The killing of ISIS chief turns into political football in Washington

What would normally be interpreted as a non-partisan takedown of a brutal terrorist leader descended into partisan politics.
Sunday 03/11/2019
US President Donald Trump stands in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, October 24. (AP)
US President Donald Trump stands in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, October 24. (AP)

The announcement by US President Donald Trump that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been killed by US special forces in Syria was well received by the American people who were repulsed by Baghdadi’s group’s brutality but, as with most things in Washington these days, it became part of the political theatre.

Not surprisingly, Trump took credit for the operation in a nationwide television address, hailing it as a major victory. He claimed it was a bigger achievement than the killing of Osama bin Laden. In Trump’s words: “Bin Laden was a big thing but this [the operation that took down Baghdadi] is the biggest there is.”

For whatever reason, Trump always wants to prove that he is better than his predecessor, US President Barack Obama. He had a White House photographer take a picture of him looking stern and in charge, while flanked by his vice-president, defence secretary, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and his national security adviser.

Reportedly, the photograph was taken after the raid on Baghdadi and was used to contrast it to the one that was taken of the White House situation room during the raid on bin Laden that showed some members of the Obama national security team looking worried.

Trump clearly wanted news of the Baghdadi raid to distract from the controversies swirling in Washington over impeachment inquiries against him and his handling of the Turkey-Syria-Kurdish crisis.

The latter issue upset many of his Republican allies in Congress who criticised Trump for abandoning Washington’s Kurdish allies. They had taken the brunt of the casualties in the anti-Islamic State (ISIS) fight in Syria. For example, US Senator Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s staunchest allies in Congress, called the decision on the Kurds the “biggest mistake of his presidency.”

However, after the operation against Baghdadi, Graham praised Trump for making a “hard call” in approving the attack, adding that Trump’s message was “very reassuring” because the president said: “When it comes to ISIS and other terrorist groups, we’re coming after you, wherever you go, as long as it takes to protect our country and our way of life.” Reportedly, Graham was asked to go to the White House Briefing Room to highlight Trump’s leadership.

The Washington Post reported that Graham was one of only two members of Congress notified ahead of the raid on Baghdadi’s hideout. Normally, a US president would inform the so-called congressional “Gang of Eight” before an operation of such importance. That group includes the leaders of both parties in the House of Representatives and Senate as well the chairmen and ranking members of the congressional intelligence committees.

Trump rejected this customary practice because, he said, “Washington is a leaking machine” and, in particular, said he was afraid Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would leak news of the operation — without providing evidence she had previously released sensitive information. Trump said he notified the Russians ahead of the raid, presumably because they control the airspace over Idlib province.

Pelosi fired back that the House of Representatives “must be briefed on this raid, which the Russians, but not top congressional leadership, were notified of in advance.” She added: “Our military and allies deserve strong, smart and strategic leadership from Washington.”

On the presidential campaign trail, Trump’s leading Democratic opponent, former US Vice-President Joe Biden, stated that, while he was glad that Trump ordered the mission against Baghdadi, “as more details of the raid emerge, it’s clear that this victory was not due to Donald Trump’s leadership. It happened despite his ineptitude as commander-in-chief.”

Biden also criticised Trump’s withdrawal decision on Syria which, as he said in the latest Democratic debate of presidential contenders, has made the United States less safe because removing troops from the region would enable ISIS to rebound.

The Washington foreign policy establishment, which has generally been very critical of Trump, warned against complacency following Baghdadi’s death.

Brett McGurk, who resigned in 2018 as US envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition over Trump’s first iteration of wanting to withdraw US forces from Syria, said in an op-ed article in the Washington Post that the “abrupt pullout from Syria” would make it harder for the US military to exploit the intelligence that was found in Baghdadi’s compound.

Hence, what would normally be interpreted as a non-partisan takedown of a brutal terrorist leader who ordered the beheading of several Americans in addition to the killing of thousands of Muslims and members of minority groups, descended into partisan politics and underscored again the disdain of foreign policy professionals for Trump’s self-congratulatory stewardship of his erratic policies in national security.

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