When the U.S. military kills or captures a senior terrorist who poses an extreme threat to Americans and our friends around the world, the people involved in the operation rightly take a victory lap. The Commander in Chief who had to approve a risky operation, the intelligence community that correctly obtained and analyzed the information needed, the operators and support staff in the military who risked their very lives to execute a complicated plan, all feel a great rush of pride and adrenalin in the great outcome. I was in the State Department Operations Center during the bin Laden raid in 2011 and not only saw firsthand the elation of the teams throughout our government and military, but felt the joy of victory myself, high-fiving colleagues and pumping the air with our fists in pure pride of our Navy SEALS and the sheer brilliance of the operation.
I have no doubt that the teams throughout our government experienced the same joy and pride this weekend when they accomplished a goal so many of us sought since 2014 when we witnessed the horror of ISIS beheading Jim Foley, Steven Sotloff, and Peter Kassig. Al Baghdadi, like Osama bin Laden, presented a clear and present danger to Americans both because of his role in ISIS and because of his ability to inspire others to use terror in order to achieve political and ideological goals. We owe our military and intelligence community the deepest debt of gratitude, and I hope they will enjoy that victory beer or at least a day off, though I know so many of them will hardly miss a beat getting right back to work on the next task.
As the military and intelligence operation concludes, a parallel effort gets underway: to explain to our fellow citizens, as well as partners and publics around the world what occurred. This may look or feel like something of a victory lap, but in fact it should be a very carefully managed effort to make sure that, in talking about how we eliminated one threat, we are not inadvertently creating others. There are multiple audiences listening closely, and public statements made by the United States at this historical moment will have a reverberating effect in different corners of the world. This is where unfortunately, in my opinion, President Donald Trump made grievous blunders during his announcement and handling of media questions in the wake of the successful al-Baghdadi raid.
Hearing Trump describe so vividly dogs chasing al-Baghdadi and small children, whimpering and crying (a detail that is probably unknown, given that the remote feed would not likely have had audio), and saying he “died like a dog” isn’t simply untraditional or unpleasant. Dogs have a particularly negative connotation for Muslims (as many Americans learned after images of Abu Ghraib), yet Trump went on to describe the dog in detail. But it didn’t even stop there. Trump raved about the Muslim travel ban, discussed al-Baghdadi’s body parts, thanked Russia (not a friend in the region) first, and spoke about seizing oil “because we should be able to take some also.” Trump’s taste for cinema and unscripted drama could endanger Americans and our supporters around the world, limit our ability to conduct future operations, especially with allies in the region, and damage our deserved claim to the moral high ground.
The president is to be commended for authorizing the elimination of a terrible threat. But in choosing a lengthy and overly dramatized presser, oversharing operational details, and throwing red meat to his fan base, Trump created unintended problems for the United States that will require undoing.
In 2011, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Media Engagement, I worked with the National Security Council staff to make sure that our communications strategy surrounding the bin Laden raid would not have unintended consequences overseas. I prepared US Embassy spokespeople working abroad to be able to engage with local audiences in local languages to explain what we had done and why. We knew that almost no one would be surprised that the United States had taken our shot when we could and that most people would even support or understand. We wanted to make sure we retained that support and understanding going forward.
It is the foremost responsibility of the US government to protect the safety of Americans both at home and abroad. Using the kind of emotional and provocative language we saw on Sunday may stoke support at home, but it also stokes fires among al-Baghdadi’s followers and others who may turn down extremist paths. Those are people who might be driven to violence not only against US troops or diplomats stationed overseas, but also against their families, and American students, business people and tourists who provide an easy target.
I have seen in my Twitter mentions that it is popular, in some quarters, to dismiss the threat of retaliation with a “get over it” or “suck it up, buttercup” — but what good is being a superpower if your citizens can’t feel safe doing business, being tourists or studying overseas? It doesn’t Make America Great to make Americans fear travel, hide inside fortress Embassies or skip that semester of study overseas. Being clinical in describing the operation and turning it over to a (hopefully boring) general or military spokesperson may not be as exciting video, but it’s a better strategy for Americans’ safety and sense of security.
Americans like to imagine that we conduct these types of operations in splendid isolation — flying out of bases that “we own,” acting on intelligence that our own people procured, and the like. In general, that’s not a complete or accurate grasp of realities on the ground. We do not “own” bases that we use in foreign countries; we are there with the permission and often support of the host country. And sometimes our best intelligence is procured in operations conducted with friendly intelligence services or shared by them with American counterparts. We sometimes have to fly over foreign countries to get to our target, which requires overflight permission. These types of permissions may seem like a given, that host countries will always just automatically agree to whatever it is that our military plans to do. But the fact is that even dictatorships are constrained to some degree by what their publics will bear. Even the most talented Ambassador will have a difficult time convincing a King or a Prime Minister to allow the US to operate in a way that will end up enraging their public. When we describe our actions in a way that causes foreign publics to nod and say, “yes, I understand why they did what they did,” we preserve space for host governments to continue to grant us freedom to operate. We do not ever want to arrive at a point where those governments feel they must deny us access, or foot drag in doing so, and that is another reason we should refrain from using inflammatory language. Even if the foreign leader can discount the rhetoric of a US President, communities around the world will not be so forgiving.
Moral High Ground
When we began the so-called War on Terror after 9/11, we held the moral high ground not only in our own eyes but in the eyes of people around the world. We lost a great deal of that moral high ground over the years during incidents like Abu Ghraib and Nisour Square that showed our personnel behaving not much better than the people we fought. But even then, our Embassy spokespeople and public affairs staff were able to point to our justice system and explain that — unlike the terrorists — we have a foundational commitment to holding bad actors accountable. And we could differentiate between ourselves and the terrorists we killed because we were defending ourselves, not taking delight in death or coming close to sounding sadistic. Our friends and partners could see us claim that, though we have been at war in the Middle East for almost two decades, we don’t enjoy it and wish it were otherwise. We gave bin Laden a proper Muslim burial not because we cared about him, but because retaining the moral high ground meant showing respect for religion if not for the man. And we always talked about that killing as a necessity, not a delight. Trump, in using almost gleeful language that echoes language the terrorists themselves use when they talk about killing Americans, eroded some of our remaining moral high ground. And that, in turn, will make it more difficult to find or keep friends and partners we may need in the future.
I will give Trump credit for recognizing that it was critical to make sure that al-Baghdadi’s followers or those who might be inspired in the future do not see him as having died a hero or a martyr. But Trump, as usual, could not resist gilding the lily without apparent concern for the consequences.