It’s just another Hollywood story:
In early 1964, Gene Roddenberry presented a brief treatment for a television series to Desilu Productions, calling it “a Wagon Train to the stars.” Desilu worked with Roddenberry to develop the treatment into a script, which was then pitched to NBC. NBC paid to make a pilot, “The Cage”, starring Jeffrey Hunter as Enterprise Captain Christopher Pike. NBC rejected The Cage, but the executives were still impressed with the concept, and made the unusual decision to commission a second pilot: “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”
And they had a show. But it didn’t do well. NBC threatened to cancel the show during its second season and canceled the series after three seasons and seventy-nine episodes, but then an odd thing happened:
After the original series was canceled, Paramount Studios, which had bought the series from Desilu, licensed the broadcast syndication rights to help recoup the production losses. Reruns began in the fall of 1969 and by the late 1970s the series aired in over 150 domestic and 60 international markets.
Paramount recouped their losses a thousand times over. Desilu Productions – Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball – eventually became Paramount Television – and the rest is history. The original Star Trek series became high camp and lived on, and now McCoy is forever saying “He’s dead, Jim” – the only plot device they ever had to move each episode along. What would happen next? They cut to commercial. It was a cheap trick.
Donald Trump knows that trick, as Slate’s Fred Kaplan explains here:
The killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is a big deal in the fight against terrorism – but not as big a deal as President Donald Trump made it out to be in his fifty-minute press conference on Sunday morning.
It is a big deal, as an act of justice, because Baghdadi had murdered and brutalized so many people in his quest – for a while, quite successful – to claim a swath of Iraq and Syria as a caliphate and himself as its holy leader.
It is a big deal as an elaborate operation involving special operations forces, intelligence from at least a few countries, and coordination from several more.
But there’s more to it than that:
Trump thanked Russia, Iraq, and Turkey – for allowing U.S. forces to operate in an area of northwestern Syria, where they had never had much presence – as well as the Syrian Kurds, leaving unmentioned the fact that, given his abandonment of them earlier this month, they are unlikely to be so helpful in the future.
But the killing is less of a big deal because, not least, as Trump has boasted on previous occasions, ISIS had already been severely reduced in stature and was no longer such a centralized organization. Its members still carried out terrorist activities, but Baghdadi no longer directed them to the degree he once had.
But there’s even more to it:
Bruce Hoffman, a specialist on terrorism at Georgetown University, said in an email Sunday morning that Baghdadi’s death may merely drive “the remaining ISIS forces into an alliance with al-Qaida” – which has experienced a bit of a revival in recent years. ISIS began, after all, as a splinter group from al-Qaida.
There is that, with this detail:
Hoffman added, the militants in both al-Qaida and ISIS “regard their struggle as divinely ordained,” so “the death of a mere mortal” – even one as charismatic as Baghdadi or bin Laden (who, at the time of the raid on his compound, was much more powerful) – “is inconsequential.”
“He’s dead, Jim!” That was high drama on Star Trek. In real life many will shrug, and Kaplan notes this too:
Trump’s special brand of triumphalism might also sour what could otherwise have been a much-needed moment of success amid the House impeachment hearings. When Obama appeared on nationwide television, for nine minutes, to announce bin Laden’s death, some Republican critics denounced him for what they saw as his self-congratulation. Trump tweeted at the time, “Stop congratulating Obama for killing bin Laden. The Navy Seals killed bin Laden.”
Cut to seven years later, almost to the day, and, in his fifty-minute Sunday-morning news conference, not only did Trump take credit for killing Baghdadi, he reveled in the act, describing the terrorist leader as “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way” as special forces and dogs chased him to the end of a tunnel, where he detonated a suicide vest, killing himself and three of his children, dying “like a dog … like a coward.”
That was pure Hollywood, but then it got really strange:
Trump also boasted that killing Baghdadi was a bigger deal than killing bin Laden – which is to say, that Donald Trump is a bigger deal than Barack Obama. “This is the biggest there is,” Trump said. “This is the worst ever. Osama bin Laden was big, but Osama bin Laden became big with the World Trade Center. This is a man who built a whole, as he would like to call it, a country.”
Trump also claimed credit, as he has in the past, for warning about bin Laden in a book published a year before the 9/11 attack, when as he put it, almost no one had heard of al-Qaida. (He also, while on the subject of his books, noted that he’d written twelve of them, and “all of them did well.”) But in fact, this book, called The America We Deserve, only fleetingly mentioned bin Laden, who, in any case, was already quite well-known as the result of his earlier attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.
