Trump's Letting Mattis Call The Shots

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Rex Features via AP Images

A new report in the New York Times details how President Donald Trump is giving increased authority over military operations to the Department of Defense.


Earlier this month, Defense Sec. Jim Mattis himself signed off on a Marine artillery battery and a team of Army Rangers deploying to northern Syria to fight ISIS. According to the Times, Mattis approved the deployments and notified the White House of them. This represents a departure from the heavy-handed approach toward military operations taken by the Obama administration’s National Security Council.

Michele Flournoy, a former top Pentagon official in the Obama administration, told the Times that Trump’s shift has some merit.

“The benefit is that it allows the military campaign to go forward without undue pauses, interruptions or delays. That enables it to create more momentum and to be more responsive to changes on the battlefield,” Flournoy said.

“But there is a risk if there is inadequate oversight and the president stops paying close attention,” Flournoy cautioned. “It can be detrimental, even dangerous, if a commander in chief does not feel ownership of the campaign or loses touch with how things are evolving on the ground

The White House has also suggested that it may give Mattis’ Pentagon independent authority to conduct counterterrorism raids. Such a move was characterized as “part of an effort to accelerate the fight against the Islamic State and other militant organizations,” according to the Times, citing unnamed senior White House officials.

But, to Flournoy’s point, other unnamed sources in that Times report cautioned against the lack of oversight into those operations. Officials warned that it could give the president a level of deniability about the raids, and limit his liability if they go wrong, leaving the Pentagon on the hook for the blame.

This concern echoes the mixed results from Trump’s first counter-terrorism raid as a president, a Jan. 29 offensive against al Qaeda operatives in Yemen that involved the most elite special operations forces and airstrikes.

That raid ended in the death of a member of the Navy’s elite SEAL Team Six, Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, as well as a high number of civilian deaths, including children, one of whom was an American citizen.

But the Trump administration and senior military officials have maintained that the raid yielded a high amount of high-value intelligence.

Speaking of the raid in its aftermath, Trump seemed to suggest that the responsibility for its failures rested on the generals, rather than his decision.

“This was a mission that was started before I got here. This was something they wanted to do,” Trump said in an interview with Fox and Friends in February. “They came to me, they explained what they wanted to do ― the generals ― who are very respected, my generals are the most respected that we’ve had in many decades, I believe. And they lost Ryan.”

On the increased authority of the Pentagon to order such a raid, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer called it “a philosophy more than a change in policy.”

Spicer further said that the president viewed the generals as “the experts in the field,” a sentiment that certainly suggests that Trump has a high degree of confidence in Mattis and his military commanders to allow them to conduct counter-terror operations with a level of autonomy.

The White House’s messaging on U.S. generals has changed drastically since the campaign trail, where Trump drew the ire of many when he said at a rally in Iowa that he knew “more about ISIS than the generals do. Believe me.”

And in April 2016, Trump pledged that he had a secret plan to defeat ISIS, but he did not want to share it, because he did not want to tell the enemy what he would do as president, strategically speaking.

“We're gonna beat ISIS very, very quickly folks. It's gonna be fast,” Trump said at a campaign rally in Connecticut at the time. “I have a great plan. It's going to be great. They ask, 'What is it?' Well, I'd rather not say. I'd rather be unpredictable.”

Now, in addition to Trump ceding much of authority for military operations to the Pentagon, it seems the Pentagon’s proposed strategy to combat ISIS looks a lot like the strategy employed during the Obama administration. Indeed, earlier this month, the commander of U.S. Central Command, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the strategy that is in place to defeat ISIS is working.

"The Counter-ISIS campaign has entered its third year and we are on track with the military plan to defeat the terrorist organization in Iraq and Syria," the general said.

While the Defense Department has presented Trump’s White House with a new plan for defeating the Islamic State, it amounts to little more than an “intensification” of the existing counter-ISIS strategy, according to NBC News. However, according to a defense official, the plan streamlines decision-making processes to give the Pentagon more flexibility than it previously saw under the Obama administration — a step the White House already seems to be actively taking with Mattis.

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