President Trump is making the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi a new focal point of his 2020 campaign.
For the past week, Trump has boasted about the Oct. 26 raid that ended with the death of the terrorist leader.
On Friday night, the president began a rally speech by boasting of al-Baghdadi’s death, saying that the U.S. military had “executed a masterful raid that ended his wretched life and punched out his ticket to hell.”
“He was a savage and soulless monster but his reign of terror is over,” Trump told the crowd in in Tupelo, Mississippi.
He also claimed the media had not sufficiently covered Baghdadi’s death.
“That story disappeared so fast, gone. And that’s OK. I didn’t do it for the story. I did it because it was the right thing to do,” Trump said. “If I was a Democrat, they’d be talking about it for weeks. With me, they don’t even want to – they actually played it down.”
The Trump campaign even ran a political ad during Game 7 of the World Series on Wednesday that credited the president with “obliterating ISIS.”
But experts say the payoff at the voting booth is likely to be minimal, partly because Election Day is a year away and because al-Baghdadi was never well known in the U.S.
“People will forget Baghdadi’s name. They’ll confuse Baghdadi and Baghdad by the time the election rolls around; it’ll be a distant memory,” said James Carafano, a defense policy expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“The people who are going to vote for [Trump] are going to vote for him anyway. The people who aren’t going to vote for him, they’re not going to vote for him because he killed a terrorist. And the people who are undecided, they’re going to decide on something else,” he added.
It’s not uncommon for a president to point to a foreign policy victory while seeking reelection. But some have had more success than others.
Former President Obama’s 2012 campaign ran an ad ahead of the first anniversary of the May 2011 death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was killed during a Navy Seal operation in Pakistan.
Scott Anderson, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that from a political perspective, al-Baghdadi’s death is unlikely to be anywhere near as influential as bin Laden’s.
“Baghdadi just didn’t have the profile that Osama bin Laden did,” Anderson said. “Everybody knew who Osama bin Laden was; people were looking for him for 10 years. He was ‘Most Wanted No. 1’ in the country.”
Complicating matters for Trump, Carafano said, is the fact that voters are often more focused on domestic issues, with foreign policy victories rarely resulting in a decisive vote.
“The only exception to that is if it’s maybe something that’s a burning issue right before an election, or something super major, like the outbreak of a war,” Carafano said.
Carafano pointed to former President George H.W. Bush. The U.S. was victorious in the first Gulf War but Bush failed to win a second term, in large part because of domestic issues like the economy.
“There was zero carryover for winning,” Carafano said. “Rarely do voters reward presidents for their foreign policy successes. That’s their job, to defend us, so you don’t get extra credit for that.”
Highlighting al-Baghdadi’s death poses another challenge for Trump and his campaign: Critics might bring up the messy details behind the lead-up to the raid, namely that it took place amid Trump’s erratic Syria policy.
Trump reportedly knew the CIA and Special Operations were zeroing in on al-Baghdadi when he ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria on Oct. 6.
The withdrawal order apparently disrupted the careful planning for the al-Baghdadi mission, forcing top defense officials to move up their plans at the risk of losing available troops and surveillance in the country, officials told The New York Times.
“By a lot of accounts, the timing of the raid was adjusted by the Syria withdrawal,” Anderson said. “And there were concerns that they had to pursue the raid now because they may lose the opportunity because of the decision to withdraw. That’s a much muddier picture than one might want.”
Head of U.S. Central Command, Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, dismissed the suggestion that Trump’s troop movements affected the raid.
“Absolutely not,” McKenzie said Wednesday when reporters asked whether the withdrawal of troops affected the timing.
“While it might have been convenient to use bases there, the United States military has the capability to go almost anywhere and support ourselves even at great distances. So that was not a limiting factor,” he said. “We struck because the time was about right to do it then, given the totality of the intelligence and the other situation, and the other factors that would affect the raid force going in and coming out.”
Still, Anderson said he would be surprised if al-Baghdadi’s death ends up being an effective talking point for Trump on the campaign trail.
“It’ll provide this opening and start raising all these other major questions, that not only Democrats but also Republicans have been raising, about Trump’s judgement” on the Syria pull-out, Anderson said.
Carafano predicted that closer to November 2020, discussion of the raid will be “ancient history.”
“Who knows what’s going to happen between now and then? If ISIS pulls off a big terrorist attack, the last thing you want to be talking about is your war on ISIS,” he said.