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Stephen K. Bannon, Destroyer

Jimmy Carter’s failed Iran rescue was a key event in Trump strategist Steve Bannon’s life – then he authorized a similar botched raid in Yemen.

March 17, 2017

Jimmy Carter’s failed Iran rescue was a key event in Trump strategist Steve Bannon's life – then he authorized a similar botched raid in Yemen.

What you really need to know about Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s closest bro in the White House, is two names – Jimmy Carter and Ryan Owens. And one more number: 1,447 miles. For that is the distance between Carter’s failure back in 1980 and Bannon’s in 2017.

The anti-Carter

As a young naval officer, Bannon served on a U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Paul F. Foster. As Bannon himself has confessed, it was there that the cardinal political moment of his political life occurred.

Working on that destroyer, he learned on April 24, 1980 that the Iranian hostage rescue mission had failed. His own ship, originally part of the group of vessels sent to prepare for it, had been re-deployed away from the main vessel that was launching the operation before it could take place.

Moment of infamy?

The Carter-era operation was very complex. It would have involved capturing an airfield, controlling Tehran’s airspace and sending a small ground force through Tehran’s streets to re-take and evacuate the embassy.

Under the circumstances, it was aborted at the first staging area due to helicopter problems in the desert conditions.

Then, during the withdrawal one helicopter crashed into a transport aircraft, killing eight troops. Not only was no one rescued, but also people died more than 300 miles away in the canceled attempt.

Never a man to think small, Bannon apparently felt that it wasn’t just his national pride, but his manliness that was destroyed that night.

Outdone by Carter

However, for Steve Bannon, the fact that the failed rescue mission had taken place under Jimmy Carter, whom many conservatives in the United States considered a weakling, had an even deeper meaning.

Unlike Bannon, described by superiors as a barely above average officer, Carter was an outstandingly smart naval officer. From the U.S. Navy’s perspective, the man from Plains, Georgia, outshone the one from Norfolk, Virginia.

Carter as Bannon’s negative leitmotif

Unlike Bannon, Carter had been trained as a submarine officer three decades earlier. Such an assignment typically only went to the brightest naval officers.

After his training, Carter then served under the legendary longest-serving U.S. Navy officer and naval engineer Admiral Rickover, the “father of the nuclear navy.”

Even decades later, Bannon had not overcome the perceived personal slight. Bannon claimed in 2015 that, while in the Navy, he “saw how badly Jimmy Carter fucked things up” – and that this led him to join the coming conservative Reagan Revolution. (Bannon quickly received a minor job at the Pentagon under Reagan.)

Bannon’s 2017 Carteresque trauma

It is a great irony then that no sooner has Bannon entered the White House — under the wings of his pal, President Trump, who allowed him to join the National Security Council — did the United States Navy, acting on orders from Trump and Bannon, launch and botch an under-prepared raid into Yemen’s deserts.

The Navy SEALs arrived in Yakla village without the element of surprise. They ended up killing a lot of civilians (including several children), recovered a mere terabyte of (very outdated) al Qaeda data, failed to capture or kill the organization’s Yemeni leader, Qasim al-Rimi, and ultimately lost one of their own instead.

Three other SEALs were wounded and – in an echo of the Iran mission in 1980 – a $70 million aircraft crash-landed and had to be destroyed.

A Greek tragedy

The death of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens is a tragedy, but with Bannon at the helm it takes on the character of a Greek tragedy: The fevered desire not to repeat the old mistakes or fulfill the old prophecy leads to the predicted, tragic outcome.

The good luck that Steve Bannon has had so far is that there has not been a much more vehement – and much deserved – public outcry about the botched Trump/Bannon rescue mission.

On-the-fly decision-making

So far, the critique mostly centered on the unusual violations of bureaucratic protocol.

No meeting in the Situation Room for a comprehensive debate, decisions made over dinner (perhaps at Mar-a-Lago), an outsized role by Bannon in the process and so on. All worthy lines of inquiry.

But there are also serious questions about how the raid played out, including whether or not the locals were warned by someone from a U.S. “ally” – either Yemen’s exiled government or the UAE Special Forces who also participated in the raid.

(And in no small irony, the debacle will likely prompt even greater reliance on these dubious outside partners to enact U.S. policy in Yemen without the direct risk to U.S. troops.)

A show of patriotism for political gain

Why too did Trump make such a showing of the widow of Ryan Owens during his first address to Congress?

To quash any political fallout from the profound dissatisfaction that Ryan Owens’ own father has expressed over the entire operation. To cloak himself in the mantle of Owens’ sacrifice and the widow’s public grief. To distract from his usual refusal to take responsibility for the fiasco.

Whatever the reason, there can be no doubt that the navy man-turned-Hollywood financier and producer/director (now turned National Security point man) stage-managed that decision to the last detail. How else would Trump know exactly how long to lead the applause in order to try to break a record?

The failed raid into Yemen is not, however, a break from Carter’s (metaphorical) sandtrap in Iran that Bannon hoped to avoid or make right.

For Bannon’s tenure as White House Strategist, it certainly is not a promising start. Not for the man promising to build a movement and a list of accomplishments that will surpass the Reagan Revolution, the New Deal and Andrew Jackson’s populist-nationalist democracy.


The death of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens is a tragedy, but Steve Bannon’s role makes it a Greek tragedy.

As Bannon entered the White House, the US Navy launched an under-prepared raid into Mideast deserts.

Bannon is lucky there hasn't been a more vehement outcry about the botched Yemen rescue mission.

Did Trump make such a showing of the widow of Ryan Owens to distract from his own fiasco and the aftermath?