A wonderful thing happened last weekend. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the “caliph” of the Islamic State, was killed in an overnight raid by American special forces.
That is a tough thing to write. Death is generally not something that should be celebrated, even when the deceased is about as close to evil incarnate as you might find. However, there are rare occasions when a single loss of life can create a much larger good; sapping the morale and self-believed moral authority of ISIS fighters may help hostilities halt sooner than they otherwise would.
President Donald Trump teased the news in a Saturday tweet: “Something very big has just happened!” Given the president’s panache for storytelling, it led to snark and comedy. The tweet was posted at 9:23 p.m. Approximately two hours later, Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” host Colin Jost poked fun, saying “with Trump, [it could] mean we just invaded Mexico, or the McRib is back.”
But now we know the news. And it was very big, indeed.
It should have been a great, unifying celebration for Americans, similar to Osama bin Laden’s demise. After all, al-Baghdadi was a globally reviled terrorist, leading an organization condemned by all parts of the political spectrum. Only it wasn’t.
Some of that is because international affairs are complicated business. The politics of northern Syria are particularly convoluted. Turkey, under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is retreating from its secular heritage and attacking pro-democracy forces. Kurds have long been American partners, but have no nation-state to call their own. Bashir al-Assad remains repressive to his own people, while various flavors of rebels seek to topple his regime. And mixed in with all of it is the Islamic State, proxies of Iran, and Iraqi interests. Oh, and Russia together with a dash of Israel.
Before the raid, Trump announced that the United States would be withdrawing from Syria. It was met with a fair amount of disdain and ridicule, from Democrats, more internationally-focused Republicans, the news media, and others.
When it became clear that the United States was not withdrawing completely from the area and would seek to maintain a presence in northern Iraq, libertarian Republicans and domestically-focused independents found fault with Trump’s decision.
In fact, in a piece that is sure to age like lettuce, Washington Post commentator Jennifer Rubin blasted Trump, writing he “falsely claimed to have eradicated the Islamic State.” She went on to quote a report noting “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliph, is still at large.” Her column was posted on the Bangor Daily News site an hour after Trump announced the successful raid.
With this background, the demise of al-Baghdadi should have been a simple victory. But, in a disappointing reflection of the modern divide in our nation, we saw the media report very different stories. Right-leaning outlets took a victory lap. The Washington Post — with their self-crowned motto “democracy dies in the darkness” — ran a headline on an online obituary describing Baghdadi as an “austere religious scholar.”
Former, current, and would-be elected officials echoed the divide as well. Joe Biden denied Trump any credit for the raid, saying it occurred in spite of him. Of course, Biden advised Obama to reject the Bin Laden raid, and later — when politically opportune — claimed he supported it. Political calculus should not inform one’s reaction to a military raid against an international terrorist.
Partisanship should, at the very least, end with the news of our nation’s enemies’ demise. We should all be able to agree that it is a good thing that al-Baghdadi no longer inhabits the mortal coil. Can we?