National Security & Defense

Did Trump Beat ISIS?

Syrian Democratic Forces fighters enter the former ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, October 17, 2017. (Erik De Castro/Reuters)
Unlike Trump’s other boasts, the shift in the war occurred on his watch and after he changed the rules of engagement.

When President Donald Trump boasts, the nation rolls its collective eyes. From his first moments in office, Americans on both sides of the political aisle understood that his claims of triumph usually had little to do with the facts. That was true of the talk about record attendance at his inauguration and continues to also be true about his claims of passing more legislation or getting more done than all of his predecessors. The controversies engendered by Trump’s bragging or false statements (such as those he recently made about other presidents consoling the survivors of American combat troops killed in battle) have become the obsessive concern of his critics as well as of fans who brand the president’s debunkers as purveyors of “fake news” or merely take delight in his trolling of his liberal opponents.

But when it comes to one of Trump’s boasts, it’s hard for even his sternest detractors to gainsay him. Try as they might to deny it, even the efforts of the New York Times to discount his assertion rings false. ISIS was still largely undefeated and in control of much of the territory of Iraq and Syria when Trump was sworn in before a non-record setting crowd. But only nine months into his administration, the Islamic State’s hold on these countries has dwindled, and after the liberation this week of Raqqa, Syria, capital of the Islamists’ caliphate, it’s fair to say that the group is being routed after years in which it held its own against coalition forces.

How much of this is due to Trump’s influence?

As with any war and, indeed, a great many other occurrences during any administration, the personal credit or blame that accrues to a president is widely exaggerated. The people winning this war are the U.S. air crews and special operators killing the terrorists as well as the coalition forces — principally local militias and the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters — who have paid for the ground won from the terrorists in blood. Trump didn’t personally beat ISIS anymore than Franklin Roosevelt beat Japan and Germany singlehandedly. Nor, on the other side of the ledger, were Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon solely to blame for the disaster in Vietnam. But that is how history and politics works, and if the current victories lead, as seems highly likely, to the collapse of the caliphate, the only reason to deny Trump his fair share of the credit is partisan politics and the personal animus most of the press harbors toward him.

Recent political history provides us with a clear example of how this works.

Republicans and conservatives winced in 2011 when President Barack Obama took credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden. Their irritation grew as Obama and other Democrats never missed an opportunity during the 2012 election to do a bin Laden touchdown dance, which sought to draw a contrast between this easily understood symbolic American victory and the bloody stalemates produced by the frustrating wars George W. Bush fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But while Obama may have exploited bin Laden’s death for partisan purposes, the fact remains that it happened on his watch, not that of Bush, who had done all that he could to achieve the same object, as well as to avenge 9/11 by depriving al-Qaeda of its base in Afghanistan. Dismiss it as mere luck if you like, but if we are prepared to blame presidents for everything else that happens while they are in the White House, it’s only fair to let them take credit for anything good, especially if they are the ones involved in making the decisions, as Obama was on the bin Laden operation.

The facts about the campaign against ISIS are just as clear-cut.

When Trump took office, the U.S. had been mired in a discouraging stalemate in the fight against a group that Obama had initially dismissed as the “JV” terrorist team and therefore unworthy of his attention. Obama had little appetite for another Middle East war after he pulled U.S. forces out of Iraq. Having claimed that he had ended or wound down America’s wars, it took more than a year for him to admit that his Iraq bugout and refusal to intervene in the Syrian civil war — even to enforce his “red line” over Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons — had created a vacuum that ISIS filled. That reluctance seemed to carry over into U.S. efforts during the two years following Obama’s 2014 pledge to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terrorist group as coalition forces made little headway against the enemy.

Did Trump entirely reinvent the war against ISIS? No, he didn’t, and his liberal detractors have spent the year correctly pointing out that the coalition war plans implemented this year were conceived by Obama’s Pentagon. But try as they might to deprive Trump of credit, there’s no way to pretend that the coalition didn’t have better success with those plans this year than they had in the previous two. In January, ISIS controlled 23,300 square miles. Today it holds onto about 9,300 square miles.

Trump’s role in the transformation is not insignificant.

It is unfair to U.S. and coalition troops to claim, as Trump does, that they didn’t “fight to win” until he arrived in the Oval Office. But as the Times admits, there was one significant difference. In the spring, Trump loosened the rules of engagement to allow commanders in the field more authority in day-to-day decisions about fighting the enemy. Under Obama, the White House micromanaged the conflict in a manner that calls to mind the way President Lyndon Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara fought the Vietnam War with similar dismal results.

Trump loosened the rules of engagement to allow commanders in the field more authority in day-to-day decisions about fighting the enemy.

The Times and other Trump critics blame Trump for the increase in civilian casualties in the fighting against ISIS since then. But if you are going to link Trump to that statistic, it isn’t logical to assert that the new rules of engagement had nothing to do with freeing up the coalition to attack the enemy with more aggression. Though the number of air strikes hasn’t increased, their impact has been greater, and that is probably because competent military commanders in the field are making the decisions rather than civilian staffers posing as military experts in the White House situation room.

It’s true that the taking of Raqqa and the collapse of the caliphate as a functional state won’t end the war. ISIS fighters will probably reassemble to fight a guerilla war. Trump’s defense team will have to be nimble enough to adapt to the shift. Trump must also understand that the fight against ISIS shouldn’t distract the U.S. from Iran, which remains the main threat to Western interests in the region. Ultimately, he’s going to have to choose between his correct instinct to confront Tehran and his desire for better relations with Russia, Iran’s ally in Syria.

Yet none of that changes the fact that ISIS is being defeated on Trump’s watch and, at least in part, because of decisions he has made. There will be plenty that happens during his presidency for which he will deserve to be blamed but, his boasts notwithstanding, this victory also belongs to him.


The Fall of Raqqa Is a Marvelous, Bipartisan American Victory

If ISIS Falls, Don’t Forget the Lessons of the Recent Past

Slideshow: Battle for Raqqa

— Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of and a contributor to National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.


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