On Twitter, many journalists are rapidly reaching the point of maximum credulity — they’ll immediately believe virtually anything negative about Donald Trump, not matter how thinly-sourced or implausible. Take the kerfuffle that erupted last night in response to this Reuters report where unnamed defense officials blamed the losses in last weekend’s Yemen raid on, you guessed it, Trump:
U.S. military officials told Reuters that Trump approved his first covert counterterrorism operation 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.
Journalists spread the Reuters report far and wide, but anyone with the slightest experience in complex special operations missions should have been instantly skeptical. The anonymous attacks on Trump look a lot more like ass-covering than whistle-blowing. Absent truly extraordinary circumstances not outlined in the report, these officials seem to be relying on reporters’ ignorance and willingness to believe anything about Trump to cover to deflect criticism of a dangerous operation that turned out to be even more dangerous than anticipated. That happens in war. It happened all the time when I was in Iraq.
While the president is often the ultimate approval authority for raids in sovereign countries, he does not design or plan the operation. Do you really want any modern American president not named Dwight Eisenhower checking, say, to make sure that the Navy has tasked a sufficient Super Hornets for support? More than fifteen years after 9/11, our military knows how to plan and carry out special ops missions, and a prudent president leaves the planning to military officials.
Indeed, a more in-depth New York Times report shows that the operation was actually planned during the Obama administration but held over to Trump because the need for a dark night to minimize enemy visibility:
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. But 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.
CNN’s reporting agrees with the New York Times:
Both defense and Obama administration officials said the operation was never vetoed by Obama and that “operational reasons” were why it was pushed back after January 20 and why Obama left the task of authorizing the raid to his successor.
As the Times makes clear, there were “months of detailed planning” that took place under Obama, and the Department of Defense had conducted a legal review that Trump approved. Oh, and it turns out that Trump approved the raid at a dinner attended not just by General Mattis, but also by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the vice president, and his national security adviser (a man who has enormous experience with special forces operations).
Then, war happened. The element of surprise was lost, perhaps because of low-flying drones:
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.
People who haven’t been exposed to war with jihadists tend to think of firefights as precise affairs. Instead, they’re extraordinarily destructive, and the battle is waged against an enemy who intentionally and flagrantly violates the laws of war:
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.
The raid, some details of which were first reported by The Washington Post, also destroyed much of the village of Yakla, and left senior Yemeni government officials seething. Yemen’s foreign minister, Abdul Malik Al Mekhlafi, condemned the raid on Monday in a post on his official Twitter account as “extrajudicial killings.”
None of this sounds unusual. All of it resonates with my own experience in Iraq. One deadly evening, al Qaeda ambushed our troopers from inside a mosque (law of war violation), blended in with the civilian population (law of war violation), and fought a day-long gun battle with an armored cavalry troop that ultimately destroyed most of a village. Thankfully, there were no civilian casualties in that incident, but if there had been, each of those casualties would have been the legal and moral fault of an enemy who uses human shields and tries to hide amongst innocent women and children. Similarly, in this instance, the blood of the innocents is on jihadist hands.
The Pentagon of course study the Yemen raid closely to determine why American forces lost the element of surprise and misjudged the amount of enemy firepower. We should also grieve the SEAL who gave his last full measure of devotion for his country, but let’s not lose the forest for the trees — it’s an impressive feat of arms to assault an alert enemy in a prepared defensive position, defeat that enemy, and leave with valuable intelligence.
So, no, don’t believe claims that Trump botched the raid in Yemen. He didn’t plan the operation, and we don’t want him planning operations. We want presidents to rely on professionals. But those same professionals will tell you that war is terrible by its very nature, and no president can guarantee victory without cost.