The daring special forces raid that killed the leader of ISIS cannot have come at a better moment for a crisis-haunted President Donald Trump, but he may have incited a bitter new turf war between the White House and Capitol Hill by failing to inform congressional leaders about the raid.
Beset by a deepening impeachment storm and fury among Republicans about his Syria withdrawal, Trump broke into America’s Sunday morning to announce an unequivocal win for the nation abroad.
He relished the demise of ISIS founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, playing the role of a ruthless commander-in-chief to silence critics of his impulsive foreign policy leadership.
“He was a sick and depraved man. And now he’s gone. Baghdadi was vicious and violent. And he died in a vicious and violent way … he was screaming, crying and whimpering. And he was scared out of his mind,” Trump said.
He also said the White House did not inform key Democrats on the Hill – including those leading the impeachment inquiry into him – about the raid ahead of time due to fears that they would leak the news. Trump wasn’t under an obligation to inform Democrats on the Hill, but the move goes against the usual tradition for such high-profile operations.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi said criticized the move saying, “Russians but not top Congressional leaders were notified of the raid in advance” and that “the House must be briefed on this raid.”
Baghdadi’s death, which came when he set off a suicide vest when confronted with US troops in Syria, momentarily put Democrats who have been squeezing Trump incessantly with their impeachment inquiry on the back foot. While many praised the courage of the special forces operators, few of Trump’s domestic political foes were ready to give the President any credit.
Tensions are likely to go up another notch as Washington’s attention moves swiftly away from the raid on Monday as former White House national security official Charles Kupperman faces the prospect of contempt of Congress charges if he refuses to testify on the Ukraine scandal.
Still, the Baghdadi operation gave the GOP, frustrated with Trump over Syria and his off-the-books foreign policy operation in Ukraine, a cause to rally around, an important factor for a President likely to face a Senate impeachment trial.
And the spectacular mission exemplified America’s power to project force as foreign policy commentators sketch a narrative of US weakness in which Russia’s Vladimir Putin is anointed as the new Middle East power broker.
So the President may enjoy a moment of political relief from the multiple crises bearing down on his White House, and will use Baghdadi’s death to bolster a campaign message of economic prosperity and security to anchor his 2020 reelection bid. His campaign is already capitalizing on the raid with emails to supporters proclaiming a “great day for the United States of America and the rest of the world,” thanks to “the fierce leadership of our commander in chief.”
Evidence of Trump doing his job to keep Americans safe may also even offer an unusual opening for him to reach beyond his core of loyalist voters that respond to his scorched earth rhetoric.
While the true credit belongs to US forces who descended from the skies in Syria from eight helicopters on Baghdadi’s lair, it’s fair that Trump gets to celebrate a win. He would surely have carried the can if the mission had gone badly wrong. Despite the disarray in the White House, his administration proved itself capable of eliminating a threat to the security of Americans.
And Democrats unwilling to praise the White House now, may have forgotten how Barack Obama’s campaign leveraged the raid that killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in his 2012 reelection bid. Former Vice President Biden, now a top 2020 candidate, used to crow “Osama Bin laden is dead and General Motors is alive.”
Yet it’s likely that any political bounce Trump gets from his triumph will be short-lived, partly owing to his propensity to trigger controversies that shatter national unity and the explosive revelations coming from the impeachment hearings.
And Baghdadi’s death will actually exacerbate strategic questions about Trump’s policies in Syria and in the wider Middle East that are ultimately likely to be more significant than Washington’s celebrations over the elimination of a long-term enemy.
Trump wallows in ‘something big’
Trump leapt at the chance to grandstand over al-Baghdadi’s death. He hiked expectations in Washington with a Saturday night tweet saying “something big” had just happened.
The President’s graphic language about al-Baghdadi’s final moments might have been toned down by another president and could spark fears it could incite retaliation by the group, especially against US interests or troops abroad. But there may be some propaganda value however in puncturing Baghdadi’s almost mythical power as a recruiting agent for ISIS.
Typically, Trump used his national address Sunday to grind a political ax, notably against former Obama, suggesting Baghdadi’s was a more significant target than the leader of Al-Qaeda in a raid deep into Pakistan in 2011.
“This is the biggest there is. This is the worst ever. Osama bin Laden was very big, but Osama bin Laden became big with the World Trade Center. This is a man who built a whole, as he would like to call it, a country, a caliphate and was trying to do it again,” Trump said.
Trump also jabbed Democrats seeking to impeach him, saying he didn’t tell Speaker Nancy Pelosi about the raid, implying she could have spilled the secret and men would have died.
The President’s leadership is already being lionized by his supporters and conservative media boosters who have spent weeks pushing back ineffectively over alarming developments over Ukraine.
The most enduring political impact of the weekend’s events may be to glue back together the Republican consensus on foreign policy amid deep reservations about Trump’s decision to abandon America’s Kurdish allies and pull out of northern Syria.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, Trump’s golf partner who had vigorously criticized his friend’s policy, was actually at the lectern in the White House briefing room on Sunday talking to reporters.
“The President changed the rules of engagement,” Graham said. “This is a moment where President Trump’s worst critics should say: well done Mr. President.”
Expectations that the Baghdadi episode will give Trump a long-term boost ought to be tempered, however.
After the raid that killed bin Laden a decade after the September 11 attacks, Obama did see his approval ratings spike up into the mid-50s range. But they soon settled back to the high 40% territory where he spent most of his tenure.
Trump starts from a lower floor and any uptick in his ratings could be politically significant since public support is key as his political fate unfolds in the impeachment drama.
But at this point, and partly by his own design, the President has so polarized the electorate that it seems unlikely that any big win abroad would significantly alter the nation’s political mix. And voters who love Trump will see Baghdadi’s death as evidence of his greatness. His detractors will view it as a blip in a presidency they see as flouting America’s basic values.
Trump killed a leader, not an ideology
The timing of Baghdadi’s death also comes at a key geopolitical moment as the Middle East adjusts to Trump’s decision to pull most US troops from Syria and his warning that it is time for others to battle over the region’s “long bloodstained sand.”
The demise of the ISIS leader is an important symbolic blow. But experience suggests that radical Jihadist groups often adjust and regenerate after one of their figureheads is martyred. A potential vacuum being opened by the US withdrawal that ISIS or another group could exploit may end up in the years ahead to be a more significant factor than Baghdadi’s death.
“It is both a symbolic and strategic victory but it does not mark the definitive finish to the fight against the Islamic State,” said Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations on “CNN Newsroom.”
“It is much easier to kill a terrorist than it is to slay an ideology,” she said.
The Baghdadi raid, and the sophisticated intelligence and military operation and cooperation with regional partners that it entailed seems a strong argument for keeping US troops in the region. But Trump made clear that his instinct to bring troops home had not been compromised by the weekend’s events.
“I just don’t want to guard Turkey and Syria for the rest of our lives,” the President told reporters on Sunday.
“I mean, I don’t want to do it. It’s very expensive. It’s very dangerous. They’ve been fighting for centuries.” The President said that he is willing to leave troops in Syria to guard its oil fields — a scenario apparently drawn up by Republicans and national security officials to convince him to retain some US presence in the area.
But the death of Baghdadi seems likely to reinforce the President’s view that he can both pocket a win and declare a wider victory in the war on ISIS as come home. It will be a politically strong argument that he can use in his reelection.
Many other players in the region will be hoping that is the case. Turkey, Russia, Iran and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad would all seek to lock in long-term strategic gains offered by the US departure. And the remnants of ISIS might also sense an opportunity to regroup with Trump gloating about his triumph.