But everyone is used to this. Trump claimed no one ever talked about illegal immigration and border security before he had the courage to bring it up – two years after Marco Rubio made the cover of Time Magazine for the extraordinary bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill he had managed to get the deeply divided Senate to finally pass – the bill that John Boehner would not even consider in the House. So, in this case, no one ever even knew who Osama bin Laden was, before he, as a private citizen, warned America. Bill Clinton tried to take out Osama bin Laden, specifically, after the USS Cole bombing. But maybe that never happened. And maybe that PDB that Bush received two days before 9/11 – “Osama bin Laden Determined to Strike within America” – never really existed. But okay, Trump was the only one who knew that Osama bin Laden was a bad guy. The CIA didn’t know. The FBI didn’t know. The NSA didn’t know. No one in government knew, but Trump knew.
Let it be. Trump can claim what he wants and people can believe him if they want to believe him. But it might not matter:
Trump may hope to garner some political favor from the killing. But the gain is likely to be minimal. Harry Enten, CNN’s pollster, tweeted Sunday morning that the bin Laden raid gave Obama an “approval boost” that “lasted maybe a few weeks” – and that raid was widely viewed as the final revenge for bin Laden’s murder of 3,000 Americans. Baghdadi is less of a household name, and Trump’s repeated claims that he’d destroyed ISIS already may have blunted the killing’s political impact.
But wait, there’s more:
Finally, and most puzzling, following his announcement, Trump repeated his claim that U.S. troops control Syria’s oil fields (which is untrue) and that he might invite companies like ExxonMobil to come in and drill (which they have neither the legal right nor the remotest desire to do). All of which raises, once again, the question: Is Trump putting more troops in Syria? Is he taking them out? And, whatever the case may be, why?
No one knows the answer to those questions, but Max Boot knows this:
I have sat in too many U.S. military headquarters in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past two decades listening to Special Operations officers announce “jackpots” – the killing or capture of “high value targets” – to imagine that any such success will translate into final victory over their organizations. To be sure, some terrorist and guerrilla groups that were already on the wane have suffered severe blows from the loss of their leaders. This was the case with the Philippine insurrectos fighting U.S. rule when the rebel leader Emilio Aguinaldo was captured in 1901 and with the Shining Path in Peru when its leader Abimael Guzman was captured in 1992.
Boot said this in 2013:
Decapitation strategies work best when a movement is weak organizationally and focused around a cult of personality. Even then leadership targeting is most effective if integrated into a broader counterinsurgency effort designed to separate the insurgents from the population. If conducted in isolation, leadership raids are about as effective as mowing the lawn; the targeted organization can usually regenerate itself.
Boot notes that really does happen:
Abbas al-Musawi, the secretary general of Hezbollah, was killed by the Israel Defense Forces in 1992, only to be succeeded by Hasan Nasrallah, who has made this Iranian-backed organization far more powerful than ever. Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), was captured by Turkish forces in 1999, and yet the threat of Kurdish separatism remains so strong, at least in the mind of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that he used it to justify his recent invasion of northern Syria. Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, the leader of the Taliban, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2016, but the Taliban remains undefeated.
More to the point, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2006, and yet the security situation in Iraq continued to spiral out of control until the “surge” – a shorthand for a comprehensive counterinsurgency plan implemented in 2007 by Gen. David H. Petraeus. Even after al-Qaeda in Iraq was all but defeated, it managed to spring from the grave following the pullout of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011. It was reconstituted as the Islamic State under the leadership of the now-deceased Baghdadi.
So this will likely be the same thing:
There is every reason to fear that Islamic State now could prove distressingly resilient despite this monster’s death. This summer, inspectors general from the Defense and State departments and the U.S. Agency for International Development warned that Islamic State retained as many as 18,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq and was starting to stage a comeback. That resurgence is likely to be accelerated by Trump’s ill-advised pullout from northern Syria, which ends a partnership with the Kurds that, among other benefits, provided intelligence that contributed to the track-down of Baghdadi. Trump is now dismantling the infrastructure that made this success possible.
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper admitted that more than 100 Islamic State detainees have already escaped – and there is no evidence to back up Trump’s boast that they have been “largely recaptured.” Terrorist organizations flourish in a lawless environment, and the end of the U.S. partnership with the Kurds will contribute to the chaos in eastern Syria, despite Trump’s puzzling decision to secure Syria’s tiny oil fields. Turkish and Russian forces have neither the capability nor incentive to take over the U.S. counterterrorism mission. Indeed, Turkey looked the other way for years as foreign jihadists transited its territory to join Islamic State in Syria.
In short, don’t expect much:
The only way to permanently defeat terrorist organizations is to foster stability in the lands where they operate – the last thing that Trump, an agent of instability, is interested in. By removing most U.S. troops from Syria, and soon perhaps Afghanistan, he is likely to hand a victory to the terrorists that will far outweigh the transitory effects of Baghdadi’s demise.
