Shirking the Responsibilities of Leadership

In the aftermath of the SEAL raid into Yemen, which has prompted the father of the dead soldier to refuse to meet with President Trump, multiple investigations into the planning and execution of the raid, and the unsightly blaming of his generals for what is ultimately his decision, Donald Trump may have found a way to avoid taking responsibility for future military operations. The Daily Beast is reporting that Trump is considering taking himself out of the decision loop for military raids by allowing Secretary of Defense Mattis and other relevant military officials to authorize the raids on their own without presidential approval. As the Beast notes, “in declared war zones, U.S. commanders have the authority to make such calls, but outside such war zones, in ungoverned or unstable places like Somalia, Libya, or Yemen, it can take permissions all the way up to the Oval Office to launch a drone strike or a special-operations team.”

It’s not inherently a bad idea to loosen the reins on approving military operations, and it’s a complicated calculation about which kind of operations should and which should not require presidential approval.

Former Obama administration officials tell The Daily Beast they’d already streamlined the approvals process for counterterrorism raids, following the failed 2014 mission to rescue U.S. hostages James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and Kayla Mueller, who were being held by ISIS in Syria. The hostages were moved shortly before U.S. special operators arrived on the scene.

“Obama gave a lot of leash to commanders in the field—but not on everything,” said one former senior Obama administration official. “It’s all about controlling escalation. Do I want to give someone else the authority to get me deeper into a war?”

The official explained that in some cases, Obama deemed it necessary to push authority down to his commanders, as when he gave the Navy SEALs the green light to shoot their way out of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound, though firing on Pakistani troops might have triggered armed conflict with Islamabad.

Obama used to give Mattis pre-delegation authority to act when he was head of Central Command on some issues, but not others, the official said. “Will you delegate authority if an Iranian boat gets close, I can take it out? Most presidents will think carefully about that,” he said. “There’s usually a healthy back-and-forth to come up with the right balance.” The official spoke anonymously to discuss the sensitive discussions on approving raids.

The question here is whether Trump is “thinking carefully” about this question or whether the decision is a reaction to his being blamed for ordering the SEAL raid without proper consideration of the intelligence (regardless of whether that blame is deserved). The timing certainly makes it seem like it’s the latter.

But it seems like a bad idea to, as a rule, remove presidential approval from these kinds of operations and to rely solely on the judgment of the military or even former generals in political positions, like Secretary Mattis. Military operations outside of active war zones, like Yemen, are as much about the political effect as they are about military significance. An operation that yields tangible intelligence benefits can be a disaster if it draws the US into a war in which the US does not want to become involved or upsets a valuable ally and interferes with larger missions and plans (Yemen withdrawing permission for US counter-terror operations after the raid comes to mind).

These kinds of decisions cannot and should not be made based on their military feasibility or desirability. They can only be made by political actors with a sense of how any particular military operation does or does not fit into the larger concerns of US foreign policy. Worst case scenarios must be assessed (such as what happens if a US soldier gets captured?).

Removing the political leadership from these decisions is a recipe for mission creep (wherein a series of actions are taken, each rationally derived from the previous one, but the sum total of which produce a policy that was never desired [not that presidents are immune from this]) and politically-disastrous operations. It is particularly concerning that President Trump is making this decision so early in his presidency and in the aftermath of the Yemen raid and his ham-fisted attempt to avoid responsibility. Hopefully, sober military minds like Mattis and McMaster, both of whom have repeatedly demonstrated profound concern for the political dimensions of their military missions, will be able to advise Trump against this move, or at least limit the kind of operations that can be initiated without presidential authorization.

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