Back in December, Donald Trump opined that he would not require a daily intelligence briefing as president. “I get it when I need it,” Trump declared, adding, “I’m, like, a smart person. I don’t need to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years.”
On Wednesday, the American military began an investigation into a raid in Yemen which led to the death of a Navy SEAL and at least 30 additional people, some noncombatants. Reuters reported that “US military officials [said] that Trump approved his first covert counterterrorism operation without sufficient intelligence, ground support, or adequate backup preparations.”
Following up on reports from the ground the military is also seeking to determine whether the noncombatant death toll could be much higher than reported.
The U.S. has been involved militarily in Yemen for some time, a presence that might aid in the short term suppression of what we deem terrorist organizations, but which is also calculated to provide recruiting propaganda for the same organization over the long term.
The merits of the endless extension of the war of terror aside, Trump’s handling of a key early national security decision is telling. The man who rejected the need for detailed intelligence briefings has just sent American soldiers into harm’s way without adequate preparation, intelligence, or context, with lethal results for one of those soldiers and an as-yet-unclear number of Yemeni civilians.
Now there was a grain of truth in Trump’s words. There is a ritualistic element to the national security briefings, and surely there is repetition of material. Presumably, the briefings serve as much to keep the national security apparatus on the president’s radar as anything else. And in advance of an operation like this he might well have received additional briefings.
Nonetheless, what Trump’s mentality presupposes is his own ability to determine a number of different things. What is relevant? Which decisions require extensive scrutiny? In which instances are minute details required? When do you set aside your hubris and do the serious thinking and analyzing?
Trump told us endlessly during the campaign--and has continued doing so during the early weeks of his flawed presidency--that he was so smart and that he knew the best people. But it seems that he is so busy boasting that he doesn’t have time for pesky details, planning, and contingencies.
These things that he regards as beneath his office and his person, and which he won’t give the time he devotes to his twitter account, have just cost the life of a U.S. soldier, who put himself in harm’s way under the assumption he served a commander in chief who would place a high value on his life and the sacrifice of the same.
Trump’s arrogance just cost the life of an uncertain number of Yemeni civilians, people whose lives have been destabilized by a long-running conflict, and whose country is embroiled in turmoil at least in part thanks to a bombing campaign by the U.S. and its Saudi ally.
The American president wears many hats, and the conduct of international and military policy is but one of them. Trump’s early actions--antagonizing Mexico, threatening Iran and Australia, illegally banning refugees, christianizing U.S. aid, etc--do not speak highly of his ability to shape a complex world in ways that represent the American public interest. As this sad episode in Yemen demonstrates, he appears to be just as flawed in his approach to the small but essential details of overseeing operations and making judgment calls that affect the lives of American servicepeople and civilians abroad.