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On Yemen raid planning, where did the Obama administration leave off for Trump to pick up?

March 1, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
What level of planning did the Obama administration take on ahead of a deadly U.S. military raid in Yemen carried out under President Trump? Hari Sreenivasan talks to former Defense Department official Andrew Exum and Colin Kahl, former national security advisor to the vice president, two men with intimate knowledge of the Obama administration’s process for authorizing the use of military force.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Now views on the raid in Yemen and the decision-making behind it.

We talk to two men with intimate knowledge of the process that authorized the use of military force during the Obama administration.

Colin Kahl was deputy assistant to the president and national security adviser to the vice president during the Obama administration. He is now an associate professor at Georgetown University. Andrew Exum was deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy during the Obama administration. He also served in the Army form 2000 to 2004 in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Colin, let me start with you.

We have heard the president say, this was a mission that was started before I got here.

You were in the rooms where these mission have been discussed for the Obama administration before he left. What did the previous administration leave for President Trump to pick up?

COLIN KAHL, Former Deputy Assistant to President Obama: Yes.

Well, for years, the United States has been taking military action against this group, AQAP, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, predominantly through drone strikes, airstrikes.

What came to the White House shortly before Christmas was a proposal from the Pentagon to expand the authorities and resources to allow special operations forces to more actively engage in direct raids to go after compounds, like the one that we saw in January.

But a couple of things, I think, are important to note. First, they never briefed a particular raid. They didn’t say, we’re going to go after a particular target or a compound on this night or this day. Instead, they asked for a broad set of authorities to do this type of thing.

And, importantly, when the deputies convened, kind of a sub-cabinet level of government convened in early January, they recommended that this decision get deferred to the Trump administration, so they could run their own careful process. And President Obama agreed on that, that he would make no decision whether to do things like this, and instead that Trump should run his own process.

But, instead, Trump had a dinner party and decided it over dinner.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, you’re saying the category of raids was what was discussed, not this specific raid, because we saw reports that perhaps they were waiting for a moonless night, that was the opportune time, it couldn’t have happened in the Obama administration’s last few days.

COLIN KAHL: I will defer to Andrew, who worked in the Pentagon, on this one.

But my understanding is that there were a number of concepts of operations that were bouncing around the Pentagon for a long time, and this raid may have been one of them. It was never brought across the river to the White House.

And as it relates to the moonless night issue, a Pentagon spokesperson said that that issue didn’t become relevant until after January 20, when they then asked for the authority to do the raid to Trump.

And, importantly, that’s why I think it’s extraordinarily unfair to our men and women in the armed services for Trump to suggest, as he did on FOX yesterday, that somehow this is the military’s fault. He’s the commander in chief. The buck stops with him.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Andrew Exum, fill in that blank there. From the Pentagon’s perspective, what was left for the Trump administration?

ANDREW EXUM, Former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense: Well, no, I think that that’s an accurate recounting of the way that things were presented to the Trump administration and to the Obama administration before the — before the Trump inauguration.

I think that we in the Obama administration, those are of us who served in the Obama administration need to be very careful as we criticize the process that the Trump administration used to approve this.

First off, to approve this raid, it would have gone through several hurdles just through the Department of Defense before being presented to the president. When we in the Obama administration brought these options to the president, it followed a very deliberate interagency process.

It’s what worked for President Obama. Just because we have seen, quite frankly, a lot of a — lot of mess in the Trump administration thus far in their first month, I think we have got to be careful about saying that we had all the answers during the Obama administration.

I think Colin would agree with that. This president’s going find a decision-making process that works for him. What happened in Yemen may cause him to rethink the way in which he approved this raid, because you can always delegate authority. You can never delegate the risk. Ultimately, you’re going to own that, as Dr. Gorka mentioned from the White House.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Andrew, I want to — you recently wrote that blaming the president is both inappropriate and counterproductive. You also described sometimes that the process can be paralysis by analysis.

ANDREW EXUM: Yes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: That it can take a very long time.

ANDREW EXUM: No, that’s right.

Colin remembers that, at one point in the waning days of the Obama administration, I think we were debating at the Cabinet level the movement of three helicopters from Iraq to Syria.

Now, there are obvious, you know, political implications of anything you do on the ground. But at what point do you delegate authority down to your commander on the ground, I think, is the key question.

The reason why I think putting the — putting real blame on the Trump administration here is dangerous is because you have the Benghazi effect. You remember, when the Republicans used Benghazi and what happened there as a cudgel to beat Hillary Clinton, and without — you know their effort was successful, it must be added, to weaken her as a political candidate.

But it also had a chilling effect on the bureaucracy. It makes the bureaucracy risk-averse. And, quite frankly, that’s not something that we want from our diplomats. It’s not something we want from our special operators.

We want them to be aggressive. We want them to take risks. And when we elevate the blame, when something goes wrong, all the way to the presidential level, we just have got to be very careful about how we do that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And, Colin, why does it take so long? What kinds of input factor into a decision like this?

COLIN KAHL: Yes, look, I think that the Obama administration can be criticized for too much micromanagement of the Pentagon.

I think, you know, the question is, did they swing the pendulum too far in one direction? But I worry that President Trump, in the first big decision that came to his, in this case, dinner table as commander in chief, he swung the pendulum all the way back in the other direction.

Look, what President Obama insisted on is, every time that the military wanted to come forward to ask for authority to significantly escalate, especially to put ground forces into a conflict environment, where people can die, both our service members, but also civilians and others, that we needed to have a careful, deliberate process.

It doesn’t have to take weeks. It oftentimes takes a couple of days. But it works its way through, and you get the inputs from all the various agencies.

The question I have with Trump’s decision-making process here is not that you have to do it exactly the way we did it, but he didn’t run a process at all. He just had dinner with Secretary Mattis and General Dunford and a handful of close advisers and was briefed about the raid and made a decision.

And, as a consequence, he didn’t have the full benefit of his intelligence professionals, of his State Department. And that is a recipe for making mistakes and costing people their lives.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Andrew Exum, what about the idea that, when there are these different agencies, these different people weighing in on it, that they’re going to think about diplomatic consequences, political consequences, things that perhaps a commander in the field might not think about because, for him or her, they see a much different objective?

ANDREW EXUM: Yes, it’s a valid point.

I think the way Colin described things, I think he’s right that the pendulum swung back. I wouldn’t say it went all the way back, because, again, the decision-making process in this raid would have gone through a very rigorous process in the Pentagon. It would have been blessed off by all the Pentagon senior leaders before it would have been presented to the president.

So it wasn’t completely without rigor. But I think what Colin is describing in terms of baking down the risk, that does happen in a deliberate process like that. The key question is opportunity cost.

So, in the Obama administration, we had a very deliberate process that in many cases served the president and was what the president desired. It drew down a lot of political risks, as well as the physical risk, to the operators on the ground.

The question is, was there an opportunity cost? The nature of these raids is, they go after time-sensitive targets. So do you lose opportunities the more that you hold things up in Washington? I think that’s the key question.

And where Colin and I may disagree, but where I think we do agree, is that there has to be a balance. It’s just a matter of where you strike that balance.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Andrew Exum, Colin Kahl, thank you both.

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