On Sunday morning, October 27, 2019, President Trump formally announced that U.S. Special Operating Forces seized the compound of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who detonated an explosive vest rather than be captured. Baghdadi was among the world’s most dangerous and evil individuals whose death makes us all a little safer. As leader of ISIS, he was responsible for kidnapping, raping, torturing, and murdering civilians as well as insidious ethnic cleansing and other atrocities. It may normally be bad form to cheer the death of a person, but this mission was a huge success and cause for celebration. It should have been a key moment of achievement and unity for the President, but Trump just could not help himself, resorting to his favorite salvo of baseless attacks and foregoing any opportunity for praise.
Presidents sometimes face suspicion in the timing of such missions, especially during times of political crisis or a tough election. Perhaps people have a reason to think this way generally. However, in this regard it is unfounded. Targets like this are fleeting and the window of opportunity is extremely short. Any hesitation to act could result in losing the opportunity and there may not be another chance for quite some time, if ever at all. Leaders who stall, especially with nefarious intent, may find no second chance. Military leaders will not play along with any such political games. Their sole objective is to get the target and do so as quickly and efficiently as possible. That is their duty to the American people. They do not serve the President; they serve our nation and they do so with fidelity regardless of who occupies the White House or controls Congress at any given time during their career.
Former Presidents, including Bush and Obama, addressed the nation under similar circumstances, providing brief, solemn, and professional remarks. They reminded people what we were fighting for, the importance of the mission, and most importantly thanked and credited the courage and ability of the military forces. They represented the dignity of the office as expected as part of longstanding practice. Trump unfortunately turned a 9-minute address into an almost 50-minute circus. He sacrificed dignity, honor, and professionalism for his all too common bombast, self-aggrandizement, foolish attacks, and of course dishonesty. He could have united the country, but instead shamefully chose partisanship to further the divide.
Trump, as his predecessors, should get credit for authorizing the mission. The level of risk to U.S. personnel, civilian casualties, and other critical calculations enhance the importance and consequence of such decisions. President Carter paid a heavy price for authorizing a mission to rescue the hostages when that mission failed. President Obama made an exceptionally more difficult and complex decision because Osama bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan, a sovereign nation, and risked their ire by authorizing that operation. The Baghdadi mission was not without its own risk of peril. My initial reaction was to say well done. It was a great day to rid the world of this ruthless terrorist and show others they cannot hide. Then I watched Trump’s vile presser and considered the facts of the operation.
According to Pentagon officials, the mission succeeded in spite of, not because of, President Trump. They had to scramble and accelerate the timetable for the mission, greatly increasing the risk of failure and more importantly the risk to our forces. The sudden U.S. withdrawal from Syria left a gaping hole in command and control capability. Kurdish forces had played a key role in the planning and intelligence aspects of the mission. Abandoning them to be slaughtered by Turkey threatened their willingness and capacity to provide assistance. Nevertheless, the raid was launched from a U.S. base in Iraqi Kurdish territory. Oddly, there was a much closer base in Turkey that would have been better to use. Did Turkey deny use of that base, as they have done previously, and was this because of their well-known support for ISIS?
Perhaps more importantly, Trump inappropriately released an extensive amount of information during his presser, much of it sensitive or classified, as he has proven prone to do. This reprehensible practice places intelligence and military assets in significant jeopardy and greatly threatens their ability to perform essential functions. I will not repeat the specifics for obvious reasons. He also engaged in unprofessional bravado, speaking about Baghdadi crying, whimpering, and begging. These terrorist leaders are mostly cowards who leave the fighting to their mindless automaton supporters. Thus, it would not surprise me if that was true about Baghdadi. It would also not surprise me if Trump made it up, not simply because of his ongoing reign of dishonesty, but because he would not have gleaned those actions from watching the operation in the situation room. Perhaps the military working dog that chased Baghdadi down the tunnel called the President and told him about it. This is not about fairness to Baghdadi, who did not merit any consideration, but rather the fact that Presidential remarks have consequences and we should always expect proper, unfettered professionalism.
Unfortunately, Trump went much further than stomping on Baghdadi. While heaping praise on Russia, Iraq, and Turkey, he again took aim at our allies and denigrated them. All Russia, Iraq, and Turkey did was not object to short flights over their territory. Trump downplayed the role of the Kurds; whose intelligence and ground support on both ends made this mission possible. Thankfully the Kurds understand Trump will be gone at some point and they can meanwhile maintain a long-term relationship with the U.S. military and intelligence communities. He gratuitously attacked our NATO allies for not doing enough when they have provided meaningful support for us between Iraq, Afghanistan, and ISIS. They have also suffered from many heinous ISIS attacks in their countries. Whatever the circumstances, that was absolutely not the time or place to disparage our closest friends and loyal allies.
The President violated a major law by not informing the “Gang of Eight” as required prior to any such military mission. This group includes the leadership of the House and Senate as well as the Intelligence Committee leaders of both chambers. Prior Presidents have fulfilled this obligation despite any ongoing friction with Congress. The communication is limited to the actual leaders, not their staffs. Consequently, there is no history of leaking. Just the opposite. When American lives are at stake for an important objective, the leaders all come together, even if only for that brief moment. Trump fabricated concerns that the Democrats would leak the mission. There was no legitimate basis to conclude any of the Gang of Eight would ever commit such a serious felony or risk American lives. Pure fallacy, unbecoming of any President.
When confronted with the truth, the administration was not able to point to a single example of where the Gang of Eight leaked classified intelligence. That said, if any such concerns would be founded, the focus would have to be on Trump’s close allies Rep Devin Nunes, who violated security rules concerning classified material, and Rep Matt Gaetz, who led a serious security breach of the SCIF in the Capitol. None of that bothered Trump, not even for a split second. That is because Trump himself revealed classified intelligence to our adversaries (e.g. infamous Oval Office meeting with Russian Ambassador and Foreign Minister). Military and intelligence leaders must withhold sensitive intelligence information from Trump out of well-placed fear he will improperly share it with our enemies. There’s your leak and security threat…
Presidents should always get credit for their role in such an operation. Their role is saying yes and authorizing forces to proceed. That is all. The rest belongs to the military leaders, planners, and most importantly the personnel who courageously execute the mission. Thus, good job President Trump in saying yes. It was not too hard of a call to make. Outstanding job by the military in flawless execution. We should all commemorate this occasion of ridding the world of an evil actor. All that said, we must also remember that ISIS is not dead. They lost their territory but have over 30,000 fighters committed to their wicked cause and continue to have a chain of command to replace Baghdadi. Cut the head off the hydra and another grows. Nevertheless, as important as this success was, it has no bearing on Trump’s flawed Syria policy that continues to create additional challenges. All said, this should have been a great and unifying moment for the President. But he could not handle it and had to resort to his usual unprofessional tactics and spoil the victory.