From blaming his subordinates for a failed mission to using a slain sailor’s family as a prop, Donald Trump is already proving unfit to lead the military.
- By Micah ZenkoMicah Zenko (@MicahZenko) is a senior fellow with the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the author of Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy.
The White House pledged that President Donald Trump’s prime-time joint address to Congress on Tuesday night would “lay out an optimistic vision for the country,” adding that the theme would be a “renewal of the American spirit.” In keeping with his many previous speeches, Trump was incapable of delivering such an address. Instead, he offered repeated encouragement to Americans to show the “bravery to express the hopes that stir our souls,” which resembled nothing so much as the performance of a motivational speaker, only with less specific guidance for how the audience might improve their lives.
One poignant moment, however, unintentionally revealed a great deal not just about what sort of leader the president is but how disengaged America’s political class has always been with the country’s more than 15-year war on terrorism. In an overt and calculated effort to deflect attention from a failed military operation, Trump turned to the widow of Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, who was killed in a Navy SEAL raid in central Yemen for which, earlier in the day, the president had shirked all responsibility.
In fact, he went beyond shirking responsibility for the Jan. 28 raid, which killed Owens along with several suspected al Qaeda-affiliated fighters and an unknown number of Yemeni civilians — all while producing no significant intelligence, according to Defense Department officials. On Tuesday morning, Trump took the astonishing step of blaming his subordinates. During an interview with Fox and Friends, the commander in chief declared, “This was a mission that was started before I got here. This was something [the generals] wanted to do. They came to see me; they explained what they wanted to do — the generals — who are very respected. My generals are the most respected that we’ve had in many decades, I believe. And they lost Ryan.”
In other words, Trump laid the blame for a failed military operation that he authorized on the previous administration and on the military commanders who oversaw it. This distancing of authority and redirection of accountability are unprecedented in modern military history. Several active-duty and retired military officers I have heard from in the past two days have (quietly) expressed their deep disappointment with Trump’s comments. Unfortunately, Republican congressional members who lead the oversight committees for such operations will likely defend or tolerate his actions, simply because the president belongs to their political party.
Now, cut to how Trump used the Yemen raid during his joint address:
We are blessed to be joined tonight by Carryn Owens, the widow of a U.S. Navy Special Operator, Senior Chief William “Ryan” Owens. Ryan died as he lived: a warrior, and a hero — battling against terrorism and securing our nation.
I just spoke to our great General Mattis, just now, who reconfirmed that, and I quote, “Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies.” Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity. Thank you. Thank you.
And Ryan is looking down right now, you know that, and he’s very happy because I think he just broke a record.
What was especially fascinating about this passage is that Trump never mentions Yemen, the war-torn country where the operation occurred. Similarly, he omits the noncombatants, including children, who needlessly died (of course). According to Trump, all that Americans are supposed to know about this discrete military operation is that an American sailor was killed during it. Questions about the quality and timeliness of the underlying intelligence, the preparations and logistical support, or whether the expected benefits were worth the strategic risks are apparently unworthy of consideration. And, recalling Trump’s comments from earlier that day, none of this was the president’s fault, since “they” (“the generals”) “lost” Owens.
It’s also worth considering Trump’s decision to quote directly from something that Secretary of Defense James Mattis allegedly told him moments prior to the speech. First, it’s noteworthy that Trump refers to him as “General Mattis,” even though he is actually a civilian official who has not been a general officer since March 2013. Trump has consistently referred to advisors and cabinet members by their former military titles as a way to literally shield criticisms of his policies behind someone else’s uniform. Second, since Mattis — again according to Trump’s claims — should be held responsible for “losing” Owens, why would he now trust his assessment of any vital intelligence collected? Moreover, if Trump considers him at fault, why hasn’t Mattis been disciplined?
More puzzling was White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s assertion two days ago that “the mission was successful in helping prevent a future attack or attacks on this nation.” This is a distinctly different standard of intelligence from what Mattis allegedly told the president. Every military raid can produce clues and insights about targeted adversaries that increase the situational awareness of the battlefield, influence those adversaries’ behavior, or potentially support additional military raids. Yet this is wildly different from threat intelligence that reveals direct guidance for operational plots against the U.S. homeland. Presumably, if intelligence pointing to such a direct threat had been uncovered, it would have already been presented to the public as proof of the raid’s “success.”
Finally, what will appropriately be remembered from the joint address is the deserved and emotional two-minute standing ovation for Carryn Owens. The double tragedy of that moment is that, in addition to honoring Owens, it was the longest period of time that Congress has (even indirectly) spent acknowledging America’s role in Yemen — a country that the U.S. military has bombed 157 times since its first drone strike there in November 2002, when it has not been directly supporting the air campaign by a Saudi-backed coalition since March 2015.
A more fitting tribute to a member of special operations like Owens would be to question the wisdom of the raid and to learn from any mistakes that were made to mitigate them being repeated in the future. A broader question would be to ask why military force should be used at all in Yemen, much less for 15 consecutive years. Or, relatedly, why does America’s targeted adversary there keep growing and growing? The State Department’s 2010 terrorism report claimed: “[Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] is estimated to have several hundred members.” The 2013 report stated: “AQAP is estimated to have approximately one thousand members.” In the 2015 report, the estimate was up to “four thousand members.” Are U.S. counterterrorism policies, or support for other nations’ policies in Yemen, growing terrorists there? If so, why continue to pursue them?
In an unscripted moment, President Trump ended this passage by speaking for the deceased Owens — “he’s very happy because I think he just broke a record.” To say this on the same day that he had abdicated any responsibility for his authorizing the operation that led to Owens’s death is a truly despicable moment in civil-military relations. One hopes that Americans recognize how unprecedented and harmful this is to U.S. service members and ultimately to the country itself.