But let’s not rush to judgment, Andrew Exum suggests. Don’t hold Trump accountable for the outcome, when the real problem is bureaucratic constipation.
In Exum’s defense of the raid and the decisionmaking process that guided it, he complains that discussion at the upper levels of the national-security apparatus has become too “slow and ponderous.” Constraints imposed from above negate “one of the primary advantages the U.S. military enjoys, which is a highly trained and capable officer corps in the field that can exercise independent judgment.” Allowing the officer corps greater freedom of action will, by implication, yield more effective outcomes. Meddling civilians, therefore, need to butt out, allowing field commanders “to be aggressive [and] to take risks,” even if on occasion they may “fall short.”
Coming from a former senior Department of Defense official, this strikes me as a radical misdiagnosis of the problem—a bit like a physician prescribing soda pop and chocolate bars as an antidote to ketoacidosis.
My own reading of recent U.S. policy suggests that an absence of aggressiveness or an aversion to risk do not number among the explanations for why the World’s Greatest Military has accomplished so little of late. Indeed, I would submit that since 9/11, the U.S. military has demonstrated both qualities in spades. What’s been lacking is sobriety and clarity of thought.
In Afghanistan, a campaign of astonishing boldness enabled U.S. forces in 2001 to overthrow the Taliban in remarkably short order. Commanders congratulated themselves on their brilliance, and without bothering to stabilize that country, immediately moved on to fresh challenges. What had been gained was soon lost. Fifteen-plus years later, the war in Afghanistan grinds on.
In Iraq, a lightning thrust by U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, resulting in what was advertised at the time as an epic victory. Alas, the commanders responsible had given little thought to what might happen next. The independent judgment that they exercised turned out to be monumentally defective. In short order, an epic victory transformed itself into an epic quagmire.
Libya in 2011? Same story: Bold action, illusory success, then a first-class mess, albeit one that Libyans rather than U.S. troops were let to deal with.
It would be wrong to saddle the officer corps with exclusive responsibility for these serial disappointments. A fairer verdict would be this: Collaboration between senior Department of Defense officials, Republican and Democratic alike, and senior military officers from all services, resulted in deeply defective plans based on erroneous assumptions leading to unforeseen consequences that field commanders then struggled to contain, while expending lives and treasure with abandon.
Apportioning responsibility for military failure is not necessarily easy. Who, for example, squandered the “victory” won in Iraq in 2003? President George W. Bush? Donald Rumsfeld and the senior Department of Defense officials who fancied that it would all be easy? The now-suitably forgotten members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time? CENTCOM commander General Tommy Franks, once upon a time heralded as a Great Captain? Answer: all of the above. (And, if only for reasons of gender balance, throw in the likes of Private Lynndie England, who rocketed to fame humiliating detainees at Abu Ghraib.)