But it made for great television. That’s what Christopher Dickey saw:
President Donald J. Trump wants you to see his new movie: “Bring Me the Head of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.”
At a special Sunday morning press conference in Washington D.C., Trump described the way U.S. Special Operations Forces attacked Baghdadi’s compound and killed him in such graphic and explicit detail that some intelligence professionals worried he may have revealed, again, too much about sources and methods.
But Trump knows great television when he sees it, and he was enthusiastic about the images he was watching from the White House situation room Saturday night. “It was absolutely perfect, as though you were watching a movie,” he said.
And this was the movie:
Baghdadi “died like a dog,” Trump said repeatedly. “He died like a dog, he died like a coward. He died whimpering, screaming and crying, and, frankly, I think it’s something that should be brought out so that his followers and all these young kids that want to leave various countries, including the United States, they should see how he died. He didn’t die a hero, he died a coward, crying, whimpering, screaming, and bringing three kids with him to die. Certain death.”
Trump does seem gleefully obsessed with inflicting pain and killing others, but Dickey concedes Trump may be doing the right thing:
Trump makes an important point. In fact, it may be an imperative. Al Qaeda and ISIS leaders have built their reputations among their followers extolling their medieval vision of Islam and claiming the chivalric virtues of the past. Trump wanted to make it clear that when Baghdadi died he was anything but a brave knight under the Prophet Muhammad’s banner.
Some of the many thousands of radical jihadis and sympathizers around the world who revered Baghdadi will refuse to believe that he is dead; others will honor him as a martyr, and in the realm of Islamic sects, especially a cult like the so-called Islamic State, the “disappearance” of a leader – in Baghdadi’s case a self-proclaimed “caliph” – only serves to intensify the passionate devotion of the faithful. That is one reason the Obama administration buried Al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden at sea in 2011. There would be no grave to become a shrine.
But this may be going too far:
It’s a given that very few jihadists or would-be jihadists will believe Trump’s version of Baghdadi’s death: cornered as his cronies and family were killed or surrendered, then running into a dead-end tunnel with three of his kids where he detonated a suicide vest to blow them up along with himself. In what truly seemed a Hollywood touch, Trump said the only American injured was a brave K-9 soldier (“I call it a dog, a talented dog, a beautiful dog”) who had chased Baghdadi and the kids down the tunnel.
No doubt a fictional movie about the raid already is being planned and scripts written, but if Trump’s account is accurate, the actual video would be much more powerful than a docudrama for the purpose of dissuading potential jihadists and, in his mind, impressing potential voters for Donald J. Trump in next year’s presidential election.
In short, this was about impressing potential voters, and making his base even more sneering and smug. Potential jihadists will never believe him. But they’re not the audience here, and David Nakamura considers the more important focus:
President Barack Obama was wrapping up a solemn address announcing the death of Osama bin Laden in a Special Forces operation in 2011 when he made a call to the nation’s better angels: The United States would overcome terrorists, he said, by holding true to its ideals as “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
On Sunday, President Trump chose a different note in capping his own announcement of the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a similar raid.
Baghdadi “died like a dog,” Trump declared, employing one of his favorite insults with his customary bravado. “He died like a coward.”
This represents two different notions. Americans are not “nice” people. They like inflicting pain and death. That makes them feel damned good. Or Americans are nice and “decent” people – they do not inflict pain, or kill, unless that is necessary and unavoidable – and even then they don’t like it much. Obama bet on one notion. Trump bet on the other.
But it’s not that simple:
The deaths of the al-Qaeda mastermind in Pakistan and the Islamic State chief in northwestern Syria each represented an important strategic and psychological victory for the United States in the fight against terrorism and extremism, proof that the world’s most powerful nation was willing and able, through the dedication and bravery of the intelligence community and military, to hunt down and eliminate the enemy – even if it took years.
For both Obama and Trump, the moments represented a measure of vindication – evidence that each had demonstrated the resolve as commander in chief to finish the job in the face of considerable risk and criticism from the opposing political party.
But if Obama’s nine-minute speech in the White House’s Cross Hall was notable for his measured tones and appeals to the enduring strength of America’s values, Trump’s fifty-minute performance in the Diplomatic Reception Room was marked by the overt showmanship, blunt language and airing of personal gripes that have defined an approach he once dubbed “modern-day presidential.”
