One of the things that struck me the most watching the events unfolding last night was the fact that President Trump knew about the ongoing operation to kill or capture ISIS founder and leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for more than a week. This is significant, as it goes against all conventional wisdom about a man who’s extraordinarily loquacious on social media.
As the reports started to come in, it was apparent that this was an operation planned in exquisite details and the administration was kept abreast of the developments all the way.
“The president was taken options this week [meaning last week]. He reviewed them, asked some great questions, chose the option that we thought gave us the highest probability of success and confirmation that the head of ISIS would be there and either captured or killed,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said.
This is normal procedure, but what was interesting was that if this timeline is true, the event was planned at the same time the withdrawal from Syria was being planned, and Trump was again being called a traitor on Twitter. The Trump administration apparently did not inform Democrats of the operation, even when they were howling on social media for the last whole week about withdrawal from Syria. This is prudent, and it’s what happens when “leaks” are normalized as “resistance.” Actions have consequences.
There is naturally a lot of nonsense going on over social media, about whether Trump knew the full extent of the operations, his okay was even needed, he was taking credit for someone else’s job, Russia now dictates Middle Eastern operations, etc. These are so juvenile and operationally naïve, they barely need any response. Other than that, two prominent things about the death of Baghdadi merit greater elaboration.
The Syria Withdrawal Was Part of the Plan
The overall retrenchment from Syria may have been part of the plan. President Trump is instinctively opposed to wasting blood and treasure in the Middle East, a region scholars have repeatedly said is strategically unimportant for the United States, especially compared to other areas of the world. That doesn’t mean isolationism is an option, but that surely means, other than guarding strategic resources, there is no need to be a party in centuries-old tribal feuds.
Trump might not be an expert in international relations, but he gets geopolitics better than a lot of career grifters blathering the same talking points in DC blob circles. That’s because he is mercantilist in approach. To him, nothing matters more than cost-benefit. And his foreign policy is predicated not on arbitrary moral values or supposed human rights promotion, but on strict narrow realism on what is better for the structural interests of the United States.
I have often stated in these pages that Trump might be rhetorically challenged, speaking in a way other presidents never spoke, but he has a Teddy Rooseveltian approach to politics. Nothing else matters to him than maximizing American great power and avoiding needless confrontations while focusing on broader strategic goals.
Trump himself said in the press conference publicizing the death of Baghdadi that the two powers who would like the United States to spend trillions on the Middle East are Russia and China, and he is not the only one saying that. Several international relations scholars have advocated an offshore balancing strategy, focused on letting regional powers fight each other in the region, with America only butting in when its own national interests are threatened.
Trump’s approach signifies a greater realism, as the United States rightly focuses on the great power challenge from China. The Middle East will continue to be hell, but that doesn’t mean spending billions to try to make it democratic. Rather, a local natural equilibrium is far better. Order provided by anyone, even authoritarians, is better than chaos due to evangelical democracy promotion, something conservative realists get far better than the liberal and neocon ideologues.
Cooperating with Russia and Turkey Is Important
It won’t be clear for some time, but it might very well be that cooperation with Turkey and Russia mattered more in toasting Baghdadi than cooperation with non-state actors like the Kurds. The reason is not just because great powers are still the most important actors in world politics. While brilliant battlefield allies, non-state actors are practically useless other than in battle.
They are not the guys who, for example, provide air space for an operation. It might be that Turkey was instrumental in providing airspace for American troops to travel, and that is one quid pro quo Americans should be glad about.
Likewise, for years there have been nonsensical takes from pundits about how Russia, of all powers, is supportive of Islamism. It defies logic, and the worst came when some “analyst” wrote that Russia was the airforce of ISIS when it intervened on behalf of Syria’s Bashar Assad.
Jim Clapper, whose job was to catch ISIS leader Baghdadi during the Obama era, and who instead focused on spying on Americans, said Baghdadi’s death might lead to a rejuvenation of ISIS. This is the same guy who once said the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was secular, after Obama ditched long-term ally Hosni Mubarak.
Senior CNN analyst and Joe Biden aide Sam Vinograd was seen on Twitter “just asking questions.” She tweeted, “I don’t understand how the Russians granted us overflight just because we told them what we were doing would make them ‘happy’ – does that sound like something the Russians would do?”
I don’t know how politely I can put it, but only a partisan hack would raise these types of questions. Research has shown that ISIS was primarily battling Assad, not the Kurds, and studies of Russian military strategy highlighted that they have targeted Islamists far more brutally than the West. The Russians are not Western allies, but on one thing they have steadfastly acted alongside U.S. interests on has been Islamist terrorism.
Vladimir Putin was the first one to offer support after 9/11, and we owe it to Russian mediation in Central Asia for bases to conduct operations and logistical support during the war in Afghanistan. Even around 1999, Russian scholars were talking about an “arc of instability” from Pakistan to Syria. I know, because I wrote a whole research paper on it.
To think that Russia—one of the countries that has suffered incessant violence from Islamists, is closer to Syria, and suffers from Chechen and Caucasus militants who joined the ISIS and other terrorist rebel groups in thousands and are on their way back to Russia now— are fans of Islamism is to take derangement to a new level. Cooperation with regional powers who have a greater risk is a testament of realpolitik, a concept current so-called “analysts” have completely forgotten. Only in the DC echo chamber can these people survive and even flourish.
The death of Baghdadi is not the end in the long struggle against Islamism, but it is an end of a multi-power war with an expansionist regime, which has now ceased to exist and is a rump of its former self. But there are fanatics all over the region. Most of the ISIS fighters and their ultra-radical jihadist wives are in refugee camps, pretending to be victims of circumstances.
Just like there are Neo-Nazis, there will continue to be Islamists, and the best way to deal with them is constant vigilance, surveillance, and monitoring. Most importantly, one needs to be practical. A Sunni terrorist in Syria is a bigger threat to Assad, Iran, and Russia than to the United States. A terror sympathizer in Europe or the USA is a bigger threat to us. This is not a difficult concept to understand.
The better policy moving forward is, therefore, considering ways to monitor and minimize local Islamism instead of aspiring for democracy in Iraq or Syria. That policy has failed, and it is far better that that region is ruled by iron-handed authoritarians like Al-Sisi than democratically elected Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Baghdadi’s death draws a curtain on an episode that was partly influenced by our bad choices, choices that started in 2011 at the start of the Arab Spring. Prudent policymakers should keep that in mind.