Why Is the White House Calling Its Yemen Raid a Success?

If the costly mission counts as winning, President Trump is right that Americans will get tired of it.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

During the Obama administration, I repeatedly criticized the murky program of extrajudicial killings that slayed thousands of people—including hundreds of innocents—in countries including Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. On Inauguration Day, Donald Trump inherited control of America’s killing infrastructure. It is unclear how much culpability he bears for a subsequent special-operations raid he approved over dinner with aides, the first to occur during his tenure. There are conflicting reports about whether the Obama administration approved the raid pending a full moon that wouldn’t happen until after Trump took office; deferred the decision to Trump; or affirmatively declined to approve the raid.

What’s more, an NBC News report that “the Navy SEAL raid in Yemen last week had a secret objective—the head of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who survived and is now taunting President Donald Trump in an audio message,” raised the possibility that the Obama administration might have preferred to carry out the mission as a drone strike (having been reluctant, insofar as we know, put “boots on the ground” in Yemen), only to be overruled by a new administration that prefers capturing and interrogating terrorists to killing them, per the longtime Republican critique of U.S. foreign policy.

In any event, the raid was a disaster. Civilians, including multiple children, were killed during a firefight. A Navy SEAL was killed. Three more Americans were wounded. A $75 million U.S. military aircraft had to be destroyed. And the fallout will make it harder for the U.S. to target terrorists in Yemen.

It is difficult to imagine better terrorist propaganda than grisly photographs of children that U.S. fighters killed. This is the sort of incident that creates new terrorists, regardless of whether one blames Obama, Trump, the Joint Chiefs, or bad luck.

So it’s bizarre that, in spite of it all, the White House insists the mission was a success. Even if the flaws of the operation were not Trump's fault, talking-points used by the Trump administration could hardly put the U.S. in a worse light:

Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, denied reports that the purpose of the attack was to capture or kill any specific Qaeda leader. “The raid that was conducted in Yemen was an intelligence-gathering raid,” he said. “That’s what it was. It was highly successful. It achieved the purpose it was going to get, save the loss of life that we suffered and the injuries that occurred.”

Why publicly declare that a raid is highly successful when the benefits are “intelligence” and the costs are multiple dead kids, multiple wounded Americans, a dead Navy SEAL, and perhaps $100 million in total costs? If that’s what Trump and his advisors regard as a moral, highly successful use lives and scarce counterterrorism resources, it is monstrous. If they’re covering up that the real purpose of the raid was to kill a senior terrorist who surrounded himself with human shields, they could surely do so in a way that doesn’t make the U.S. seem monstrous, with Yemenis concluding we value a few laptops more than the lives of their children.

Finally, there is the alarming aspect of the raid that Bonnie Christian noted at Business Insider:

This raid marked the first time the United States has put boots on the ground in combat in the Yemeni civil war, and those SEALs were sent into the line of fire without  constitutionally-required authorization from Congress. If that seems like a pedantic consideration, I assure you it is not. This is a major new development in a military intervention launched by the Obama White House without public discussion or a declaration of war. Obama started US involvement in Yemen secretly and illegally, and to escalate to ground war—to putting US troops in harm’s way—without so much as a go-ahead from Congress would be a serious mistake.

To sum up, the Trump administration would have Americans believe that it favors putting boots on the ground in Yemen and risking American lives without congressional approval, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars per mission, all to gather intelligence … and that the mission is a success. Is this what Trump meant when he told his supporters they’d get tired of winning?

I doubt it accords with what they expected when they cast their ballots for a man who said he was opposed to interventions abroad or spending money on military misadventures that could fund infrastructure. How far would $100 million go in Michigan? It is hard to imagine many Clinton voters are happy with this performance either, because failure is an orphan. It is, instead, a perfect opportunity for Congress to probe and understand the failure, in case there are ways to avoid repeating it.