On Saturday, December 6, 2014, there was an American commando raid in Yemen. As reported by the New York Times, special forces attacked a village in the southern part of the country in an effort to free hostages, including an American journalist, held by jihadists. But instead of accomplishing what it set out to accomplish, the raid “ended in tragedy”: Terrorists killed two hostages, including the American, and in the ensuing firefight, a number of civilians died.
That’s not a scandal; that’s war.
Fast-forward to late January of this year. Donald Trump, just nine days after assuming the presidency, ordered a raid into Yemen that had been planned during the Obama administration and endorsed by James Mattis, the new secretary of defense. During the attack, American forces encountered tougher-than-expected resistance, Navy SEAL Ryan Owens was killed, and civilians died in the crossfire. At the end of the attack, American and allied forces took possession of intelligence that may or may not (reports conflict) be valuable to the war against jihad.
That’s not a scandal; that’s war.
But don’t tell that to the Democrats, to the Trump administration’s most committed critics, or to multiple members of the media, including some who should know better. Suddenly, there is an odd new standard for success or failure in military operations: Special-forces raids are scandalous unless they 1) yield exactly the intelligence or other assets they sought; 2) do so without encountering unexpected resistance; and 3) do not cost any American lives.
By that standard, my own deployment to Iraq was one scandal after another. Even though we had boots on the ground, a consistent presence in our area of operations, and access to intelligence from a wide variety of sources, we still encountered surprises and ambushes. Multiple raids “failed” in the sense that we didn’t seize our targets or obtain the information we had hoped to find. Our intelligence “failed” sometimes, with inaccurate assessments of enemy capabilities or intentions leading to deaths.
But none of that was scandalous; it was all war.
I’ve written at length about the Yemen raid before, but it’s vital to revisit the issue again. In part because of the profound moment in Trump’s address to Congress when he honored Carryn Owens, Ryan Owens’s widow, and in part because of his clumsy and inexcusable effort to deflect blame for Owens’s death to his generals, the Yemen raid is back in the news. And it’s thus vital to establish standards for evaluating and reporting the Trump administration’s military efforts.
We will never consistently have perfect knowledge, achieve perfect surprise, or obtain perfect results.
First, do we really want presidents — especially those with exactly zero military experience — ordering individual raids in the context of ongoing military operations? Obama famously agonized over “kill lists,” reportedly even viewing the faces of targets before issuing his orders. Elevating strike authority to POTUS himself risks not only slowing down military operations, but also placing the decision in the hands of a person with less information and less experience than a professional military trained to identify and destroy our nation’s enemies.
Obama’s moral dilemmas made for good newspaper copy, but did they result in the best application of American military power? The rise of ISIS and the spread of jihad suggests that they did not.
Second, should Americans really have zero or near-zero tolerance for casualties? It’s a simple fact that the less we risk American forces, the less effective they are. For many good reasons, we’ve delegated much of the fight in Mosul to local allies, but that carries a cost, too. Parts of the city are still in enemy hands, and progress is slow. How much could we speed up the fight (and perhaps capture and kill more enemy fighters) if we put American soldiers closer to the action or empower them to engage the enemy directly?
When soldiers enlist, they trust their commanders (including the commander-in-chief) not to throw away their lives carelessly or recklessly, but they know that they could die in the line of duty nevertheless. Americans are allegedly “war-weary” (a strange term for a nation in which only the tiniest fraction of citizens have fought), and we’ve already suffered thousands of casualties abroad, but so long as the enemy still seeks to do us harm, we’re crippling our national defense if we unilaterally decide to fight without loss.
Third, when terrorists use civilians as human shields, who’s to blame for the civilian deaths that result? By adopting a near-zero tolerance for civilian casualties (as the Obama administration often did), we incentivize violations of the laws of war, extend combat operations, and risk American life. When jihadists hide behind women and children, they bear the legal and moral responsibility for civilian deaths.
The better military policy is to delegate military decisions to military commanders, reserving presidential decision-making for significant escalations or entirely new military operations. Indeed, there’s evidence that the Trump administration is moving to exactly this command arrangement, granting General Mattis greater authority to approve missions on his own, without waiting for presidential authorization.
January’s Yemen raid was one battle in a very long conflict, a conflict that it will be increasingly difficult to fight if every engagement must end with absolute, cost-free success. We will never consistently have perfect knowledge, achieve perfect surprise, or obtain perfect results. That was not the standard of success during the Bush or Obama administrations. And it must not be the standard of success for Trump.
— David French is a staff writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, an attorney, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.