The cantankerous verdict of Washington Nationals fans notwithstanding, this is a day for celebration, and the president deserves the credit. Green-lighting an operation like this is never an easy call. The mission that successfully neutralized ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi occurred deep inside hostile territory. It was challenging enough that the operation had been called off at the last minute at least twice before. The elimination of ISIS’s spiritual leader is a tactical triumph, and the intelligence retrieved from his temporary safehouse is a strategic coup. For all the reports indicating that Donald Trump’s rash decision to implicitly condone Turkey’s brutal invasion of Northern Syria and sacrifice America’s Kurdish allies complicated this mission, it was an unqualified success.
President Trump is due a victory lap, but only one. Trump’s temptation to suggest that the elimination of Baghdadi represents a more important victory than even the neutralization of Osama bin Laden is a troubling sign. If this rhetorical flourish is not merely reflective of the president’s tendency to appeal to superlatives when describing his own exploits, it’s evidence of an impulse to exaggerate the extent of a victory in the war against Islamist terrorism in pursuit of an advantageous political narrative. Barack Obama fell into that same trap, and it caused him and his administration endless headaches.
“The best way to sum up the job the president has done if you need a real shorthand,” then-Vice President Joe Biden said in an early 2012 speech, “Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive.” Biden’s self-described “bumper sticker” became an unofficial slogan for Obama’s reelection campaign. It conveyed a simple narrative, one that Obama regularly elaborated on: While the terrorist threat posed by al-Qaeda remained potent, the organization’s leadership had been “decimated,” and its capabilities were severely diminished. “What you see,” Obama told supporters in late September 2012, “is these elements that don’t have the same capacity that a bin Laden or core al Qaeda had.”
It was a narrative to which the president clung despite the sophisticated and deadly attack on Americans in Benghazi, Libya just nine days earlier. The politically preferable narrative—the incapacitation of Islamist terrorist networks—is almost certainly why Obama was reluctant to call this terrorist attack a “terrorist attack.” It very likely informed the administration’s decision to contend unconvincingly that the coordinated assault was the outgrowth of a spontaneous gathering of heavily armed YouTube connoisseurs (a line we later learned was known by diplomatic officials to be bunk). The investigations into the origin of this ill-considered narrative eventually consumed his administration and fatally compromised Obama’s prospective Democratic successor.
Obama’s impulse to dismiss the threat posed by Islamist insurgents in the wake of bin Laden’s death explains why he was so quick to dismiss the first wave of ISIS terrorists even as they sacked Iraqi cities. “The analogy we use around here sometimes,” the former president told the New Yorker’s David Remnick, “is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” Obama’s commitment to this narrative applied not only politically but in terms of policy, too. Though he conceded that “terrorism” remained a threat to the American homeland in a May 2014 address to cadets at West Point, the former president also claimed that the terror threat could not be alleviated by military means alone. “A strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable,” the president insisted. By the end of the year, though, ISIS would have conquered vast swaths of territory in the Middle East, and American troops and airpower would again be unleashed on targets in both Iraq and Syria.
And though Obama would eventually acknowledge his failure to anticipate ISIS’s rise or to develop a comprehensive strategy to combat it, his administration still stubbornly refused to acknowledge the obvious when it came to radical Islamist terror. As late as the summer of 2016, following the massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando, administration officials made a concerted effort to “shift the conversation more to hate and not just terrorism,” according to CBS News reporter Paula Reid. Indeed, it’s hard to explain why the Justice Department scrubbed references to ISIS and al-Baghdadi in the transcript of the shooter’s confessional 911 call in the absence of a directive aimed at minimizing the revivified Islamist terror threat.
Like his predecessor, Donald Trump seems committed to the idea that ISIS has been “decimated” and can no longer recruit foreign fighters or effectively export terrorism. He’s been saying as much since February, and the death of ISIS’s chief executive will only make that narrative more irresistible. The evidence that Trump has begun to believe his own hype is not hard to come by. Experts have warned that the abrupt withdrawal of U.S. forces from forward positions in Syria would sow the seeds for an ISIS resurgence at least since Trump began to flirt with the prospect last December. If anything, those expert analyses underestimated the humanitarian and strategic setbacks that would follow such a withdrawal. American military and diplomatic officials appear clear-eyed about the potential for an ISIS comeback, but the president remains far more sanguine about the Islamist terrorist threat than his subordinates.
The dispatching of al-Baghdadi is a welcome development, but it does not make up for the strategic initiative sacrificed in the lead-up to this weekend’s successful operation. Today, as American special forces reportedly retake Syrian positions they’d abandoned only weeks or days earlier, U.S. positions in eastern Syria are reinforced with mechanized forces, and the State Department rallies a Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS in anticipation of the worst, it would behoove Trump to internalize a lesson his predecessor learned too late. He’d do well to hedge his bets.