In the wake of the Trump administration’s first counterterrorism mission, which reportedly killed 14 al-Qaeda fighters, one U.S. Navy SEAL, and an unknown number of civilians in Yemen, the president and his press secretary have set a remarkably steep standard for when the administration’s military actions can be criticized: If the action is against an enemy and involves sacrifice, it must be accepted as a success.
That message was underlined by a series of tweets sent Thursday morning by Donald Trump, who was responding to John McCain’s characterization of the raid as a “failure.” McCain, as the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is one of the congressional leaders charged with oversight of the American military. But the Republican senator “should not be talking about the success or failure of a mission to the media,” Trump wrote. “Only emboldens the enemy!”
“Our hero Ryan [Owens] died on a winning mission (according to General Mattis), not a ‘failure,’” he declared, in reference to the soldier who was killed and his defense secretary, James Mattis.
On Wednesday, Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, similarly insisted that the raid was an unqualified success. “I think anyone who would suggest it’s not a success does disservice to the life of Chief Ryan Owens” and should apologize, he told reporters. “He fought knowing what was at stake in that mission. And anybody who would suggest otherwise doesn’t fully appreciate how successful that mission was, what the information that they were able to retrieve was, and how that will help prevent future terrorist attacks.”
Spicer added that the “life of Chief Ryan Owens was done in service to this country and we owe him and his family a great debt for the information that we received during that raid,” which surely is true. But that’s different than arguing that when a man sacrifices his life for his country, his fellow citizens can’t ask whether his life could have been saved, and whether it was worth putting his life at risk in the first place.
Of course, Spicer may well know this. As he put it just last week, before criticism of the Yemen raid had grown fierce, “It’s hard to ever call something a complete success when you have the loss of life, or people injured.”
Trump himself was a frequent and vocal critique of military operations during the Obama administration. But his tweets on Thursday laid out a very different position—arguing that public review or accountability for military missions is, in effect, disloyal.