Even before the recent raid that resulted in the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the erstwhile head of the Islamic State, Donald Trump had spoken of how he had single-handedly defeated the caliphate.
“Now, when I came, the caliphate was all over the place,” the president said apropos of nothing during a news conference with the Australian prime minister on September 20. “I defeated the caliphate — ISIS.”
At a press conference on October 21, after pulling troops out of Syria, Trump put himself even closer to the battle with the Islamic State: “I’m the one that did the capturing. I’m the one who that knows more about it than you people or the fake pundits.”
Trump’s ability to tout his own accomplishments at the expense of others — indeed, to claim their accomplishments as his own — is legendary. But the problem here is not just Trump’s ego. It’s his understanding of geopolitics.
Donald Trump is the first truly digital president. He thinks only in ones and zeroes. He, of course, is always number one. But the category of ones also includes the leaders that he chats with or challenges. The zeroes are everyone else.
The raid on al-Baghdadi is a classic example of his digital thinking. Here is a president who has single-handedly revived the fortunes of a struggling organization by allowing a Turkish cross-border incursion in Syria, abandoning Kurdish allies, and otherwise helping to create precisely the kind of chaotic conditions in which groups like the Islamic State thrive.
Yet instead of focusing on this collective threat, Trump has zeroed in on public enemy number one. At his press conference after the mission, the president said:
From the first day I came to office — and now we’re getting close to three years — I would say, “Where’s al-Baghdadi? I want al-Baghdadi.” And we would kill terrorist leaders, but they were names I never heard of. They were names that weren’t recognizable and they weren’t the big names. Some good ones, some important ones, but they weren’t the big names. I kept saying, “Where’s al-Baghdadi?”
Obsessed with outshining his predecessor, Trump has consistently denigrated the mission to kill Osama bin Laden since 2011. As for al-Baghdadi, Trump said, “This is the biggest there is. This is the worst ever.”
Yet Trump’s failure to consider the larger security environment nearly doomed his singular focus on taking out al-Baghdadi. And it was only because of the network of relationships that America had maintained — and that Trump has disparaged if not outright undermined — that such a mission was possible.
“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,” observes Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Because he has reduced the problem of the Islamic State to the problem of al-Baghdadi, Trump will end up not with a headless snake but a tailless chameleon: an animal that will quickly regenerate to fight another day.
Trump has always looked out for number one. It turns out that his foreign policy follows the same pattern. His visual map of the world looks much like a computer algorithm of alternating ones and zeros.
True, such computer codes can produce staggeringly complex phenomena, even something as sophisticated as artificial intelligence. But Donald Trump doesn’t string together numbers. He is stuck with only two, zero and one.
As such, his digital mindset never rises above basic binary oppositions: us versus them, heroes versus zeroes, Trump versus the world.
One Is the Loneliest Number
Donald Trump conducts foreign policy by telephone or intimate conversations with foreign leaders. He’s deeply suspicious of anything that goes beyond the one-on-one. He can’t quite get into the group spirit of the Group of Seven. The UN is little more than a very large soapbox for his own views. He does nothing but hector NATO members. Most recently, he decided to snub a summit of Asian leaders for the second year in a row.
The president’s go-it-alone approach to foreign policy has already gotten him into heaps of trouble.
In the phone call this summer with Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump defied every legitimate voice in his foreign policy apparatus by soliciting foreign assistance in undermining a major Democratic challenger. In a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump collaborated in redrawing the map of the Middle East to the advantage of Turkey, Russia, Iran, and Syria — and to the disadvantage of the Syrian Kurds and probably the United States as well.
This mano-a-mano approach, in the hands of a more competent leader, might lead to some truly useful breakthroughs. Take the case of North Korea. There’s no question that the U.S. foreign policy establishment has done little to advance the cause of peace or prosperity in that benighted corner of the world. Breaking with orthodoxy requires a president with strong enough backbone to buck the status quo.
But such unorthodox leaders also have to know what they’re doing. Trump is ignorant of North Korea, its leadership, and its predicament. He has proceeded as if Kim Jong Un is simply a leader that can be subjected to alternating waves of flattery and threats. It’s an even cruder approach to negotiations than previous attempts at carrots and sticks that treated the North Korean government as if it were a donkey that could be coaxed along a mountain path.
