Commanders in chief are supposed to know a fundamental truth about sitting atop a large and complex military chain of command.
They are allowed to take some of the credit for success, but they also must take responsibility when missions don’t go according to plan.
Donald J. Trump signed off on a mission to kill or capture some top al-Qaeda leaders, to collect some intelligence on the terror network and, presumably, to return all the men assigned to carry out the mission back home.
The mission that occurred in Yemen in late January. A Navy SEAL, Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens died in the fire fight. A state-of-the-art Osprey V-22 tiltrotor aircraft was lost. Some al-Qaeda leaders died in the battle. So did some civilians, including at least one child.
Military and national security officials are still trying to assess the value of the intelligence collected. We keep hearing conflicting assessments. The president, of course, says it is of high value.
But the current commander in chief has done something that is quite extraordinary — and inexcusable. He is laying the blame for Petty Officer Owens’ death on the military planners. “They” lost the SEAL, Trump has said.
Wait a flippin’ minute, Mr. President! The buck is supposed to stop at your desk. One of your predecessors, President Truman, famously posted the sign on his Oval Office desk that said “The Buck Stops Here.” President Kennedy once declared that “victory has a thousand fathers, while defeat is an orphan” after the failed Bay of Pigs operation shortly after he became president.
Trump’s response? He has declared that the planning for the Yemen raid was done by President Obama’s national security team. They crafted the plan that failed, Trump has implied. It’s their fault, too!
This is not what commanders in chief do. Under any other circumstance, presidents stand up and take the heat when things go badly. They do not blame others — namely the military brass or their predecessors. JFK’s failed mission in Cuba was actually conceived by his predecessor, President Eisenhower, but the new guy took the hickey, accepted full responsibility for the mission’s failure.
A military man who just a few years later would become commander in chief himself, devised a strategy to liberate Europe from Nazi Germany. Army Gen. Dwight Eisenhower — supreme commander of Allied Forces — launched the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France in June 1944. The mission succeeded, Europe would be liberated.
But Ike had written an alternative announcement he would have read over the radio had the mission failed. In the message that was never broadcast, he took full responsibility for its failure.
That is what leaders do.
I am not going to wander into the muck over whether the Yemen raid was a success or failure. The president’s assertion that the generals were to blame for the death of a brave young SEAL suggests to me that he has doubts about the mission’s overall success.
Whatever the case, the event occurred on the commander in chief’s watch and it is that person — no one else — who should be held fully accountable.