Donald Trump Needs to Own the Yemen Raid
Soldiers and civilians die in the war against terrorists. But sending a message to our allies that we’re in the fight is more important.
There is an understandable temptation to want greater investigation into the January 29 raid in Yemen. It was the new president’s first such authorization and thus may give indications of his leadership of the war against “radical Islamic terrorism.” Here’s what we know: Casualties were suffered — by our military, Yemeni civilians, and an American child. An expensive military aircraft had to be destroyed to prevent it falling into enemy hands and becoming an intelligence windfall for the possessors or whichever country they might sell it to. President Donald Trump reportedly authorized the raid over dinner with Secretary of Defense James Mattis, rather than being thoroughly briefed in the White House Situation Room. Some in the intelligence community suggest the information retrieved did not merit the effort. Faced with criticism, Trump blamed former President Barack Obama’s administration and “the generals” for the raid and then made outsized claims of success and showcased a grieving military widow in his speech to a joint session of Congress.
Despite all these reasons, we should resist the temptation to take the investigation out of routine military channels.
The truth is that we don’t really know how valuable the intelligence gleaned from the raid is, or will be, in understanding how to fight al Qaeda. But we do know that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has for several years been the most dangerous branch of that terrorist organization, boasting the most advanced bomb-making skills and the most outsized ambition to attack U.S. targets.
We also know that America’s allies in the Persian Gulf are deeply concerned about the danger al Qaeda in Yemen poses and the increased strength it has gained with support from Iran and the fracturing of Yemeni society during the civil war. Those allies are taking most of the risks of defeating al Qaeda and pushing back against Iranian subterfuge. The Obama administration had been stingy in the support it provided to our allies; Trump appears inclined to be more helpful. The raid and an accelerated pace of drone strikes in Yemen would seem to be part of that approach.
The president’s critics bewail the decision over dinner as a proxy for lack of seriousness in evaluation. This is unfair. The president was evidently having dinner with the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn — the three most qualified people in the government to assess the likely risks and benefits of the operation.
It is probably true that Obama subjected military operations to greater scrutiny than has Trump; the question to ask ourselves is whether more scrutiny is always better. The Obama administration treated approval of operations as a demonstration of moral seriousness. That symbolism is not cost-free, however.
Is carefully assessing every company-sized military operation really a good use of the president’s time? Is there no way to set policy parameters that provide the commander in chief’s intent? Does the time lag of presidential approval reduce the operational effectiveness of the raids? Does having approval held at such a high level send a message of caution to our ranks or prejudice the case against approval? Might it suggest to our allies and to our adversaries that we are only hesitatingly committed to winning the war we are fighting?
Trump passing the buck was unseemly. In the military, it is axiomatic that a commander may delegate authority but not responsibility. That is, you can give to subordinates the latitude to take action, but you cannot evade responsibility for the actions your subordinates take. The same ought to hold for our commander in chief.
But this would be just one of many norms of American political life Trump casually waives off. The American military has broad enough shoulders to defend its own judgments and a much higher level of public trust than the president — or any other elected official, for that matter. Research conducted for my recent book (co-edited with Mattis), Warriors and Citizens: American Views of Our Military, indicates that the American public has outsourced its approval on military issues to the military itself. In that regard, Trump is actually no different than other political leaders in hiding behind uniforms to justify his policy choices.
The most important thing to consider is that we clearly want our Gulf allies to win the war in Yemen. The Obama administration sent confusing signals on that count, not only “leading from behind” but seeming to give allies just enough support for them not to lose but never enough for them to win. What it told allies is that we would only support them when there was little cost to our involvement — they could not count on us. Obama’s careful parsimony allowed al Qaeda to continue sinking roots in Yemen while emboldening Iran. It discouraged allied efforts to combat threats in their neighborhood and caused them to question our commitment to their security. And it signaled to our service members that they needed to avoid taking risks, even though we were putting them in danger.
Even if the raid turns out to have been of questionable value, not every operation succeeds in war. Soldiers die, civilians die. Approving the raid sent an important message to our military forces, to our allies, and to our enemies that the new administration is serious about the wars we are fighting. We should let that message stand.
Correction: An earlier version of this article claimed that the Yemen operation had been briefed to President Obama and conditionally approved, pending suitable conditions. In fact, former Obama administration officials with knowledge of these events say that the Department of Defense requested general authority for raids in Yemen, but that President Obama was neither briefed on this specific raid nor approved it.
Photo credit: MARK WILSON/Getty Images