But the CNAS's Andrew Exum spotlights in a new World Politics Review article (subscription) a late-April NYT report on how Congress was able to gather the courage to reject a request from Adm. William McRaven, director of SOCOM (Special Operations Command), that would have given him much greater latitude and autonomy in setting up and launching special operations in faraway places. As the NYT reports,
The request, which included seeking approval to train foreign internal security forces that had been off-limits to the American military, was the latest effort by the command’s top officer, Adm. William H. McRaven, to make it easier for his elite forces to respond faster to emerging threats and better enable allies to counter the same dangers.
Given the command’s influence in shaping American strategy toward extremism, the proposal seemed to have momentum. President Obama and his Pentagon’s leadership are tapping Special Operations troops more to hunt militants and train foreign security forces in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. And Admiral McRaven is a White House favorite, especially after he oversaw the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
But in a rare rebuke to the admiral and his command, powerful House and Senate officials as well as the State Department, and ultimately the deputy cabinet-level aides who met at the White House on the issue on May 7, rejected the changes. They sent the admiral and his lawyers back to the drawing board with orders to use security assistance programs already in place, particularly one created last year by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the defense secretary at the time, Robert M. Gates, for just these types of issues.
“Right now, anything Socom wants they pretty much get — they’re hot,” said one senior Congressional aide involved in the deliberations, using the command’s nickname. “But this was a nonstarter. They were overly zealous.”
The episode offers a rare window into the sometimes uneasy relationship between the powerful Special Operations Command, whose dynamic boss, Admiral McRaven, is pushing hard to achieve broad changes to his forces, and the more traditional interests of Congress, the State Department and some top military commanders. In this case, Congressional and State Department officials shared the command’s goals, but lawmakers said it was moving too fast and its request was causing “unnecessary confusion and friction.”Exum correctly highlights how such moves by McRaven pose a serious threat to the interests of American democracy:
In the past, special operators were content to remain in the shadows. But a slew of recent movies and books -- especially about Navy SEALs, who even starred in their own Hollywood movie! -- have revealed an organization that has grown more comfortable marketing its personnel and capabilities. As one special operations commander bluntly told me, "We have a good story, and we should tell it."
Despite the publicity blitz, though, U.S. congressmen and other elected or appointed officials do not understand much about the capabilities and limits of special operations forces. Fewer and fewer military veterans serve in the U.S. Congress, and to my imperfect knowledge, no key U.S. congressman has relevant experience in special operations. Senators such as John McCain, Lindsay Graham and Jack Reed have never shied away from asking incisive, hard questions about the military in which they once served. But few if any congressmen know enough about the organization and activities of special operations forces to ask similarly focused questions.
This trend is especially worrying considering the ease with which the executive branch of the U.S. government has found it to utilize special operations forces. President Barack Obama has deployed special operations forces to Central Africa, Yemen and Somalia without any congressional authorization for these forces to engage in combat. On the one hand, Americans are not likely to question whether or not special operations forces on short missions to rescue hostages or to seize a terrorist had the proper congressional authorization. No one particularly cares if Navy SEAL snipers kill a group of pirates -- because aside from the SEALs’ obvious popularity, these kinds of missions are one-off events.
On the other hand, few Americans, who on the whole are war-weary, realize that the U.S. military is waging a more comprehensive and enduring campaign in Yemen. For all intents and purposes, the United States is waging a war against the enemies of the state of Yemen -- for the most part working with and through local Yemeni forces, but also conducting direct kinetic strikes with drones or other weaponry. Good luck, though, trying to find the formal declaration of war that preceded that campaign.
In addition, the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, as successful as it was, highlights a dangerous precedent by which U.S. special operations forces are placed under the operational control of the U.S. intelligence community. Placing those forces outside the operational control of the U.S. military removes many of the mechanisms for accountability and transparency that are hallmarks of both the U.S. military and the relationship between the U.S. military and the legislative branch of the U.S. government.
There is reason to believe that bureaucratic rivalries will check the ambitions of U.S. Special Operations Command going forward in the same way they did in April. But the U.S. Congress, in particular, should start asking harder questions of the way in which the U.S. military's special operations forces are operating globally. The past 10 years have left the White House with a remarkable amount of leeway to prosecute the war against transnational terrorist groups in ways that it sees fit. Special operations forces have been at the tip of the spear. It's past time for Americans to begin reining them both back in. [my emphasis]