During his news conference on Thursday, Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked “how involved” President Trump was in the decision to deploy roughly 400 heavily armed marines to Syria.
The passive language Spicer used to describe Trump’s role may reflect the new latitude military commanders have to conduct operations without the commander in chief’s direct knowledge.
“Obviously the president was made aware of that,” Spicer said. “This is something that was done in consultation. He understands the regional issues that need to be addressed there.”
Spicer’s comment comes on the heels of reports that Trump won’t micromanage military operations in the way President Obama did.
Earlier this month, the Daily Beast, citing multiple officials, reported that “[t]he White House is considering delegating more authority to the Pentagon to greenlight anti-terrorist operations like the SEAL Team 6 raid in Yemen that cost the life of a Navy SEAL [named Ryan Owens].”
Trump “has signaled that he wants his defense secretary, retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, to have a freer hand to launch time-sensitive missions quickly, ending what U.S. officials say could be a long approval process under President Barack Obama,” the Daily Beast added.
Mattis required a congressional waiver to become defense secretary because he hadn’t been retired from active military service for more than seven years. Prior to Mattis, there was only one precedent for such a waiver being issued. Civilian control of the military is enshrined in Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution, which says the president “shall be the Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States when called into the actual Service of the United States.” Trump’s move to give generals more decision-making power chips away at that tradition.
The January 29 raid in Yemen, which was approved by Trump over dinner with his advisers, resulted in the deaths of at least 25 civilians, including nine children under the age of 13, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Days after it happened, Reuters reported that unnamed U.S. military officials told them Trump signed off on his first military action “without sufficient intelligence, ground support, or adequate backup preparations.”
Late last month, Trump appeared to try and shift responsibility for the Yemen raid to his generals, saying during a Fox & Friends interview that “this was a mission that was started before I got here.”
“This was something that was, you know, [the generals] wanted to do,” Trump said. “And they lost Ryan.”
Spicer’s language on Thursday suggests Trump will be able to use the same excuse if anything goes awry in Syria, where the newly deployed marines, armed with artillery guns, are “working with local partners in Syria — the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Syrian Arab Coalition” to rout ISIS from the city of Raqqa, Reuters reports.
According to Al Jazeera, the deployment, which is temporary, “could be an indication that the White House is leaning towards giving the Pentagon greater flexibility to make routine combat decisions in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.” The US is also preparing to send up to 1,000 troops to Kuwait.
Trump appears determined to go after both al Qaeda and ISIS despite sending conflicting signals about his desire to get involved in Middle East conflicts during the campaign.
In September 2015, Trump asked “Why are we fighting ISIS in Syria? Let them fight each other and pick up the remnants. I would talk to them, get along with them.”
But two months later, Trump said of ISIS, “I would bomb the shit out of ‘em.”
“They have certain areas of oil that they took away,” Trump said. “I would just bomb those suckers… there would be nothing left.”
While Trump and his generals are targeting al Qaeda and not ISIS in Yemen, Foreign Policy reports that the numbers of bombs the Trump administration dropped in that civil war-ravaged country over a single week “eclipsed the annual bombing total for any year during Obama’s presidency.”
“Under the previous administration, approval for strikes came only after often slow-moving policy discussions, with senior officials required to sign off on any action, while the Trump administration has proven much quicker at greenlighting attacks,” Foreign Policy adds.