loss of American life cannot be questioned.
Given McCain's time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, his thoughts on the operation would seem to carry significant weight. But Trump himself has shown little deference for McCain's expertise or service, questioning his status as a true war hero early in the 2016 campaign. And now the White House is stirring the pot again.