So the modern-day president is blunt and brutal and vindictive and crude and vain, so Trump was who he wanted to be, but that may be dangerous:
Dana Shell Smith, former U.S. ambassador to Qatar and a career diplomat, faulted Trump for providing a “gruesome, vivid and probably exaggerated description of dogs chasing down Baghdadi” that “will endanger our personnel in the region” by inspiring other extremists.
Screaming that the guy in the suicide vest or driving that truck full of high explosives is a coward, to his face, may not prod that man to reconsider his life and become a hairdresser or stand-up comic. That will just piss him off.
But that assumes a plan, and the New York Times reported that there was no plan:
President Trump knew the Central Intelligence Agency and Special Operations commandos were zeroing in on the location for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State leader, when he ordered American troops to withdraw from northern Syria earlier this month, intelligence, military and counterterrorism officials said on Sunday.
For months, intelligence officials had kept Mr. Trump apprised of what he had set as a top priority, the hunt for Mr. al-Baghdadi, the world’s most wanted terrorist.
But Mr. Trump’s abrupt withdrawal order three weeks ago disrupted the meticulous planning underway and forced Pentagon officials to speed up the plan for the risky night raid before their ability to control troops, spies and reconnaissance aircraft disappeared with the pullout, the officials said.
Mr. al-Baghdadi’s death in the raid on Saturday, they said, occurred largely in spite of, and not because of, Mr. Trump’s actions.
And of course none of that is surprising:
It is unclear how much Mr. Trump considered the intelligence on Mr. al-Baghdadi’s location when he made the surprise decision to withdraw the American troops during a telephone call on Oct. 6 with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. What is clear, military officials said, is that it put commanders on the ground under even more pressure to carry out the complicated operation.
But they knew they could rely on someone else:
The officials praised the Kurds, who continued to provide information to the CIA on Mr. al-Baghdadi even after Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw the American troops left the Syrian Kurds to confront a Turkish offensive alone. The Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, one official said, provided more intelligence for the raid than any single country.
They’ll never do that again. They won’t be around, anywhere. Things are changing, as David Sanger explains here:
The death of the Islamic State’s leader in a daring nighttime raid vindicated the value of three traditional American strengths: robust alliances, faith in intelligence agencies and the projection of military power around the world.
But President Trump has regularly derided the first two. And even as he claimed a significant national security victory on Sunday, the outcome of the raid did little to quell doubts about the wisdom of his push to reduce the United States military presence in Syria at a time when terrorist threats continue to develop in the region.
So, nothing is certain any longer:
Mr. Trump has long viewed the United States intelligence agencies with suspicion and appears to see its employees as members of the “deep state.” He also has a distinctly skeptical view of alliances, in this case, close cooperation with the Kurds, whom he has effectively abandoned.
“The irony of the successful operation against al-Baghdadi is that it could not have happened without U.S. forces on the ground that have been pulled out, help from Syrian Kurds who have been betrayed, and support of a U.S. intelligence community that has so often been disparaged,” Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said on Sunday.
“While the raid was obviously a welcome success, the conditions that made the operation possible may not exist in the future,” he said.
That may be so, but this was great television:
Mr. Trump seemed to be laying the predicate for his own campaign talking points on Sunday, when he recounted telling his own forces that “I want al-Baghdadi,” rather than a string of deceased terrorist leaders who were “names I never heard of.” And clearly he is hoping that the success of the raid has a wider resonance: He sees the al-Baghdadi raid, some former Trump aides said, as a counterweight to the impeachment inquiry, which is based in part on an argument that he has shaped foreign policy for his political benefit.
It’s an episode of Star Trek. McCoy says “He’s dead, Jim” and everything having changed, the heroic captain saves the day. In this case, the bad guys will want to do something about the death of their leader. But that evil guy should be dead, and the heroic captain will save the day.
And so it goes:
The president also took a jab at some in the intelligence community, while praising those involved in the effort, saying he had dealt with “people who aren’t very intelligent having to do with intel.”
But before he concluded the news conference, he went back to the violence of Baghdadi.
“He was a gutless animal,” Trump said. “Thank you all very much. I appreciate it.”
It really was a Hollywood thing. Trump decided “to boldly go where no man has gone before” – and the rest of us are now just along for the ride.
Oh, and an addendum:
President Trump was booed during Game 5 of the World Series on Sunday night when he made a rare public appearance in a luxury ballpark suite in Democrat-dominated Washington.
When the president was announced on the public address system after the third inning as part of a tribute to veterans, the crowd roared into sustained booing – hitting almost 100 decibels. Chants of “Lock him up” and “Impeach Trump” then broke out at Nationals Park, where a sellout crowd was watching the game between the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros.
The president appeared unmoved, waving to fans and soon moving to chat with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy in his luxury box along the third base line.
This show may be cancelled.