Trump on the Yemen raid: “This was a mission that was started before I got here”
Via RCP, critics are laying into him for how much casual buck-passing language there is here about the raid:
[T]his was a mission that was started before I got here. This was something that was, you know, just — they wanted to do. And they came to see me and 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 would — I believe. And they lost Ryan…
But again, this was something that they were looking at for a long time doing. And according to General Mattis, it was a very successful mission. They got tremendous amounts of information.
Without question, Obama would have eaten heaps of crap from the right for rhetorically distancing himself that way from a mission that had gone badly. “I hope he doesn’t do this self-exculpation routine on the phone with bereaved families,” says Michael Brendan Dougherty. It does come off badly. Two points, though. First, Trump is telling the truth when he says that plans for this raid were already simmering when he was sworn in, as I noted myself in a post last night. That’s not an excuse for the “buck stops there” vibe to what he said, but with the media clamoring to blame the raid’s alleged failure on his shoot-from-the-hip bravado, it surely is relevant that Obama’s Defense Department hatched the idea. He also appears to be telling the truth when he says that his generals (and retired generals) were enthusiastic about the plan. From an NBC report on February 7th:
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.
The darkest theory among Trump critics about the raid suggests that the amateur president might have insisted upon it in the name of making a political splash over the objections of his wiser, battle-tested advisors Mattis and Dunford. Per NBC, it was actually Mattis and Dunford who pitched it to Trump as a bold stroke that might change the complexion of the war on terror quickly. It was on January 24th, allegedly, that Mattis signed off on the plan; Trump wasn’t briefed until the next day and signed off on the mission a day after that during a dinner with Mattis and Dunford. None other than John McCain, who gets dinged by Trump in the clip below, defended the diligence with which the raid was planned earlier this month in noting that he doesn’t believe Mattis would have approved an operation which he believed was half-baked. The buck does ultimately stop with Trump, of course, but if you’re pushing an angle in which it was his own dunderheadedness that led to problems with the mission, you need to account for how Mattis and Dunford, among others, got swept up in that. Where’s the evidence that either of them had misgivings about the mission and were overruled by the White House?
Relatedly, how many other raids have been conducted over the past month under Trump and Mattis that didn’t make the front pages because they were successful? Gen. Raymond Thomas, the head of Special Operations Command, warned the media about jumping to conclusions a few weeks ago:
Reports that the Jan. 19 special operations intelligence-gathering raid in Yemen that left a Navy SEAL and 30 local civilians dead and six more troops injured was a result of hasty planning are “absolutely incorrect,” the head of U.S. Special Operations Command said Tuesday…
“I don’t think that there’s awareness in the great American public that we’re a country at war, that ISIL and al-Qaida are in countless countries,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “That an operation like Yemen is what goes on any given night out there. And unfortunately it wasn’t in that context.”
The Yemen raid was higher stakes than most — the target was allegedly the head of AQAP and the troops involved were the elite of the elite, SEAL Team 6 — but go figure that a mission with higher stakes would also involve higher risk due to the measures taken by Al Qaeda to protect al-Rimi. Thomas’s point, as I take it, is that we shouldn’t be surprised when operations like these go sideways. Given the sheer volume of them and the degree of difficulty, it’s a mathematical certainty that they will.
The other point about Trump’s language is straightforward. His advisors should pull him aside ASAP and explain that “we” is a more presidential way to talk about what happened in a military operation than “they” is (especially an operation in which a soldier died and which has been criticized as a failure). The buck-stops-there vibe in his comments is unseemly. I’m not as sure as the left is, though, that it’s a deliberate strategy to disclaim responsibility rather than simply how a newbie president who hasn’t yet forged much of a relationship with the military might describe an operation. Would Trump have used “we” if the U.S. had taken no casualties and al-Rimi had been captured? Could be, but I don’t know. In his own way, he may simply be making the point I made above: When warriors like Jim Mattis and Joe Dunford come to you and say they’re excited about a “gamechanging” opportunity in Yemen against jihadis, why would you second-guess them — especially when the raid had been in the works for months? That is to say, Trump’s use of “they” may be less an attempt to place blame on his subordinates’ foolishness than an attempt to invoke his subordinates’ skill and experience as a reason to have confidence that the mission was justified. Note how he points out how respected his generals are and how successful the mission supposedly was. (But then, note also how he refers to them in that case as “my generals.” Interesting how he lapses into first-person pronouns when the context suddenly shifts to something positive.) This may be less of a “buck stops there” statement than an “I have faith in the wisdom of my natsec team” one.
Exit question: Trump says at one point, “According to General Mattis, it was a very successful mission.” Has Mattis said anything to that effect publicly? I googled around but couldn’t find anything. Given the report last night about some Pentagon officials claiming they’ve seen no evidence of the mission’s success, it’s important.