Not surprisingly, it hasn’t led to any significant agreements (though it also hasn’t led to war, which is the one saving grace of Trump’s putative diplomacy). And North Korea has threatened to suspend its moratorium on testing (missiles, nukes) at the end of the year if Trump doesn’t offer something more useful than flattery.
Trump proceeds with the same logic in his relations with China and Russia. He thinks that he can rewrite U.S. foreign policy with his personal tête-à-têtes with Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. Instead, he has been badly outclassed by leaders who have a far more sophisticated understanding of their adversaries and the world at large.
The checkers versus chess metaphor is apt but insufficient. Trump is playing with only zero and one while his counterparts have the entire universe of numbers at their disposal.
But Zero Is Worse
As far as Trump is concerned, if you’re not a leader, you’re nothing. He’s not interested in protesters, journalists, pundits, academics, diplomats. Even successful business people, like Jeff Bezos of Amazon, are threatening to him.
This “leader complex” is just as problematic a framework when it comes to entities like the Islamic State.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi didn’t start out as a leader. He was an academic when the Iraq War broke out. The U.S.-led invasion prompted him to join the resistance. Arrested in Fallujah in 2004 and thrown into a U.S. detention facility in Iraq, he quickly fell in with al-Qaeda militants, becoming an acolyte of the Iraqi branch’s leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. When the United States took out al-Zarqawi, al-Baghdadi rose in the organization to number three in 2010. When the top two commanders were killed, he became number one.
In other words, the U.S. invasion, the U.S.-run prison, and U.S. drone strikes all transformed al-Baghdadi into the putative leader of a caliphate. He didn’t grow up with a Napoleon complex. A complex set of factors gradually pushed him into a command position. The U.S. focus on eliminating leaders paradoxically produced only more battle-hardened leadership.
It would be the height of naivete for Washington to assume that eliminating al-Baghdadi will make the Islamic State any less of a threat. It has watched a similar scenario unfold with the Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda more generally. A “decapitation strategy” doesn’t work with a many-headed Hydra.
The Islamic State maintains a broad network of affiliated organizations — in the Philippines, Afghanistan, Somalia, Nigeria, Libya, and Yemen, plus sleeper cells in Europe. With al-Baghdadi dead, these affiliates might veer off in a more independent direction. Some other outfit might claim the central mission of rebuilding a caliphate. But just as it’s a mistake to boil the Islamic State down to one leader, it’s a mistake to boil the organization down to a stable brand.
The Islamic State and like-minded organizations thrive in failed states, warzones, occupied territories, and enclaves that feel victimized by the central government. It prospers because of a broad animus against Muslims reflected in immigration policies, inflexible cultural prohibitions (for instance, against the hijab), and the violent actions of right-wing extremists. The Islamic State is the supreme expression of polarization. It will continue to exist as long as the underlying polarization remains in place.
Trump’s obsession with number one — himself, other alpha males, and top public enemies — reflects his generation’s fixation on celebrities as well as a much older “great man” theory of history. Trump’s foreign policy, in which he has substituted celebrity politicians for celebrities from Hollywood or Wall Street, could have been put together by People magazine.
But the president is also wedded to the delusion that history is made by great men (not women, not movements, not impersonal forces). Trump desperate desire to insert himself into this historical succession of “great men” is the real genesis of his digital understanding of the world. It’s why he ran for the presidency. It’s why he makes the most outrageous boasts that he’s the greatest president of all time. It’s why he has so nakedly coveted the Nobel Peace Prize. He wants to be admitted to what he imagines to be the pantheon of all-time greats.
Trump has learned over the years how to turn his disadvantages — vanity, ignorance, spitefulness, greed — into bankable qualities. But his hamartia, his fatal flaw of unbridled ambition, will ultimately lead to his downfall. The man who would be king, the bully who would be hero, the leader who would be president for life, is shaping up to be America’s biggest loser. The arithmetic of impeachment is starting to look inescapable: the evidence is multiplying and even the Senate might vote for subtraction.
By Trump’s own logic, the future looks bleak. In his digital universe, if you’re not number one, then you’re nothing but a zero.
World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, October 30, 2019