Monday, February 27, 2017

Listen: the Yemen raid was bad, but not wrong... it's the cover-up that's wrong. (Updated)

By now, you have probably heard of the raid in Yemen that went wrong.  It was the first military action ordered by President Trump, and reportedly everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.  As best we know at this point, the intent was to capture top militants and seize a cache of intelligence, but it went badly awry right from the start:
In this case, the assault force of several dozen commandos, which also included elite soldiers from the United Arab Emirates, 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.
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. (New York Times)
It's hard to say definitively right now, but current reporting suggests that the operation cost the military the death of a Navy SEAL and 25 others (among them nine local children), millions of dollars of equipment and espionage costs, and a severe blow to our relations with a crucial local ally as Yemen threatened to cut off American access for further missions.  And even worse, it appears that all of this blood and treasure was expended for little results: the videos retrieved by the raid were ten years old and there was "no significant intelligence" obtained.  The father of the dead SEAL wants answers and is denouncing Trump for "hiding behind [his] son's death."

In every way, it was a mess.  And if this was the end of the story, then it would be hard to criticize the president for the raid.

That might be hard to hear, since it went so badly in every way, and since reportedly he authorized it after a briefing over a meal (which seems too insecure or informal, and therefore incongruous and wrong).  But just because a mission might be risky or launched on the basis of incomplete intelligence does not mean it is a bad idea.  Every military mission is the product of a probabilistic assessment: is the potential goal worth the potential risks when allowing for a potential degree of uncertainty?  It's very hard to say that, right now and with what we know, that this was a bad bet to make.

Some gambles pay off.  The Osama bin Ladin raid was a gamble, but it succeeded in almost every way -- despite the loss of an aircraft and some surprises waiting for the assault team.  President Obama's orders didn't always turn out so well... his first military operation, after all, was a missile strike that mistakenly hit a civilian target, killing dozens of innocents.

If we say that President Trump was wrong to green-light this raid, then we should probably -- in fairness -- admit that we suddenly require certainty of success in all military operations.  And that's not realistic.  That's just tribalism.

So let's not be outraged about the Yemen raid.  Let's be sad for the loss of life.

No, save your outrage for the cover-up.

At issue is the ability of the Trump administration to be honest.  NBC News has a recap of their responses as matters have developed:
The White House has repeatedly called the Yemen mission a success. White House spokesman Sean Spicer said on Feb. 8 that anyone "who undermines the success of that raid owes an apology and [does] a disservice to the life of Chief Owens."
"We gathered an unbelievable amount of intelligence that will prevent the potential deaths or attacks on American soil," said Spicer.
A Defense Department official also pushed back Monday afternoon, saying the raid has yielded "a significant amount" of intelligence.
But the only example the military has provided turned out to be an old bomb-making video that was of no current value.
On Monday, Spicer addressed the remarks of Bill Owens, whose son died.
"I can tell him that on behalf of the president, his son died a hero and the information that he was able to help obtain through that raid, as I said before, is going to save American lives," he said. "The mission was successful in helping prevent a future attack or attacks on this nation."
Multiple senior officials told NBC News they have not seen evidence to support that claim.
There's the problem.  Or rather, two problems:

Lack of credibility.  The Trump White House repeatedly and without evidence has declared that the raid was a success.  The difficult but correct thing would be to exhibit some temperance -- to say that they mourned the losses and problems, but that it was too early to judge the success or failure of the raid.  Instead, as so often, this White House went straight to fact-free bluster.  This diminishes their credibility in the eyes of the nation and the eyes of the world, yet again.  It's not just wrong, it's stupid... the nation should be able to trust the Press Secretary and the President.  In a time of emergency, that trust could unite the country and save lives.  They risk it with every shameless lie.

Moral cowardice.  I'm sorry, there's just no other way to put it.  It is cowardly to suggest that all criticism of the raid's success is somehow illegitimate because an American soldier died during the operation.  It is evil to attempt to use a tragedy as a shield from accountability.

Too often, we focus on style over substance.  Folks get upset over how Kellyanne Conway is sitting on a couch in a photo, how Trump eats his steaks, or something asinine he said.  All of that is style -- handwringing over optics or crassness or logorrhea.  And this might seem to be a similar problem of style, but it's not.

The real substance here is a White House that is afraid of criticism and unafraid of deceit.  Focus on that and hunt down the truth.

UPDATE:  The raid played a key role in the president's address to Congress last night.  Perhaps sensitive to recent stories, Trump spoke touchingly of the SEAL team member who was lost during the raid, praising him and comforting his wife over the soldier's sacrifice.  It was a remarkable and excellent moment in a speech that otherwise dwelt on unrealistic promises and absurd statistics.

The president also doubled-down, however, on the value of the raid: “I just spoke to General Mattis," said Trump, "who reconfirmed that, and I quote, ‘Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies.’”  And backing him up this morning, Vice President Mike Pence concurred.

This directly contradicts credible reporting from a variety of sources.  And while it's possible that the White House is telling the truth and reporters are wrong, past events have not been kind to that theory.  With remarkably few exceptions in the past month, conflicts between good reporting and administration accounts have usually shaken out in favor of The New York Times or Buzzfeed or The New York Times, not Sean Spicer or Donald J. Trump.

It is possible that the NBC News report is wrong.  They clearly have confidence in the veracity and access of their sources, but those sources might have misled them or might be out of the loop.  It's also possible that we may never find out either way, or the answer will be subjective.  The White House had better hope so, though, since they have unambiguously doubled-down on their version of the story in the most prominent way possible.

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