As new details are coming out about what appears to have been a disastrous raid on an al-Qaida compound in Yemen last weekend that resulted in the death of a Navy SEAL, the 8-year-old American daughter of deceased al-Qaida recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki, and a number of civilians, many liberals are condemning President Donald Trump’s decision to approve the first major counterterrorism operation of his administration.
I definitely don’t know whether it was wise to proceed with the operation or if more questions should have been asked. Though the plans for the raid were developed during the last days of the previous administration and postponed for operational reasons, it’s certainly possible that Barack Obama, as opposed to Trump, would have held off. I certainly also find it alarming that Trump, Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, and Michael Flynn are the ones in the position to make these calls. (It should be pointed out that Defense Secretary James Mattis, who many Trump critics hoped would be a check on the president’s worst impulses, was also at the meeting where the decision to proceed was made, according to the New York Times.)
But I also know that I didn’t see this level of outrage after Awlaki’s 16-year-old son was killed in a drone strike in 2011, or when Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs brushed aside criticism of that strike by saying that the boy “should have [had] a far more responsible father.” I wonder if those blaming Trump for the death of Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens, felt Obama was equally responsible for the death of Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, killed after a U.S.-Kurdish raid on an ISIS prison in Iraq went haywire in 2015. I know that the previous administration approved raids based on what turned out to be faulty intelligence, including the failed attempt to rescue hostages James Foley and and Steven Sotloff in 2014.
I wonder if those who find it outrageous that the Trump administration wants to, as the Times puts it, “speed the decision-making when it comes to such strikes,” found it equally problematic when the same paper reported that Obama had “embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties” that “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants.”
I certainly heard relatively little outrage from the left about the drone strike on an al-Qaida compound in Pakistan in 2015 that killed an American and an Italian hostage, or the U.S. bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, that same year that arguably constituted a war crime, or the ongoing Obama administration support for Saudi Arabia’s brutal, civilian-targeting air campaign in Yemen.
Perhaps Obama supporters merely trusted that when the previous president, with his judicious and thoughtful temperament, had good reasons for taking the risks that led to the deaths of American troops or civilians. He certainly put far fewer Americans in harm’s way and his military actions caused far fewer casualties than George W. Bush. I certainly had more faith in him making these decisions than I do in Trump and am glad, however chaotic the world is today, that there aren’t massive numbers of American troops patrolling the streets of Middle Eastern capitals.
But the Obama administration did a lot to normalize the notion that in the name of fighting terrorism, it was authorized to carry out attacks against Islamist militants almost anywhere in the world and was expanding its use of that authority up until the final days of his presidency. The idea of an endless, vaguely defined war on terrorism, with no geographic boundaries and little accountability didn’t seem to be much of a priority to Democrats in Congress or Democratic voters as long as a Democrat was in the White House.