Less than a full week into his presidency, Donald Trump took his very first foray into military counterterrorism operations in his new role as commander in chief, authorizing a risky US special operations raid on an al-Qaeda base in Yemen.
It didn't go well.
The raid resulted in the deaths of at least 14 suspected al-Qaeda militants and, according to the Pentagon, "the seizure of materials and information that is yielding valuable intelligence." But the raid also killed US Navy SEAL William "Ryan" Owens and an unknown number of women and children, reportedly including the 8-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical American-Yemeni cleric who was killed in a US drone strike back in 2011.
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On Wednesday, Reuters and the New York Times both published reports that seemed to place the blame for the botched raid squarely on Trump himself. Citing unnamed US military officials, the Reuters report alleged that the president had approved the mission "without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup preparations."
"As a result, three officials said, the attacking SEAL team found itself dropping onto a reinforced al Qaeda base defended by landmines, snipers, and a larger than expected contingent of heavily armed Islamist extremists," Reuters reported.
The New York Times article painted a picture of Trump and his top national security advisers casually approving the plan over dinner at the White House.
"Just five days after taking office, over dinner with his newly installed secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff," the Times article read, "President Trump was presented with the first of what will be many life-or-death decisions: whether to approve a commando raid that risked the lives of American Special Operations forces and foreign civilians alike."
The implication, in other words, was that the impulsive and inexperienced president ordered a poorly planned military raid with little regard for the lives of the US special forces involved or the potential for civilian casualties.
But that doesn't seem to be an entirely fair assessment.
While the idea of the bumbling neophyte president carelessly ordering a doomed military raid over appetizers may jibe with many people's preexisting fears about Trump, the bottom line is that if the operations plan for the raid was really that flawed, then the blame for the Yemen raid lies primarily at the feet of the nation's military planners, not the new commander in chief.
Presidents do not plan individual military operations. That is what the military is for. What presidents do is authorize or reject the plans that are presented to them by military planners.
Before ascending to the highest office in the land, Trump was a real estate developer and reality TV star. He's never served a single day in the armed forces. Which means he doesn't have any frame of reference for determining whether a military operations plan he's been presented is solid. So he's going to trust what his military advisers tell him. "Is this a good plan or not? Are you ready for this raid or not? Do we have enough intel or not?" If they say yes, he's probably going to trust them and approve it.
If it wasn't a mature enough plan — if the military planners didn't have "sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup preparations," as one of the unnamed military officials later told Reuters — then they shouldn't have brought it to Trump to approve in the first place.
Indeed, Col. John Thomas, a spokesperson for US Central Command (CENTCOM), the combatant command responsible for operations in the Middle East, acknowledged as much in a statement Wednesday: "CENTCOM asks for operations we believe have a good chance for success and when we ask for authorization we certainly believe there is a chance of successful operations based on our planning."
The New York Times reported that "President Barack Obama's national security aides had reviewed the plans for a risky attack on a small, heavily guarded brick home of a senior Qaeda collaborator in a mountainous village in a remote part of central Yemen." However, the article says, "Mr. Obama did not act because the Pentagon wanted to launch the attack on a moonless night and the next one would come after his term had ended."
That paragraph came in between two paragraphs describing Trump and his top advisers approving the raid over dinner at the White House. The Times article seemed to be trying — rather unsubtly — to draw a contrast between the idea of a cautious, deliberate Obama and the image of Trump casually signing off on a risky operation while sitting at the dinner table.
But that framing is suspect. Because, as the Times report itself states, Obama rejected the plan not because it was too risky, but because he wanted Trump to be able to make the final call on an operation that would take place on Trump's watch.
Of course, the president, as commander in chief, is ultimately the one who will be held responsible for any operation that goes awry, especially if Americans end up getting killed, because at the end of the day it is the president who signed off on the operation. And that's fair, I suppose. It's the way civilian control of the military is supposed to work.
But taking responsibility for approving the plan is not the same thing as being the reason the plan went awry. If the plan really was that deeply flawed from the get-go, as those unnamed military officers are now claiming, then the fault really lies with the military planners who brought it to Trump for approval, not Trump himself.
It's entirely possible that the plan was solid enough and that things just didn't go the way they thought it would. War is messy, and a plan is just that — a plan. It's not a guarantee. Intelligence can be wrong or incomplete, the enemy can behave in ways you didn't anticipate, mechanical equipment can malfunction, and so on. A million different things can go wrong that aren't really anybody's fault. That's just the fog of war.
Or it could have been a bad operation that should've been called off once things started going south. Indeed, the Times's account of how the operation went down seemed to suggest as much, stating that the operation was "jinxed from the start":
Qaeda fighters were somehow tipped off to the stealthy advance toward the village — perhaps by the whine of American drones that local tribal leaders said were flying lower and louder than usual.
Through a communications intercept, the commandos knew that the mission had been somehow compromised, but pressed on toward their target roughly five miles from where they had been flown into the area. "They kind of knew they were screwed from the beginning," one former SEAL Team 6 official said.
With the crucial element of surprise lost, the Americans and Emiratis found themselves in a gun battle with Qaeda fighters who took up positions in other houses, a clinic, a school and a mosque, often using women and children as cover, American military officials said in interviews this week.
The commandos were taken aback when some of the women grabbed weapons and started firing, multiplying the militant firepower beyond what they had expected. The Americans called in airstrikes from helicopter gunships and fighter aircraft that helped kill some 14 Qaeda fighters, but not before an MV-22 Osprey aircraft involved in the operation experienced a "hard landing," injuring three more American personnel on board. The Osprey, which the Marine Corps said cost $75 million, was badly damaged and had to be destroyed by an airstrike.
If, as the SEAL Team Six official said, "They kind of knew they were screwed from the beginning," one wonders why the mission wasn't called off at that point.
Or maybe it was just a half-assed plan from the get-go.
Regardless, it's entirely possible that the military officers who gave that story to Reuters were essentially trying to spread the blame around a bit. Cover their asses, if you will.
But there's another possibility, one that could have much broader implications for the way the administration conducts its foreign policy going forward: that some individuals in the military purposely want to paint Trump as at best a bumbling idiot, or at worst a careless and impulsive leader whose rash decisions will get American service members killed.
I have no idea if that is the case. But it's not out of the realm of possibility. Trump is no ordinary president. And many of his foreign policy views — disdain for longstanding US alliances like NATO, a seemingly cozy relationship with Russia, our old Cold War nemesis, etc. — are far, far outside the mainstream views of the foreign policy and national security community.
It would not be all that surprising to learn that some in the military were concerned enough about what Trump might get us into that they might think it's not a bad idea to leak a bit of misleading information to the press to make it look like Trump doesn't know what he's doing and maybe just got an American — and innocent civilians — killed because of it.
Trump may be a brash, inexperienced, volatile president with some seriously dangerous ideas about foreign policy and national security, but that doesn't mean everything is his fault — no matter how much some may want it to be.
Commentary by Jennifer Williams, deputy foreign editor at Vox. Follow him/her on Twitter @jenn_ruth.
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