In a different time the collapse of ISIS resistance in Raqqa would be a headline-dominating occasion for national celebration. While the war continues, and ISIS still exists, the loss of its capital marks an unmistakable, undeniable reversal for the caliphate. Today is a good day, and members of both our political parties can and should take credit for victory.
First, let’s talk for a moment about Barack Obama. I disagreed vehemently with his decision to pull all American forces from Iraq in 2011. The ISIS blitzkrieg, in my view, was a predictable result. But make no mistake — he could have stayed out. He could have left Iraq to its own devices. In fact, a previous American government did just that to a previous American ally. Who can forget the American abandonment of South Vietnam? Who can forget the sight of the helicopters on Saigon rooftops, lifting out the few and leaving the many behind?
If Obama had abandoned Iraq, most of his base would have defended him. They would have argued that the resulting catastrophe was all George W. Bush’s fault. They could have washed their hands of the whole thing.
Obama chose a different course. He did the right and necessary thing — first launching bombing campaigns to halt the ISIS advance, then spreading the campaign to Syria, and then injecting ground troops in a bid to not just contain ISIS, but to destroy it entirely. I wanted him to move more quickly. I wanted more decisive action. But he struck back, and by the time Donald Trump took the oath of office, ISIS was already in retreat.
I have friends who participated in Obama’s phase of the war. They tell me it was far more effective than the American people knew. They tell me that ISIS was decimated from the air, and that many of the critiques of American tactics were exaggerated. They said the strategy worked, and the results speak for themselves.
We should also talk about Donald Trump. He continued the American offensive and granted his commanders more liberty and autonomy. Allied gains accelerated. Obama began the assault on Mosul, Trump finished it. Then Tal Afar and Raqqa fell even faster. There is evidence that ISIS forces in the field are breaking, surrendering in droves in spite of sacred vows to fight to the death. That’s all happening on Trump’s watch.
And that brings us to the men and women who served under both presidents, a diverse group of Americans who’ve risked (and in some cases, sacrificed) their lives as part of what of what feels like an endless war against an enemy with a seemingly eternal commitment to attacking our civilization. They’re not just courageous, they’re professional. They know how to fight a war with ruthless (yet humane) efficiency. Today a New York Times story about the victory in Raqqa speaks of the “ceaseless whiz and boom” of shells from American artillery. Those are American boots on the ground, in Syria, taking the fight directly to the terrorists who inspired massacres on our home soil.
Nothing I say should minimize the incredible sacrifice of our Kurdish, Iraqi, and Syrian allies. They bled more than we did. Nothing I say should minimize the formidable diplomatic and military challenges going forward. We still don’t know what the new Iraq and the new Syria will or should look like after the fall of ISIS. But our nation can and should appreciate hard-earned victories, and in these polarized times, it’s important to still say “we.” Victories in Iraq and Syria are bipartisan achievements, we should truly celebrate.