WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump used his 2018 State of the Union address to once again cast himself as the only U.S. leader to successfully pursue the self-described Islamic State terrorist group.
“Last year, I also pledged that we would work with our allies to extinguish ISIS from the face of the earth,” Trump said Tuesday night. “One year later, I am proud to report that the coalition to defeat ISIS has liberated very close to 100 percent of the territory once held by these killers not only in Iraq but in Syria as well.”
The play here is pretending there was no coordinated effort to combat ISIS prior to Trump’s 2017 inauguration ― that after the ISIS quasi-state in Iraq and Syria first became a major concern stateside when it murdered American hostage James Foley back in August 2014, and after it was linked to attacks throughout the U.S., Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia, President Barack Obama and other world leaders just couldn’t get their act together.
Obama authorized a U.S. campaign against ISIS days after Foley’s murder. And weeks later, his administration brought together other concerned governments in a large coalition focused on eradicating the group. His team sustained that anti-ISIS coalition through difficult high-profile disputes, changes in U.S.-friendly governments and attacks on member countries, and crafted the strategy the U.S.-led coalition still employs in the ISIS fight: relying on local partners to retake territory, and supporting them with air power, intelligence and some on-the-ground support.
Trump isn’t wrong to say that during his presidency ISIS has come close to losing nearly all of its territory in Iraq and Syria, including the high-profile cities of Mosul and Raqqa. And some military commanders say he has helped the campaign by devolving the power to call in U.S. airstrikes. But he’s being deceptive by failing to mention that his contribution is tactical. The strategy was already in place.
“Like the American jobs he claims to have created that were announced long before he took office, Trump will take credit for the Islamic State’s defeat,” Obama-era Pentagon official Andrew Exum predicted last year. “And Americans need to be fine with that, because as much as many of us do not want this president to get the credit for the work of others, defeating the Islamic State is a national good that should be bigger than politics.”
But Trump’s comments also mask another reality. While the terrorist group has lost its strongholds, there’s no clear Trump administration plan to solve the local political crises ― of popular representation, sectarian and ethnic mistrust, and interference by Iran, Saudi Arabia and other neighboring powers ― that allowed it to rise and gain tens of thousands of recruits.
U.S. government work to address those issues continues. But the State Department and the associated U.S. Agency for International Development are weaker than ever, while saber-rattling that threatens to inspire more anti-U.S. meddling by countries such as Iran is on the rise. Trump isn’t one for optimistic talk about reconstruction and civil society, but lawmakers and experts have warned for years that those are key bulwarks against extremism in the region.
There’s also the risk Trump has boosted anti-Americanism with policies like his Muslim travel ban, talk about “shithole countries” and his apparent delight in suggesting that he has made the anti-ISIS war more vicious. (There’s been a massive jump in civilian casualties in the campaign since he took office, but it’s unclear whether that is because of his policies or simply the fact that fighting moved into urban areas where ISIS fighters often hid among civilians.)
In other words, victory is far from assured.
“There is much more work to be done,” Trump aptly noted Tuesday night. “We will continue our fight until ISIS is defeated.”