February 24, 2020

So Baghdadi Is Dead, Now What?

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley at a news conference at the Pentagon the day after it was announced that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in a U.S. raid. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It is somewhat ironic that the week during which Abu Bakr Baghdadi was killed by American forces is the week that Israelis are becoming more nervous about U.S. resolve and commitment to a presence in the Middle East. It’s ironic that rather than hail the great achievement of President Donald Trump, Israeli experts are bemoaning his lack of leadership. 

Take, for example, reserve Maj. Gen. Amos Gilead, formerly the longtime director of policy and political-military affairs at the Israeli Ministry of Defense. What does he say when America kills the No. 1 terrorist in the world? Not much about Baghdadi, a lot about Iran. Why? Because Baghdadi is a story of the past but Iran is a story of the future. Because killing Baghdadi was important in a symbolic sense but Iran is important in a practical sense. Because killing Baghdadi was easy, relatively speaking, compared with strategizing and executing an effective policy to thwart Iran.

“He died like a dog, he died like a coward,” Trump said about Baghdadi. “He died after running into a dead-end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming all the way.” 

In a press conference on Oct. 27, the president suggested that the operation that resulted in the death of Baghdadi was “bigger” than the 2011 one that killed Osama bin Laden. Maybe, maybe not. More likely, it wasn’t, because Bin Laden hit the United States much harder than Baghdadi did. Comparing these two events is juvenile. And yet, it’s interesting to examine their similarities for one reason: In both cases, there was great drama, whether Trump’s cinematic description of them was accurate or appropriate. But in both cases, the impact on realities in the region was not dramatic. 

ISIS is no longer a meaningful player in the Middle East, no longer a strategic threat nor a truly powerful entity. Killing Baghdadi is important because it sends a message to the world that mass murderers don’t get away with it. It sends a message that leaders of murderous movements don’t die peacefully in old age. Alas, this message is blurred when an even more dangerous, no less murderous, much more sophisticated enemy is on the loose, and no one seems to be chasing him. Not in a way that will make him stop.

“What is America’s long-term goal? It is to pull out, no matter what happens next?”

Iran is on the loose, and Israelis pay attention to it. A few weeks ago, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Iran is becoming more aggressive, some dismissed his warnings as political propaganda. But a few days ago, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi warned that “on both the northern and southern fronts, the situation is tense and fragile, and could deteriorate into a confrontation.” Israel is concerned about many things but the most important of which is American weakness. The U.S. might look in the mirror and see a macho nation, having sent its special forces to identify and kill the most wanted person on Earth. But when Israeli leaders look out the window, what they see is American retreat. That was true when then-President Obama ordered the raid that successfully took out Bin Laden and ignored Syria’s breach of a “red line.” It is true today, for similar reasons.

On Oct. 28, as Netanyahu congratulated the U.S. for the great success in Syria, his attention was pointed elsewhere: “Iran is already aspiring to obtain precision weapons to hit every target in the Middle East,” the prime minister said. “They have already begun deploying them in Yemen in order to strike Israel from there as well.” Here is the scenario Israeli experts fear: Iran hit an unmanned American drone and got away with it. It then launched a massive attack on Saudi Arabia — using missiles. Still, no response. Iran looks at the U.S. through a window very much like Israel’s window. What it sees is an America that’s ready for an occasional headline-grabbing operation but isn’t ready for the long, persistent battle that’s required to achieve a long-term goal. 

This raises the question: What is America’s long-term goal? It is to pull out, no matter what happens next? Ask the Kurds and they’ll give an affirmative answer; ask the Iranians and they’ll give a hopeful answer; ask Israelis and they’ll give a worried answer.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.