Twenty-four years ago this month, President Bill Clinton, a first-term commander in chief with no military or foreign policy experience, approved a request from his military commanders to deploy several hundred special operations forces to Somalia. The deployment would eventually lead to a bloody battle on the streets of Mogadishu, horrific images of U.S. soldiers being dragged through angry mobs, and the greatest foreign policy disaster of Clinton’s Administration.
Fast forward to the present, and in roughly the same amount of time in office, President Trump has presided over a significant expansion in special operations deployments while delegating authority to Pentagon leadership and “his” generals in the field. Earlier this summer, his National Security Advisor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster declared that the White House was “getting out of the tactical business.” McMaster’s comment is reminiscent of what Clinton would later say in describing the Somalia mission: That he had heeded the lesson of Vietnam, which was not to manage tactical decisions from Washington. Yet the tactical mishaps in Mogadishu would have strategic fallout for President Clinton, teaching his young administration a lot about the role Washington should play in overseeing military operations and ultimately laying the groundwork for how each of his successors would oversee sensitive military missions. We should hope that McMaster’s comments reflect a genuine desire to streamline the National Security Council process, not to neglect those painful lessons learned.
Of course, much has changed since 1993. President Trump inherits a very different geopolitical landscape and a cadre of special operations forces honed through continuous operations since 9/11. But since the Black Hawk Down incident, three successive administrations have developed approaches to managing special operations that consider the full range of risks – operational, diplomatic, political – through careful policy process prior to operational deployments. The framework that Barack Obama left to his successor evolved out of his predecessors’ approaches and formalized careful oversight of operations.
Through its early months in office, the Trump administration, both by design and circumstance, has presided over a deconstruction of the Obama framework that critics had blasted as inappropriately tactical. No president is obliged to follow the policies of his predecessor, but through his early actions, President Trump may be raising the specter of a special operations disaster for which the government and the U.S. public are both unprepared. His responsibility as Commander in Chief is not to eliminate the risks that are inherent to counter terrorism but rather to set the conditions – by hiring a good team and creating a sound policy process – so that he can make sound decisions and the American people can feel confident about the risky missions for which their military is deployed.
To do anything less is to ignore the lessons of the past 24 years – and invite a disaster of the President’s own making.
Source: Just Security