Most Americans thought little of President Harry Truman when he ascended to the White House in April 1945. Six months later, they thought even less, as the nation’s economy slowed at the end of World War II and the nation woke up to the dangers of the Cold War. To encourage the new president, and remind him of the awesome responsibility for the nation that rested atop his shoulders, an old friend sent Truman a sign made by federal prisoners in Oklahoma, emblazoned on the back with “I’m from MISSOURI,” and on the front with “The BUCK STOPS here!”
Update: Watch Trump speech to Congress
Seventy-two years later, perhaps we should play Taps for the notion that the buck stops on the president’s desk. In an interview with Fox & Friends Tuesday, President Donald Trump refused to accept responsibility for the risky special operations raid in Yemen earlier this month that resulted in the death of Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens.
Never mind the fact that Trump personally approved and ordered this flawed raid; never mind the fact that he personally signaled during his campaign that he wanted to order more aggressive counterterrorism actions like this. When things went bad, it was the fault of the military — not Trump.
“This was a mission that was started before I got here. This was something they wanted to do,” Trump said. “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.”
The military, in other words, is to blame for the tragic loss of one of their own. Trump himself, in his own mind, is blameless.
This evasion of responsibility should come as no surprise from someone who personally evaded military service during the Vietnam War with four draft deferments for college and one for “bone spurs.” Similarly, we should not be surprised that a man who avoids compliance with the Constitution’s emoluments clause would also avoid his responsibility as “commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.”
Still, Trump’s blunt refusal to accept personal responsibility for the Yemen raid burns because it marks such an incredible betrayal of his office and the awesome responsibility that our president must shoulder, especially in the national security sphere. A president who passes the buck is not one we can trust to lead our military or keep us safe.
Presidents have always taken responsibility for military raids gone bad. Trump is blaming others.
It has not always been so. Historically, great and not-so-great presidents have taken responsibility for military operations and setbacks, even when presidential responsibility was more attenuated than in this case. Shortly after taking office in 1961, President John Kennedy ordered the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion; he publicly accepted responsibility for that operation on national television. When the 1980 Desert One mission to rescue hostages in Iran failed spectacularly, President Jimmy Carter similarly went on national television to accept responsibility, saying, “It was my decision to attempt the rescue operation. It was my decision to cancel it when problems developed in the placement of our rescue team for a future rescue operation. The responsibility is fully my own.”
In 1983, when Hezbollah militants demolished a Marine barracks in Beirut and killed 241 US service members, President Ronald Reagan held a news conference the next day to answer questions about the bombing and the Marines’ mission. More recently, President Barack Obama pointed the finger at himself after the deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 that left four Americans dead. “I’m the president. And I’m always responsible,” he said at the time.
In each of these cases, there were a thousand errors at lower echelons of command that contributed to the ultimate failure. Such is the fog and friction of war. However, each of these prior presidents understood the dictum of Truman’s sign: The buck stopped in the Oval Office, with the president personally. Both the nation and the troops expected no less.
Trump’s comments betray the service members whom he commands, as well as their leaders. Service members (and their families) put their faith in their leaders, up to and including the president, that they will spend their lives wisely. When things go wrong, American troops expect ruthless and rigorous introspection to identify failures, to learn lessons that might avoid failure the next time. It’s a principle I learned and lived by as a young Army officer and combat leader in Iraq; my troops expected I would put ego aside to focus on the mission, and put their lives and welfare above mine. Shifting blame undermines this faith, as does the White House’s steady evasion of requests for post-raid investigations.
The father of the fallen commando didn’t want to meet with Trump
These breaches of faith, as evidenced by the White House’s defensive maneuvers immediately after the raid, probably played some role in the decision by Bill Owens, the fallen commando’s father, to refuse a meeting with the president.
“I’m sorry; I don’t want to see him,” Owens told a military chaplain at Dover Air Force Base after being told that Trump would be attending the dignified transfer ceremony for his son’s casket. “My conscience wouldn’t let me talk to him,” Owens said later, in part because of Trump’s treatment of Gold Star parents during the campaign, and in part because of serious questions about the wisdom of the operation itself.
“Why at this time did there have to be this stupid mission when it wasn’t even barely a week into his administration? Why?” Owens asked.
Notwithstanding the portrayal of military martinets in movies like Patton and Full Metal Jacket, real military leadership is epitomized by leadership by example, mutual respect, shared sacrifice, and trust. The foundation for this trust is mutual faith: leader faith that troops will follow orders and persevere when in harm’s way; subordinates’ faith that leaders will make good decisions and take responsibility for bad decisions or actions, so as not to waste troops’ lives. Trump throwing our military leadership under the bus illustrates that he has zero understanding of real leadership, as distinguished from movie caricatures. His leadership style mimics the martinets he’s seen in Hollywood portrayals of the military. It could not be further from the real thing.
When taken together with his previous bashing of the military, and punitive actions toward leakers and dissenters on his own staff, Trump’s blame shifting will likely make military leaders less trusting of their boss, and possibly more risk-averse as well. If they know they will be blamed for every failure — even those that occur on missions directly ordered by the president — military leaders will likely look to minimize risks wherever possible. In the hard, bloody work of counterterrorism, this may push generals to recommend measures like targeted killings by drones or bombing by planes, in lieu of special operations raids, because the risks are lower, regardless of whether such tactics achieve the same ends.
Trump’s denials of responsibility and evasion fit a broader pattern of weakness for the man who inhabits the world’s most powerful office. If Trump’s worst instincts continue to guide him, as here, he will only diminish the office and the nation by undermining the trust and respect accorded the president by those who serve him, and corroding the chain of command responsible for our national security. Our troops deserve better, and so do we.
Phillip Carter is a former Army officer and Iraq veteran who is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Find him on Twitter @Carter_PE.